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Why do cats stare at fire?

Have you ever seen your cat gaze lovingly at a flickering candle? Or perhaps your kitty is sitting cozily by the fireplace, captivated by the dancing flames. Today, we have an extra spooky edition of our “Why do cats…” feature for Halloween in which we explore why cats boldly stare into the fiery abyss!

Seeking warmth

Cats have special heat sensors that are concentrated around their face. Since kittens are born deaf and blind, they use these special sensors to locate their mama and littermates. As kitty gets older, these sensors only become more sensitive. Therefore, what appears to be your cat staring into the flame may actually be kitty’s way of zeroing in on the exact source of the heat.

Enjoying the show

Curious little predators by nature, cats are also attracted lights and objects that move quickly. Anyone who has seen a cat chase a laser pointer knows how easily a moving light can capture kitty’s attention. Moving images on a TV screen can catch your cat’s attention, too. So it may just be that they’re enjoying the unpredictable pattern of the light.

Sensing something we cannot

Alas, there are still some things about the way cats work that we simply do not know yet. Cats who stare at “ghosts,” into dark corners, and beyond walls are probably analysing information that’s imperceptible to us. With such incredibly acute hearing, eyesight, sense of smell, and even an ability to sense subtle air movements, cats probably experience the world with a clarity that we just don’t have.

Some mysteries are solvable. If you stay still long enough, you can see a fly flitter through the air, you can shine a flashlight into a dark corner, and you can press a glass to a wall to listen to mice scurry through. Yet, there isn’t much you can do to see a flame through the eyes of a cat!

Safety first!

Just don’t forget to keep your cat safe during these mystical encounters. Close a screen or divider across your fireplace, and keep candles out of kitty’s reach.

Are you worried about it getting too hot or cold while you’re out of town? Then be sure to show the pet sitter how to adjust the temperature in your apartment. Our pet sitters take extra care to make sure your kitty is comfortable while you’re away.


Candace Elise Hoes is a pet sitter and blogger at Katie’s Kitty. She is a graduate of the MFA Writing Program at California College of the Arts.

photo by Michell Filion on flickr

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One Response to Why do cats stare at fire?

  1. Eman December 30, 2018 at 10:19 am #

    I believe that when a cat stares at a wall, it is watching the floaters in its own eye.

    Humans have been shaped by natural selection to prioritize pattern recognition. The acuity for that errs on the side of seeing patterns where none actually exist, such as with a simulacrum, or jesus on a piece of toast.

    Cats have been shaped by natural selection to prioritize seeing movement, especially small, darting, furtive movement such as their prey makes, and I suggest the acuity for that also errs on the side of seeing it where it doesn’t exist, such that when a cat looks at a wall that because it is blank, has nothing else going on to interfere with the cat seeing the floaters in its eyes, which to the cat, will seem to move around, and that is what the cat is “tracking”. Certainly a more likely cause than that cats can see ghosts.

    As to a cat watching a fire, the dancing, darting flame could certainly be stimulating that same recognition of movement. Or perhaps, 9,000 years of living with humans has seen natural selection instill into the domestic cat an appreciation of life-giving (in cold climates) fire, just as humans also have such an appreciation of potentially deadly fire that probably wasn’t shared by our pre-human ancestor species who hadn’t harnessed it yet, and for which it would have been a frightening, deadly natural occurrence. This could be tested by using the ancestor of the domestic cat, the African wildcat, and seeing if it has the same response to a hearth fire.

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