5 min read

Why Do Cats Stare At ‘Ghosts’?

"They have marvelous brains that work in ways that we don't fully understand."

If you're familiar with cats at all, it's probably crossed your mind that cats may have a particular ability to, well, sense things - even the paranormal.

You might have even thought that A) cats are crazy B) ghosts exist or C) all of the above.

Why do cats sometimes stare at a particular, seemingly random, point in space?

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"When cats appear to be staring into space, they may actually be detecting subtle motion, as their vision is much more acute than ours," veterinarian Rachel Barrack, of Animal Acupuncture, told The Dodo.

Cat staring
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A 2014 study suggested that both cats and dogs see some spectrums of light that we don't, like ultraviolet (UV) light. But the reason dogs don't seem to go quite as nuts for apparently nothing at all can be explained by the natural personalities of cats, according to Barrack.

"Cats, unlike dogs or other animals, are more curious by nature," Barrack said. "This could explain their sometimes erratic behavior."

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Compared to human eyes, cat eyes actually have six to eight times as many light-sensing rods, which means they can see more in very low light.

"I feel I should first state that I don't personally believe in ghosts," Katie Armour, project coordinator for the MSPCA Boston Adoption Center, told The Dodo. "I do however believe that cats have remarkable capabilities, and we know that their senses are worlds stronger than our own."

Armour sometimes observes her own cats watching something on - or "seemingly beyond" - a blank wall or dark corner. "Not only are they capable of seeing and hearing things that I cannot, they have marvelous brains that work in ways that we don't fully understand," Armour said. "When a cat is watching something that doesn't seem to be there, or if they call out to us about this perceived presence, we should respect that not only are they trying to figure this something out, but they're wondering if the situation is safe."

Armour suggests trying to investigate the situation with them, as a fun bonding activity. "Shine a flashlight into that dark corner, press your ear against the wall to hear what they're hearing," she said.

One of Armour's cats, for example, sees the reflection of light from the TV on the opposite wall and paws at it for hours. "She leaps at glimmers of light from the chrome of a passing truck, and hunts tiny specs of dust as they fall through a beam of sunlight," Armour said. "Light and shadow transfix her, and it sometimes takes me a while to realize just what she's watching."

At times, your cat might suddenly be staring not at "ghosts" but at you ... which can be a little disconcerting. "If your cat is staring at you, owners are often encouraged to slowly move or even blink to send the message that you are not a threat," Barrack said. "But chances are, it's also out of love."