We humans generally feel a deep connection to our pets, in spite of our limited communication with them. Since we can’t verbally converse with our pets, or hear their thoughts; we rely on their sounds,  postures and expressions to ascertain what they wish to tell us with us.  One aspect of communication that has given rise to much curiosity is that of eye contact.

What does eye contact with your pet mean?  When your dog locks eyes with you, is he showing you respect, or challenging your authority?  Is your cat’s unwavering green stare trying to warn you that he is about to pounce in your direction, or is the gaze merely arbitrary? Instinctively we feel that eye contact between animals and humans must have some meaning.  Let’s take a brief look at canine and feline behavior, and what eye contact might mean to them.

Eye Contact with Dogs

In the animal kingdom, focused eye contact is a challenge to authority between animals. It is usually followed by pet submitting, or both battling it out for the dominant position.

In relation to their human masters, dogs are known for being generally loyal and devoted pets. When dogs understand their master is the leader, they submit to his authority through numerous signals showing that he respected pack leader and “alpha dog” in the home. (In some cases, particularly aggressive dogs may attempt to vie for authority if their master does not make his superiority clear.  In these cases a dog may have a “stare down” contest to try and obtain mastery or challenge the human, until he is made to relent and back down. )

However, between man and beast, canines usually realize that that eye contact is a positive way to communicate with their owner, learn tricks, and receive commands or treats. Every dog owner has experienced his pup trying to make eye contact in an attempt to win a delicious morsel from the goodie bag, or a scrap from the kitchen counter.  Canines notoriously practice begging from their owners, and often use persuasive eye contact (ever heard of “puppy dog eyes”?) to help them get what they want.  Eye contact is also a key aspect of training dogs;  most pups will stay riveted and focused on their owner during the training session, in the hopes that they will be rewarded for it later on.

Finally, another reason dogs observe humans with determined eye contact, is to try to perceive what the human might be thinking.  One study found that dogs track human eye movement to better understand our intent and emotions.  This helps a dog know how to behave and respond, and is an aspect of the unique “sixth sense” and insight canines seem to possess.

Eye Contact with Cats

Cat eyes and expressions  communicate a wide variety of emotions and warnings to their pet parents.

Direct gazes can make some cats uncomfortable and unsure how to respond.  Eye contact between wild cats is a territorial challenge, or a face-off to determine which creature is the strongest animal. Since humans are obviously the larger figure compared to a domestic cat, the felines are aware that they are inferior and shouldn’t attack. Fiercely direct eye contact may cause cats confusion about how to respond.  Some twist their bodies in strange shapes or yowl threateningly, while others simply stare back, move away, or stay frozen in the same position until the human ends the gaze.

Felines have strong peripheral vision and usually direct their attention to whatever item of choice piques their interest. Cats usually maintain deliberate eye contact and focus on their prey, their toys, or on the opponent when they are in defense mode.   They look intently at humans when trying to ascertain what we are thinking and feeling, or if we have moved suddenly or given the cat cause to be on the alert.

Avoiding Eye Contact

  • Guilt: Some pets avoid eye contact when they have done something they were not supposed to. An Australian Shepherd who has dumped over the trash, or spilled something on the carpet, may show signs of shame by hiding under a table or refusing to fully look at his owner.  Though conclusively understanding canine behavior might be difficult to accomplish, it does seem clear that when a dog avoids eye contact, quite often it is because he feels remorseful or fears he may get in trouble.
  • Threat:  Most animals will return a human’s scrutiny, unless they feel threatened. When this is the case, the dog might prove skittish and back away; while a cat might defensively retreat, and coil with an arched back.  Menacing eye contact usually produces a few different reactions:  some pets respond defensively and aggressively by hissing or growling a warning signal. The eye contact might also spur on a chasing episode with lots of barking and wrestling.  Other animals might see the eye contact as a threat or warning and look away, avoiding it entirely;  thereby conceding that the human is the more dominant creature.
  • Disinterest: In the case of felines, they seem to avoid eye contact for other reasons. Usually when a cat averts his eyes, it is because he is simply focused on something else, and doesn’t deem us important enough to interrupt his train of thought or redirect his attention.  While we might wonder why cats ignore us, we must remember that for thousands of years they were independent creatures, who did not look to humans for provision of any kind.   Dogs on the other hand, may dodge eye contact with humans when they are disinterested, bored, tired, or simply do not have any immediate need that they want to communicate.