Why Cats Stare at Nothing and Other Twilight Zone Behaviors Explained

This beautiful stained glass window in our kitchen is the perfect filter when the sun is just right for what I call the “hairlight affect.”

Snowflakes softly twinkling, falling in a graceful dance, dusting all they touch with an exquisite blanket of untouched snow. I carry the memory of those moments from my days in Upstate New York where the quiet beauty of a freshly fallen snow can take your breath away. Living in Florida, we don’t have anything to quite compare, unless you consider what I term ‘hairlight” – those moments in a household with cats in which the sun is at that perfect setting in which it creates a glorious wash of sunlight that exposes every delightful bit of dust and cat hair that abounds on the floor, on furniture, on computer screens, on appliances, on televisions and more. This, I am very familiar with.

I bring this up because it’s a fascinating phenonium. Without the sun exposing the dust and hair, it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist because it can’t be seen, yet it’s clearly there. For cats, because they have such heightened senses, nearly everything can be seen, even that which we can’t discern at all, maybe even ghosts. Otherwise, how else do you explain those odd moments when a cat will stop dead in his tracks – completely spooked – staring with a glazed look into what appears to be nothing. It’s happened to my cat, Rolz, to the point whatever has scared him, he won’t come back into the room, not even to walk through it to get to the kitchen when its dinnertime – one of his most cherished parts of the day.

There are other times, not so much that I think its ghost related, but I’m completely flabbergasted at how well my cats can sense something undetectable to me. The television can be blaring, and it’s pitch dark outside – suddenly a cat will dart from one room to the next, clearly on a mission. Like a well-orchestrated machine, another cat will perk up and follow suit. Soon, each of my seven cats is on high alert and looking out whatever window that’s attracting some sort of outdoor cat, raccoon, or possum. How do they wake from a sound nap to hear something several rooms away like that, with the television blaring to boot?

It could be one of many things – a bird, a lizard, another cat, a raccoon…who knows but the cat?

This is a complicated subject with a variety of possible answers. First off, while it’s the most difficult theory to prove, there’s no denying a great many people believe in the paranormal, myself included, because I’ve witnessed ghosts and spirits firsthand – both in feline and human form. Given that cats have a heightened sensitivity to the world around them, why wouldn’t they be able to sense ghosts or spirits too?

But if it wasn’t a ghost, just what did cause your cat to randomly become so terrified of a room in your house he’s 100% familiar with? Chances are something happened that triggered your cat. Maybe a strange smell you tracked in with your shoes from outside, or distant noises from the neighborhood. Or if you have a multi-pet home, maybe an altercation occurred you weren’t aware of. Or maybe a book or some other object dropped to the floor earlier in the day and it spooked your cat.

The slightest change in environment can set a cat off, so if it happened, it’s best to remain calm and try to slowly coax your cat back into the space in question. Treats, playtime – things that are associated with positive reinforcement. Be patient – don’t chase after him and plunk him into the room that’s scaring him. Let your cat settle his nerves on his own time.

Rolz, standing a safe distance from whatever has spooked him.

In more unusual circumstances, some cats can develop a strange disorder called feline hyperesthesia which is a condition in which a cat has an abnormally increased sensitivity of the skin. Your cat might suddenly turn toward her tail as if something is bothering her and take off running out of the blue as though something is scaring her. She may also show sensitivity when any point along her spine or back is touched. She might also be agitated – biting or chasing her tail and hissing and vocalizing. She could even seem to be hallucinating, following the movement of things that aren’t there. In drastic cases, a cat might self-mutilate by biting, licking, chewing and pulling out hair. It’s difficult to know what causes hyperesthesia, but one of the first things you should do if your kitty is showing symptoms is to investigate what’s causing the itching and biting.

Perhaps it’s a flea allergy that’s causing your cat to go bonkers. Get a specially designed fine-toothed flea comb and run it through her fur. Start at her ears and head and work toward her tail, paying close attention to both the underside and the top of her neck and the area around her rump. If there are fleas, you’ll notice them as black dots, moving around on the comb. Since the bite from a single flea can cause serious, long-term itching and skin irritation, you’ll need a plan to rid both your cat and house of these dangerous parasites. A bad case of fleas can cause your cat to lick and scratch so aggressively that she can lose patches of hair on her body.

