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Answer by Madalyn Zimbric, graduate student at University of Michigan and aspiring cat lady:
Many people have trouble with their cats because they don't understand or speak cat language. It's kind of like an English speaker attempting Mandarin but not knowing about tones. You're attempting to say “Hi! I really like you! Let's be friends.” But in Cat what you're saying is “Hey, you jerk. You'd better stay away or I'll kick your ass.”
Humans like to be looked at directly. Humans who like each other will make eye contact across the room. It's encouraged to look someone in the eyes when you meet him or her.
In Cat, this is the human equivalent of putting up your fists. Making direct eye contact with a cat you don't have a relationship with is aggressive and off-putting. Have you noticed that cats seem to be attracted to people who don't like or are afraid of them? It's not because cats are being jerks. (They are jerks, but this isn't an example.) It's because people who don't like cats don't look at the cat.
Similarly, immediately petting a cat, especially a cat that you're not close with, is an affront. Sort of like if you walked up to a human on the street and gave him a big hug from behind. Most people would be startled even if a close friend did that.
One way to bond with your cat is the slow blink. Lay down sort of near your relaxing cat, but not looking directly at her. Look nonchalant, relax, groom your fur, and chill. Then slowly turn your gaze so you're looking at her. When she returns your gaze, very slowly close your eyes and scrunch your face a little bit, then slowly open them. Do this several times until she does the same thing. Usually she will then turn away, but you have now bonded.
When you're petting your cat, watch his body language. In Cat, a twitching tail can mean irritation. Wagging does not indicate happiness! If you're petting him and he's twitching his tail, you're doing it wrong. Try a different area, or a different amount of pressure or direction. Keep paying attention. It's common for a human to sort of automatically pet a cat until the cat is overstimulated and done. In Cat, nipping is a handy way to tell a stupid human to get his grubby hands off you. The human thought he was being nice, and the cat thought the human was being an overbearing jerk.
You might also want to research cat behavior and body language more. There are plenty of television programs and websites that have good primers. I like Jackson Galaxy, who is on My Cat From Hell on Animal Planet.
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