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Cat emotions
"Emotions are what give cats an impulse to act in response to a situation"

Understanding cat emotions

Scientists have recently agreed that identifying the emotions of an animal can help to understand their behaviour.

Understanding the emotions of your cat

As a cat owner, you will have come to recognise your companion’s various moods from her body language, facial expressions, noises and the way she moves. We instinctively know whether our cats are excited, happy, sad, frustrated or anxious.

However, emotions have been a topic of hot debate among behavioural experts because it’s very hard to quantify or measure emotions.

What are emotions?

Emotions give cats the impulse to act in response to an event or situation. For example, the negative emotion of fear may cause cats to run and hide, or the positive emotion of happiness may cause cats to jump up on your lap for an affectionate cuddle.

Emotions are divided into positive or negative feelings and these have rising or decreasing scales. For example, pleasure can increase to feelings of elation and ecstasy, while frustration can increase to anger and rage.

Cats with behaviour problems usually demonstrate the extremes of an emotional scale when they exhibit their problem behaviour.

Recent research has demonstrated that all mammals including cats have seven fundamental, basic, emotional systems that provide the ability to react to information about what enters the brain via the senses.

These seven include a seeking system to look for food, a fear system to respond to unfamiliar events that may be dangerous, a play system and a care system to raise offspring and form vital social attachments.

More recently evolved areas of the advanced human brain can process this emotional capability into the more elaborate emotions of love, shame, contempt, worry and so on. Whilst we don’t associate such ‘higher feelings’ with cats, this does not in any way detract from the fact they feel more basic emotions like happiness, sadness, anger and fear in the same way that we do.

Modern pet behaviourists realise that emotions are, in fact, essential to how animals learn anything at all, even if precise measurement of these feelings remains elusive. They use emotional assessment as the basis of treating pet behaviour problems.

Emotional problems

Recognising that cats have emotions has allowed animal behaviourists to better understand behavioural problems such as aggression, excessive grooming and nervousness.

It is important that you also consider your emotional responses towards your cat too. Owners can feel love, happiness, and at times even frustration towards their pets. It is important to seek help from an animal behaviourist if your pet’s negative emotions outweigh the positives.

Animal behaviourist Dr Jo Righetti says “owners often tell me that it is easy to see when their cat is angry but they are unsure if they are happy and wonder how they can make them feel happier."

"I tell them that the way to elicit a happy feline emotive state is firstly to address basic feline needs of food, comfort, hunting (through play) and companionship. Secondly they need to work out what motivates their particular cat."

"If their feline friend loves food, try encouraging them to work for food, for example by training them to come when called. If their cat loves to play, reward them with regular play sessions. If they love a cuddle, provide plenty of lap time."

Rewarding a behaviour will reinforce it and also the feelings that go with it. Giving your cat more of what she enjoys will ensure you have a stress-free cat.

About Dr Joanne Righetti

Dr Joanne RighettiDr Joanne Righetti is an animal behaviourist, educating the public and professionals in all aspects of the human–animal relationship. Her background is in zoology, with a PhD in animal behaviour and a counselling diploma – qualifications which enable her to work with all sorts of animals – including the human variety! Joanne likes to help pet owners understand their pet's behaviour and solve any pet behaviour problems. She also consults to a variety of organisations including non-profit organisations, commercial companies and councils and is involved in a variety of media including regular spots on radio. Joanne is an honorary associate of the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences, University of Sydney. Find out more about Joanne at

Last updated: 10 January 2016 at 07:36 PM
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