When my sister first brought home our rescue cat, he stared into space for what seemed like the entire night, and I don't think he slept for a single minute. Considering that Sesame is a black cat, I was convinced that this was definitive proof that my sister's apartment was haunted. But as it turned out, Sesame's behaviour was completely explainable — and is actually very common. According to two vets, Dr. Carlos Gutiérrez, DVM, a small animal specialist, and Wendy Zimmerman, DVM, CVA, CCRP, the associate veterinarian at RAU Animal Hospital, there are four main reasons cats stare off into space (and none of them is because they're seeing spirits).
Why Does My Cat Stare Off Into Space?
- They're trying to let more light into their eyes.
If you've ever taken a picture of your cat in dim lighting with the camera flash on, you've probably noticed that their eyes stand out and even look ghostly. "The pupils should constrict when light is shined in the eye, so that's a normal response," Dr. Zimmerman told POPSUGAR. The glowing you see is caused by a layer of tissue in the eye called the tapetum lucidum, which captures light, even the tiniest amount, and brings it back through the retina. "Theirs are actually pretty large because they're nocturnal animals," she added. To engage the tapetum lucidum at its highest capacity, especially at night, cats will widen their eyes to let in as much light as possible. But while widened, staring eyes are normal, bulging eyes are not. "Make sure the eyes aren't pushed out," Dr. Zimmerman said. "This could be a sign of things like a mass behind the eye."
- Their ocular anatomy and feline instincts cause them to be extremely observant.
Cats are visual hunters and curious by nature, which means they're observant at all times, equally during the day and the night. "Due to wild ancestors like lions and panthers, domestic cats have nocturnal instincts," Dr. Gutierrez explained. Their extensive field of vision spans 20 degrees more than ours, so it's more than just the wall in front of them that they're fixating on. Cats pick up on a lot through their peripheral, including things like shadows and tiny bugs we wouldn't be able to see unless we had six to eight times more rod cells. According to Dr. Gutierrez, a cat staring into space is simply an alert one who's gathering information about their environment.
- They pick up on every little noise, even when we think it's dead silent.
Dr. Zimmerman made sure to remind us that a cat's sense of hearing is just as important and powerful as their eyesight. Our perception of silence is a lot different from a cat's — in fact, the end of our perception is right around the beginning of theirs. So if your cat is staring blankly into the distance, it usually means they're fixating on a noise or echo they heard, and they're trying to figure out where it came from. Cats can hear about 1.5 octaves higher than we can, and can detect variances in sound, even something as minor as the wind outside, or your pillow falling on the floor in the middle of the night. But if you notice that your cat startles easily during their state of concentration, it could mean they're having trouble hearing. "If there's heavy debris or puss in the ear and ear cleaner is not solving the problem, you may want to contact your veterinarian. Sometimes ear infections can happen," Dr. Zimmerman said.
- 4. They had too much catnip.
Catnip can have a sedative effect, so if a cat has indulged in too much catnip, you can usually tell by simply looking at their eyes. This often translates to a fixed, relaxed gaze at seemingly nothing. The reaction varies from cat to cat, and shouldn't be cause for major concern. "There is some research in which that catnip produces a certain relaxation in some, and even hyper salivation and excessive drooling in others," said Dr. Gutierrez — both of which are normal.
Should I Worry If My Cat Is Staring Off Into Space?
Dr. Gutierrez and Dr. Zimmerman both agree that staring into space is completely normal behaviour in a healthy cat, but there are always exceptions, and it's always safest to consult your vet if you're concerned. If your cat is doing most of their staring at night and you think it goes beyond their nocturnal instincts, Dr. Gutierrez recommends paying close attention to their behaviour all throughout the day, because "there could be an extenuating physical condition that's causing them to stay up at night." And Dr. Zimmerman reiterated, "If there are any possible symptoms that your cat could be losing their vision, such as bumping into things for example, you should take your cat to the vet right away." In most cases however, the vets reassured us that a cat staring at "nothing" is just a curious cat — and probably not because of ghosts.