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Why do cats stare at nothing?

January 22, 2022

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I think we can all agree that cats are weird. They stare at nothing for hours on end, they sleep all day and then want to be up all night, and they have a habit of making you feel guilty when you’re not playing with them enough. But why do they do these things? Why is their behavior so strange?

What do cats stare at, and why do they do it?

Let’s start by explaining what cats are staring at when they seem to be just ‘looking at nothing.’ You might think that your cat is just so bored it has nothing better to do than stare at this thing, but there’s actually a lot more going on here than meets the eye.

I’m so preoccupied with thinking about the meaning of life that I have not noticed the imp on my shelf.

First, let’s talk about how cats see things and why they can’t just see in 3D as we do. They have something called “visual streaks,” which means their eye structure is slightly different than ours.

As a result, they can’t see in 3D but instead, see in “two dimensions” with their peripheral vision. This is why they prefer to hunt small prey like closer birds rather than larger prey that would require them to run after it for a longer distance.

But what does this have to do with cats staring at nothing?

It turns out that their visible streaks are the cause of the phenomenon known as “lost interest and staring.” When your cat first sees something, it wants to focus on, like a bird or toy, the visual streak in that area kicks in.

This provides sharp focus in that direction; however, when you move your arm holding the toy out of the corner of their eye, they lose this clear vision (because it’s no longer coming through the visual streak). Instead of having a blur, your cat’s brain perceives this as nothing there.

They can’t seem to comprehend where you went after moving out of their field of view – their brain has trouble processing what happened to the toy you were holding because it wasn’t seen through one of their “streaks.”

Why does my cat look like she sees something?

What does this type of behavior look like? When your cat stares at nothing, it means that their visual streak is activated, and they can focus on the area where the object disappeared. They may make a very slight movement with one or more of their legs and slowly turn their head/ears (if they were looking in the direction you moved your toy). With your peripheral vision, you might not be able to tell they’re looking in that direction at all, but trust me – they likely are.

Okay, so cats can’t always see things coming out of the corner of their eyes. But what about when they seem to follow something with their head or eyes? This is what we call “tracking and following.” This is when your cat follows something with its eyes or moves its head slightly so it can follow it.

Although this seems like the same behavior as the ‘staring at nothing’ phenomenon, these two differences are key:

  1. Cats can see you moving (their visual streak will activate as before), but instead of focusing on the object that’s moving, they track it with their head/eyes.
  2. If you project an image over them (e.g., put a post-it note in front of them), it will first cause small eye movements followed by large movements to look at the object again. This is what we call “fresh look behavior,” indicating that they are seeing something new.

One last thing about the ‘staring at nothing’ phenomenon is that while you hold your toy out in front of them, don’t move around too much or talk to them because it can provide sudden movements that may activate their visual streak again. Cats do not like to hear our voices when focusing because it’s very distracting.

What do cats see that we don’t?

One of the beautiful things about cats’ eyes is that they contain a mirror-like membrane (tapetum) which enhances their night vision. This also causes them to reflect at night, looking creepy. This is to allow them to see better in low-light conditions; it reflects light back through the retina to allow more light to enter.

Your cat’s eye is designed to see moving objects very well, and they can even see things that you can’t without this tapetum. Another great thing about the tapetum is that it allows them to see in two different directions at once – one with each eye. This helps them judge distances and depth.

Theories about why cats stare at nothing

Now that we have a better understanding of how cats see things let’s talk about why they stare at nothing. In short, the reason is that their brain perceives it as something to focus on, but if their visual streak isn’t being used, then there is no sense in focusing on it. Let’s discuss some of the more popular theories about why they do this.

It’s all in your cat’s head

One of the theories is that when your cat is staring at nothing, it can symbolize an internal conflict in their brain about whether or not the object is worthy of being paid attention to. It could be that something might happen if they take their eyes off that object (like you are going to grab it), so they stare at the object to ascertain if it’s a threat.

However, this theory doesn’t seem very likely since most cats that do this don’t keep their eyes fixated on the object the whole time. It seems more likely that they’re just trying to process what they see and determine if it’s worth looking at.

What each theory means for cat owners

Each theory has its own implications for cat owners. For example, suppose this is an internal conflict in your cat’s brain. In that case, it might mean they’re struggling to decide what they want to do (i.e., pay attention to the object or not?). This can be bad because you don’t want them to feel useless or unimportant to you.

On the other hand, if it’s just their visual streak not kicking in, then this is something they can train themselves out of (see our guide to training your cat).

Regardless of what is happening in your cat’s head when they stare at nothing, most cat experts agree that ignoring them or pretending like nothing is wrong will worsen the problem.

How to deal with a cat that stares at nothing

If you’re concerned about your cat constantly staring at nothing, you can do a few things to help alleviate the problem. The first thing is to keep your cat entertained by playing with them or providing them with stimulating toys. You also want to make sure they get enough food and water and make sure their litter box is easy to access.

When you first notice your cat staring at nothing, try calling their name and waving their favorite toy in front of them. If they don’t move, reward them with lots of attention (including playtime or treats) until they look away. You can also redirect your cat’s focus by using a laser pointer (be sure to get one designed for cats) or by putting their food on a high shelf where they have to jump for it.

Suppose your cat’s behavior continues despite being entertained, having enough food and water, and easy access to the litter box. In that case, you can talk to your vet about anti-anxiety medication. Most vets will only prescribe this if nothing else works because there is a risk of side effects.

Final thoughts

In the end, the reason your cat stares at nothing might just be because they don’t have time to process all of their information. The good news is that this behavior can usually be trained out of them with a little patience and some well-timed rewards for looking away from whatever they were staring at.

Mary Wilson
Mary Wilson
I am a happy cat parent and animal lover, and I am from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA. Living with three cats and my lovely husband - James. We like traveling around with our cats and writing in our free time. Sharing what we have learned over the years of cat ownership brings joy.
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