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Dog behaviourist You can learn to speak cat - here are some tips

Suzi Walsh says there are subtle cues you can pick up from your cat if you want to understand what they’re trying to communicate.

CATS ARE OFTEN overlooked when it comes to their behaviour. A cat that bites or scratches you is often labelled grumpy or simply aggressive when in reality a cat may be fearful or even unwell.

Aggression is the second most common feline behavioural problem next to house soiling seen by animal behaviourists. The key to finding out the cause of your cat’s aggression is the ability to understand and read their body language.

Knowing what a cat is trying to say is important for so many reasons! Does your cat arch their back up to meet your hand when you pet them? This means they’re enjoying this contact with you. Do they shrink away under your slightest touch? Save the petting for later; they’re not interested right now.

How your cat communicates with you

Pay attention to your cat’s eyes, ears, body and tail—they’re all telling you something. Here are some basic (though sometimes contradictory) clues:

A cat’s ears can be a big indicator in letting you know how they are feeling. If your cat’s ears are forward this generally means that they are alert, interested or happy while if their ears are backwards, sideways or flat it usually means they are irritable, angry or frightened.

One of my favourite ways to read how a cat is feeling is by looking at their tail. Unlike a dog whose wagging tail is much more difficult to read without looking at the entire body, a cat’s tail can be relatively easy to interpret just on its own.

If a cat’s tail is erect with fur flat it means your cat is alert, inquisitive and or happy.

If the tail is erect with fur standing up it means your cat is very upset or frightened. If your cat’s tail is low or tucked it means your cat is insecure or anxious. A straight up and quivering tail means that your cat is really excited about something or they are getting ready to spray urine, a marking behaviour.

A relaxed tail swishing slowly or just flicking at the tip of the tail means your cat is very absorbed in what they are doing but alert in case they quickly have to make a move. Lastly and probably most importantly if your cat’s tail is thrashing back and forth this means that they are agitated, the faster the tail the angrier your cat is, they are sending warning signals to you that you should not approach under any circumstances.

The body shape of your cat is also important. If your cat’s back is arched with fur standing on end it means they are frightened and are asking for space. If the back is arched but the fur is flat they generally are welcoming an interaction or looking to be touched.

A cat who lies on its back purring is very relaxed but lying on its back growling would mean they are upset, uncomfortable and ready to strike.

It can be much more difficult to assess how a cat is feeling by looking at their eyes because you need to have a clear vision of its pupils and how constricted or dilated they are. Constricted pupils can mean offensively aggressive but also content.

closeupportraitoffunnygingercatwearingsunglassesisolatedon Shutterstock / Mark_KA Shutterstock / Mark_KA / Mark_KA

While dilated pupils can indicate that your cat is defensively aggressive or possibly playful. The reason it can be confusing to read the emotions of a cat by assessing their eyes is that some of the same expressions are used in play but also antagonistic behaviour.

Not only that but the light affects how much the pupils dilate in living animals including humans. It’s important to look at your cat’s whole body when trying to decipher how they are feeling at any given time.

How do cats interact with us and what does it mean?


When your cat rubs their chin and body against you, what they’re really doing is marking their territory. You’ll notice that they also rub chairs, doors, their toys and everything in sight. Cats have scent glands which produce pheromones that they leave as markers to indicate to others that this stuff (including you) belongs to them. If your cat marks you, you could say that they love you.


Cats work their paws on a soft surface as if they’re kneading bread dough. Your cat does this when they are really happy and usually before they settle down to relax.


Did you know that a cat meows to engage with humans? Research shows that when adult cats encounter each other, they rarely use typical meowing sounds to communicate. While they almost always use their voice to let us know what they want, how they are feeling or even just to say hello!


Play is very important to cats. Rough play is common and normal among kittens and young cats under two years of age. Despite the playful intentions of a cat, however, some play can become overly boisterous causing injury to people or damage to household items.

Play aggression is the most common type of aggressive behaviour that cats direct towards people. It’s believed that through play with each other, young cats learn to inhibit their bites and retract their claws when swatting and when that doesn’t happen due to kittens being orphaned or weaned early you can often see an increase in play aggression.

happykittenlikesbeingstrokedbywomanshand-thebritish Shutterstock / PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek Shutterstock / PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek / PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek

Other factors that can contribute to your cat’s aggression are long hours spent alone without opportunities to play, and encouraging your cat to play with your hands and feet.

Redirected aggression

Redirected aggression is one of the most dangerous types of cat aggression, due to its uninhibited nature and frightening aftermath. It happens when a cat is provoked by an animal or person they can’t access, leading them to lash out at someone or something close by.

Despite the attack appearing “out of the blue,” there can be a long time between the initial trigger and the redirected aggression (up to hours). It’s important to note that these cats are not intentionally seeking out someone to harm—it’s almost like an involuntary reflex. That’s why it’s never a good idea to try and intervene if you witness two cats fighting or one displaying aggressive posturing!

Petting-induced aggression

Some cats enjoy being petted, held, carried and even hugged while some just tolerate these interactions but very few cats don’t like being petted at all. Petting-induced aggression occurs when a cat suddenly feels irritated by being petted. The cat nips or bites the person doing the petting, and then jumps up and runs off.

This type of aggression isn’t well understood, but it is believed that repetitive physical contact can cause arousal, excitement, pain and even static electricity in a cat’s fur. When your cat signals you to stop petting, the best response is simply to stop.

With careful observation of your cat’s communication signals, you’ll usually see warning signs, such as:

  • Quickly turning of your cats head toward a person’s hand
  • Twitching or flipping their tail
  • Flattening their ears or rotating them forward and back
  • Restlessness
  • Dilating pupils

How to tell if your cat loves you?

Contrary to popular belief cats are loyal and devoted pets to their families forming strong bonds and affectionate relationships. If you are unsure if your cat loves you, start watching out for these signs:

  • Does your cat stare at you? This can often be unsettling but cats only make direct eye contact with people they really like.
  • Does your cat blink slowly at you? A slow blink is believed to be your cat’s way of showing affection to you. You can even reciprocate to let them know you feel the same.
  • Does your cat head-butt you? When cats do this they are telling you that they really really love you.
  • Does your cat lick you? This is an honour as they consider you to be part of their family.
  • Does your cat bring you presents like mice and birds? Although this might disgust you it means your cat is presenting you with something they find of value to them.

There are so many ways that cats express themselves and their affection for you, you just need to watch for the signs. Enjoy your cat, play with your cat, tell your cat how much you love them and you will have a feline friend who loves you back.

Suzi Walsh is an expert dog behaviourist and dog trainer. She has an honours degree in Zoology and a Masters in Applied Animal Welfare and Behaviour from the Royal Dick School of Veterinary. She has worked as a behaviourist on both TV, radio and has also worked training dogs in the film industry.



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