Odd behaviors merely come with the territory when you own a cat. There are the sudden midnight sprints, the covering of their food bowls with a T-shirt, and the snacking on plastic and fake plants. Of the more bizarre cat behaviors, only one will have you wondering whether there’s paranormal activity somewhere in your home: Your cat staring at things that aren’t there.
When cats stare at things that aren’t there, they’re looking at (or for) something that human eyes and ears cannot pick up. Cats’ ultraviolet vision, impressive motion detection, and a hearing range between 48 Hz and 85 kHz allow cats to see and hear animals and bugs that are invisible to you.
While creepy and often concerning, there are quite a few explanations for why your cat may be staring at things that aren’t there. Keep reading to find out what could be catching your cat’s eye and whether there’s anything you can do about it.
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Ultraviolet Vision May Be To Blame
The color spectrum ranges from red to purple, at least to the unaltered human eye. Our eyes’ outer-surface—the lens—shields our delicate retinas from highly-damaging ultraviolet light, such as the sun’s rays. Cat eyes, on the other hand, work very differently.
A cat’s retinas are far less susceptible to UV damage and allow ultraviolet light to enter the lens more easily. The feline ability to see UV light is often touted as a “superpower” for our four-legged friends. Ultraviolet vision makes cats more sensitive to subtle differences in brightness (such as notebook paper enhanced with optical brighteners to whiten and brighten).
If your cat is intent on staring at the wall, her impressive UV vision could be to blame. Some insect species reflect UV light, and your cat may be eyeing down a tiny bug crawling up the wall that you can’t see.
Sensing Subtle Movement
Across most animal kingdom species, there are two primary components in the eye: cones and rods. Cones allow us to see colors across the spectrum, especially in a well-lit room. Rods, on the other hand, let us see decently in dimly-lit spaces, pick out shapes, and sense motion. The average cat may have six times more rods than you do as a human.
Your cat may not be able to distinguish a color difference between your blue jeans and your green blanket, but she can pick up on subtle motion far better than you can. Cats also have about 20 degrees more of peripheral vision, meaning she has a slightly wider field of vision.
If your cat seems to be staring at something that isn’t there, her eyes aren’t necessarily tricking her. Your cat may have seen a squirrel dart across the yard, a bumblebee fly down the hall, or even a large piece of dust float through the air. She’s staring at something of interest.
Something Is Making Noise
Cat-like balance is something we’ve all heard about growing up, but cat-like hearing is something that floats under the radar. As humans, we can pick up on sounds between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz, with “hertz” being a more scientific way of saying “pitch.” The hearing range of cats is far broader and highlights much higher pitches—48 Hz to 85,000 Hz.
Your cat’s ears’ heightened sensitivity allows her to hear sounds and noises that you don’t even know are there. With this skill, your cat can also pick up on ultrasonic vocalizations of rodents like rats and mice.
If your cat is staring full-force at something that you don’t see, she may not see anything either. Your cat may be intently listening to the sounds of a mouse squeaking in your attic, a mosquito squealing nearby, or a buzzing coming from the refrigerator. In this case, her staring is nothing more than her way of focusing on what she’s listening to.
How to Know If She Sees or Hears Something
Cats are curious, sometimes to a fault. Your cat will only watch a bug linger on the wall or listen to the sound of a mouse beneath the dishwasher go on for so long before she decides to do something. If your cat approaches the direction she’s staring, swats or reaches for something, or begins vocalizing at what she’s staring at, you can be sure she was looking at something.
The Risk of Hyperesthesia
While your cat’s unusual staring is often innocent enough, there is a possible medical explanation for this odd behavior: A condition known as Hyperesthesia Syndrome.
Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome is a relatively mild medical condition, though your cat may find the symptoms to be quite bothersome. Many vets struggle to define this condition’s specifics but believe it to seizure or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Aside from the common skin twitches that leave many cats obsessively scratching themselves, other symptoms are:
- Excessive scratching, grooming, licking, and biting on their skin
- The appearance that your cat’s skin is “rolling” along their back
- Unusual vocalizations and noises
- Sudden sprinting about the house
- Aggression toward humans and other cats
- Dilated pupils and staring episodes
The last point—staring—is what may make you think that your cat is staring at something in the distance or on the wall across the room. If your cat has Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome, her staring may have no purpose (other than being a symptom of this abnormal condition).
Even if you don’t think your cat has Feline Hyperesthesia, it’s always a good idea to learn about conditions that may impact your cat somewhere down the road. The video below details this unique skin condition, the signs and symptoms, and possible treatments.
What About Ghosts?
Anyone with a clue that ghosts and spirits exist among us will assume that a cat’s odd staring behaviors stem from something more sinister: They saw a ghost. While nearly half of all Americans believe that ghosts exist, science says that ghosts aren’t real. The most likely explanation for your cat staring at the corner or into an empty room is that she sees or hears something that you don’t—mice, insects, rodents, electrical sounds, or another cat.
Why Do Cats Look Around the Room?
Perhaps the only thing more bizarre than seeing your cat stare at nothing is when she seems to be scoping out the room ad nauseam. Here are some possible reasons your cat may be looking aimlessly around the room:
- She hears a sound and is trying to figure out where it’s coming from
- You moved something in the room, and she’s trying to figure out what’s different
- She’s curious or looking for entertainment (the way you watch the TV)
Just like humans, cats don’t use all of their time to be productive. She doesn’t always have to be doing something like playing, eating, or sleeping. Sometimes, she’ll want to relax and do nothing as she lounges.
Cats usually are very intentional about what they do and how they act. If your cat is staring at things that aren’t there or seems to be looking aimlessly around the room, she has a good reason for it.
The most logical explanation is that your cat may see, hear, or smell something that you can’t—like a mouse running around in the attic or a gnat up high on the wall.
If you find that there’s nothing there after a thorough investigation, you may want to take your cat to the vet. Your cat may have a condition like Hyperesthesia.
- Live Science: Cats and Dogs May See in Ultraviolet
- Cornell Feline Health Center: Hyperesthesia Syndrome
- Short Communication: Hearing range of the domestic cat
- VCA Hospitals: Do Cats See Colour?
- Popular Science: Why Do We See Ghosts?
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.