Cats that are fed a dry kibble diet can also aggravate a hyperesthesia condition. Many cats are allergic to the grains in dry foods, so it’s best to switch them to a balanced diet – preferably one that’s raw food based, or a quality, grain free canned food diet. It could also be a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, with the obsession being excessive grooming. Some breeds might also be predisposed to the mania, such as certain Oriental breeds that are triggered by stress. Certainly, the best advice would be to bring your cat to the vet for a thorough physical exam to determine what can be done to keep her happy, stress-free, and healthy.

The eyes are the mirrors to the window of a cat’s soul.

For a cat that seems to stare deep into space at what seems to be nothing at all, it could be because they do see something. A study by Ron Douglas, a biologist at City University London, England, indicates that cats (among other mammals) are thought to see in ultraviolet light. UV light is the wavelength beyond the visible light from red to violet that humans can see. Humans have a lens that blocks UV from reaching the retina, but cats might have the ability to see UV light, which would help explain why they are so adept at hunting prey. While we might think they are looking at nothing, it’s very well possible they can see something as minuscule as sunlight glinting off a fleck of dust.

As far as that cat who seems to have Superman powered eyes but can’t see a treat in the palm of your hand under his nose, interestingly, there’s a blind spot in cat’s vision right under his nose. That’s why when you drop anything right under his nose; he’ll have to sniff around before finding it.


For more on the fascinating subject of feline behavior, consider reading my three-time award-winning book, Makin’ Biscuits – Weird Cat Habits and the Even Weirder Habits of the Human Who Love Them. It’s all about what makes a cat tick – the how’s and why’s of what our cats do – such as why they hide toys around the house, steal food from our plates or seek out boxes to nap in. For more information, please click here.

Makin’ Biscuits – Weird Cat Habits and the Even Weirder Habits of the Humans Who Love Them.

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  1. Andrea Dorn says:

    Ahh, so much information in a single post. I’m glad you keep up on all of this. I think we have a little of all of that going on in my house. Except the fleas. Since my dog died and I treated the house and cats we don’t have those awful creatures any more. Thanks Deb!

  2. That’s a lot of great information ! We love to do it, and let our humans wonder why we’re suddenly staring at…nothing ? Purrs

  3. Interesting post, Deb. I never knew about that blind spot. I was thinking Pilot needed glasses when he couldn’t find the treats right in front of him!

  4. jmuhj says:

    My Baby Su had a short period of hyperesthesia-like occurrences, when she’d chase, catch, growl at, and bite her own tail! Thankfully, it didn’t last long, and I’ll never know why she did this. She’s feral, so she’s always been a little different; and she’s quite high-strung.

    There have been times when cats have alerted and growled — I think it’s because they sense, and/or hear, someone outside, as they always look toward a window when they do this. Again, fortunately, it does not happen very often. They are excellent Guard Cats, though!

  5. As I left for work this morning, Manny was staring intently into the corner. Neither I nor The Hubby could see anything, but no doubt there was some creep crawly thing that he detected. We have an old house, so no doubt there might be a spirit or two who float through, but so far, we haven’t seen evidence of them. Well, except that one time…

  6. Ellen Pilch says:

    Very interesting. I always figure a spirit of a loved one is visiting. I love that stained glass window.

  7. Thanks for the share. This was a very interesting read. Love the photos that went with the post. The kitty in front of the stain glass window is absolutely beautiful. What lurks outside is what only a cat knows. Hope you are having a wonderful summer so far. Thanks again

  8. (H. Mearns) “Yesterday upon the stair,
    I met a man who wasn’t there.
    He wasn’t there again today,
    I wish, I wish he’d go away.”

    Don’t think we will ever know for sure what they are really looking at. Great article!

  9. meowmeowmans says:

    We always figure it’s because they DO see something. We as humans simply can’t measure up to Gracie and Ava’s super feline senses. 🙂