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Why do cats stare at nothing?

seal point cat staring at blank white wall
© catAngens - Shutterstock

Cats are quirky creatures: They like to run around at 2am, target our fingers and toes when stalking, and stare at blank walls. But is that something we should be worried about?

By Justine Seraphin

Published on the 17/08/2021, 17:00

If your cat likes to sit in a corner, face the wall, and stare at it for some time, you may be thinking: What’s wrong with my cat?! Well not to worry, a lot of cats do this!

And usually, it’s nothing to worry about. In fact, there are a lot of reasons why your cat might like to stare at walls. The trick is to know when the behaviour is normal, and when it’s a symptom of something more serious. 

Why do cats stare at blank walls?

If your healthy adult cat likes to sit and stare at “nothing”, don’t panic. There are plenty of reasons why they might be doing this.

1. Cats have excellent vision

Cats have sharp vision, much better than that of a human’s. Indeed, a cat’s peripheral vision can span up to 200°, and it’s thought that cats can pick up on wavelengths of light that we can’t - ultraviolet light, for example. Plus, as we know, they have more rods in their vision than we do, allowing them to see better when it’s dark.

On the contrary to us, they can easily spot tiny things such as dust particles floating in the air, or spiders crawling around, even in dim lighting. Additionally, they have episodic memory, which means that if they’ve seen something interesting on the wall one day (such as a ray of sunlight for example), they may go back to that same spot repeatedly in the hopes of encountering the ray of light again. So while it may seem like your cat is looking at nothing, it could just be that you can’t see what they see.

2. Cats have excellent hearing

On top of their terrific vision, cats also have great hearing. Indeed, it’s thought that cats have better hearing than dogs! While it may seem like your cat is blankly staring at the wall, it could simply be that they hear air running through the air ducts, water running through pipes, or rodents scurrying around. These sounds are probably imperceptible to you, but very interesting to your pet!

3. Cats’ brains are geared for predation

If you’ve ever owned a cat, then you know they can be quirky. They’ll often focus on something for a long time, so much so that it will be very hard to distract them from it. This is essentially because cats are curious creatures, and in nature, they’re also predators. In the wild, it’s not unusual for cats to stalk their prey for a long time, paying attention to every sight and sound they can pick up on. So don’t worry if your cat stares at the wall for too long, it’s in their nature to wait and find out where that noise (or other) is coming from!

Why is my old cat staring at the wall?

If you have an older cat, the reasons for staring at a wall could be different. Sometimes, as cats get older, they develop a condition called Feline Cognitive Dysfunction, though it’s more commonly known as cat dementia. This condition is quite similar to dementia in humans, and unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about it. However, if you think your cat is suffering from dementia, you can help them by encouraging routine and exercise in their everyday lives. Ask your veterinarian for more precise and individualized advice on your pet.

Why does my cat stare at the wall and cry?

If your cat is showing a combination of the following symptoms, it could be a sign of something much more serious:

  • Loud meowing or howling
  • Attacking its own tail
  • Enlarged pupils
  • Frantic grooming, especially at the base of the tail
  • Skin rippling
  • Extreme touch sensitivity
  • Tail swatting
  • Trance-like staring at the wall

Describing these symptoms to the vet may earn your cat a diagnosis of Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome. Experts themselves don’t know much about the condition, but they believe it could have something to do with stress, abnormal brain waves, electromagnetic signals in the brain, or lesions along the spine. Whatever the case, if your cat is showing signs of Feline Hyperesthesia, try to catch their behaviour on camera so you can show your vet. They’ll be able to provide you with the best advice on caring for your cat.

Learn more about Feline Hyperesthesia

Why is my cat head pressing?

There is a significant difference between your cat rubbing themselves on you or on furniture and your cat “head pressing”. Head pressing is when a cat presses the top of its head firmly onto a solid surface, such as a wall, and doesn’t move for quite some time. If you notice this behaviour, consult your veterinarian as soon as possible. Head pressing could be a sign of:

  • Infectious disease
  • Toxic poisoning
  • Brain tumour
  • Metabolic disorder

In most cases, a cat staring at the wall is nothing to worry about. You can distract them with a game, or even offer them something more interesting to stare at by placing a cat tree or bed near the window, for example. But you don’t have to. 

As long as your cat isn’t showing any other worrying symptoms, your cat’s really just being a cat. 

Frequently asked questions

Can cats see ghosts?

Why does my cat stare at nothing at night?

Why does my cat keep staring at the same spot?