Felines keep their owners on their proverbial toes, from stalking “dangerous” bits of string hanging from blankets and clothing to taking off at top speed straight out of the litter box. One particularly puzzling behavior pet parents may have noticed in their feline friend is a cat’s penchant for staring at seemingly nothing. One moment he’ll be curled up on a couch or chair, looking at the window or the television – and the next minute, he’ll be looking intently at an empty wall.
So why on earth is your cat staring? There’s actually several legitimate reasons for cats staring at the wall or corners, and no – it isn’t ghosts.
What’s In There?
Cats are predators, and their wild ancestors and cousins are evolved to hunt small prey through nearly-invisible movements and imperceptible sounds: those curved, oversized ears aren’t just for show! Even if a human can’t hear a bug skittering behind the baseboard or a mouse in the wall, a cat might just be able to – and they could be standing watch to pounce when and if it emerges. With a highly developed sense of smell, they can also tune into the scent trails such suburban ‘prey’ leaves behind: knowing which sense a cat is using will help determine what’s captured his attention.
Scenario 1: His body is very still, but his posture is “pre-pounce” hunched, and the tip of his tail and ears are twitching:
He believes the moment of truth is imminent – he hears something moving and is determined to figure out where the prey is. He may start lunging back and forth, trying to get closer to the source of the noise, and may even start to “chitter” – a vibrating, stunted, proto-meow type of sound that’s just barely audible – in excitement and anticipation.
Scenario 2: He is moving his head back and forth and lightly “leading” with his nose each time – the same way he’d examine a piece of food if his owner offered it pinched between their fingers:
He’s caught an unusual scent, and it’s coming from that wall. He’s trying to narrow down where the trail ends. Hint: if his mouth is open and his eyes are slightly squinted, it’s definitely a smell – cats open their mouths like this to take in more of a scent while they’re examining. Many cat owners call this the “stinky” face, as cats will instinctively make it when confronted with a strong smell.
Scenario 3: His pupils are contracted, and he appears to have a laser-like focus upon a certain spot. It’s very difficult to get his attention, and he isn’t blinking much. His posture is “pre-pounce” and rigid, and he may be shifting his weight from left to right on his back legs.
Despite their subtle differences, each of these scenarios clearly illustrate a cat on the hunt. These physical behaviors, coupled with his wall-watching, mean that he’s literally got his prey in his sights. Humans may not be able to see it – shadows, a flying bug that is moving too quickly, etc. – but he definitely does. Unless pet owners live in an area with known poisonous insects, snakes, or potentially harmful rodents, it’s best to let cats finish their hunt. It helps them feel fulfilled and interested in their environment – and what person objects to free pest control?
For cat parents noticing this behavior at a particular time of day each day, take note of where the natural light falls in the room: a cat could potentially be staring at dust motes caught in a sunbeam. Different routines – work and school schedules, maintenance or building activities in the home, even the mail being delivered – can also stir up those nearly-invisible behind-the-wall intruders right on schedule, and felines may just be trying to let their owners know something’s up.
When To Worry That Your Cat Is Staring At A Wall
While wall and corner-staring are generally harmless, there is a type of behavior that cat owners should always be looking out for: head-pressing. Unlike “normal” wall watching, head-pressing tends to be ongoing, continual, and fruitless: your cat isn’t looking at something specific or stalking prey, but sitting very still – and most likely, physically touching the wall at the corner. He may simply rest his head against the wall, or he may continually bump or press his face into a wall or corner – both behaviors are a cause for concern.
Head pressing is not the same as head butting, which your cat may do to your legs or hands to show affection. In fact, head butting is normal and a way for a cat to let other felines know that his human ‘belongs’ to him – by rubbing his scent on his owner. Likewise, head-pressing is not the same as marking, where a cat will vigorously rub his cheek against the side, edge, or corner of an object to mark his territory without urine. Head-pressing will appear as if your cat doesn’t have a clear purpose; he won’t be as alert or engaged as he normally is. Think of it more as a compulsion, or sleepwalking, rather than a conscious act. Cats perform this troubling behavior for a variety of health reasons, frequently indicating impaired nervous systems, feline cancers, or brain illnesses – so when pet owners notice this behavior in their cat, they should call a vet right away.
It may be odd, or even a little spooky, but for cat owners who happen to observe their fuzzy felines paying close attention to the wall, they should really be paying close attention to him: chances are, he knows something his pet parents don’t!
For more information on how to properly care for your loving feline, check out our cat resource center at Canna-Pet today.
“How to Treat Head Pressing in Cats.” PetMD.com, (no publish date), https://www.petmd.com/cat/conditions/neurological/how-treat-head-pressing-cats. Accessed April 28, 2019.
“Feline Myths Dispelled.” Nova Cat Clinic.com, (no publish date), https://novacatclinic.com/feline-myths-dispelled/. Accessed April 28, 2019.
“Don’t Ignore This Odd Behavior, It Can Be a Sign of a Medical Emergency.” Healthy Pets.com, January 15, 2017, https://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2017/01/15/head-pressing.aspx. Accessed April 28, 2019.