How to pet a Cat

May 31, 2021

Many of us will have experienced that a super friendly cat who seems to love being stroked one minute, may bite or swipe at us the next. It might be easy at this point to blame it on the cat, but what’s likely happening here is that we’re just not stroking them right.

To understand why this might be, we first need to know a bit more about kitty’s ancestry. The domestic cat’s ancestors (the African wildcat) were regarded a dangerous animal but modern day cats are often treated as our valued companions or even “fur babies”. Domestic cats also display relatively modest genetic divergence from their ancestors, meaning their brains are probably still wired to think like a wildcat’s. It may seem that petting a cat is very easy but without knowing what to do or how to comfort them, the process might be difficult.

Cat affections

When it comes to human-cat interactions, the characteristics of humans are very important. Our personalities and gender, the regions of the cat’s body we touch and how we generally handle cats may all play an important role in how the cat responds to our affections. While some cats may react aggressively to unwanted physical attention, others may merely tolerate our social advances in exchange for the good stuff (food and lodgings).

Focusing on Areas with Scent Glands

1. Start with a soft chin-scratch. Use your fingertips or fingernails to gently rub the chin, particularly where the jawbone connects to the skull. It’s possible the cat will push into your stroke or jut out his/her chin, both is signs of enjoyment.

2. Focus on the area between or behind the ears. Use the pads of your fingers and apply gentle pressure. The base of the ears is another scent-marking spot for cats.

3. Pet the cat’s cheeks just behind the whiskers. If the cat likes this, s/he may rotate his/her whiskers forward, effectively asking for more.

4. Run the back of your hand gently along the side of the face. 

Areas to Focus on

Letting the Cat Come to You

1. Let the cat sniff you before you pet it so it can become comfortable with you. Extend a hand or finger and allow the cat a chance to touch his/her nose to you.

If s/he shows no interest in your hand or just stares at it suspiciously, reconsider your intention to pet her.

If the cat sniffs your hand, meows, and then rubs her chin or the side of his/her head against it, or brushes the side of his/her body on you, chances are s/he is open to being touched. Open the palm of your hand and softly touch her body.

2. Wait for the cat to bump his/her head against you. When a cat bumps his/her head into your hand, it’s a signal s/he wants attention. If you are busy at the moment, at least pet her once or twice, to let the cat know you aren’t ignoring him/her.

3. Pet the cat once if s/he jumps into your lap and lies down. See if s/he fidgets, if s/he does, it may be that s/he just wants to lie there and relax, as humans are a great source of body heat.

4. Understand how your cat communicates. The cat makes some low audible sounds (called purring). Purring is one way a cat signals that it feels sociable and wants attention. When accompanied by hip bumps, ankle twining or head bumping, it means your cat wants you to pet it right now. Sometimes one stroke is all the cat wants, like a handshake or a greeting, rather than a long hug and snuggle session.

The loudness of a cat’s purring denotes its happiness level. The louder the purring is, the happier the cat is at the time. A soft purr means that it is content, a loud purr means very happy. Excessively loud purring means over-excessive happiness, which can sometimes switch quickly to annoyance, so be careful.

5. Watch for signs that the cat does not want to be petted anymore. Sometimes even petting that feels good to the cat can become overstimulating or irritating, particularly if it is repetitive. If you’re not paying attention, the sign to stop may come in the form of a soft, inhibited bite or scratch. Often, however, the cat gives several subtle signals before biting that he/she does not want to be petted anymore. Look for these advance warnings, and if you see them, stop petting:

  • Ears flattening against the head
  • Tail twitching
  • Fidgeting
  • Growling or hissing

Learning What to Avoid

1. Keep your petting from the head to the tail and don’t switch directions. Some cats do not like getting stroked from tail to head.

2. Don’t pat the cat. Some cats enjoy it, but some don’t, and if you’re not used to being around cats, you’re better off not experimenting unless you want to risk a bite or scratch.

3. Stay away from the belly. When cats are relaxed, they might roll onto their back and expose their belly. Don’t always take this as an invitation to rub their tummy, as many cats don’t like that at all. This is because in nature cats must be careful to protect themselves from potential predators (as opposed to dogs, who are more confident in this regard – and love having their bellies scratched).

4. Approach the feet with caution. Don’t play with a cat’s feet unless you know the cat well and know s/he likes having him/her feet played with. Start by petting the cat to get him/her relaxed, then ask permission to stroke his/her feet by touching one foot once with your finger.

How to stroke a cat

The key to success is to focus on providing the cat with as much choice and control during interactions as possible. For example, the choice to indicate whether they want to be petted or not, and control over where we touch them, and how long for.

As a general guide, most friendly cats will enjoy being touched around the regions where their facial glands are located, including the base of their ears, under their chin, and around their cheeks. These places are usually preferred over areas such as their tummy, back and base of their tail.

Article Categories:
Pet · Cat · communication · Lifestyle

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