The Right Way to Pet a Cat, According to Cats Themselves

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A lot of people think we cats are unpredictable when it comes to petting. It seems like we enjoy it sometimes, and other times we don’t want it at all. Or we will accept it for a few minutes and then take a swipe at you. Or we run away when you try to pick us up. Do cats even like to be petted?

Of course cats enjoy being petted…as long as the human is doing it the right way. And if you want to pet a cat, and have it be a mutually beneficial experience, there is a learning curve. But it’s not that complicated, and once you figure it out, it becomes instinctual. So let me show you how.

Here’s the very first rule for the right away to pet a cat — and it’s the most important one:

Let the cat tell you when and how they want to be petted.

It’s really that simple. The problems come when humans approach a cat that’s not in the mood to be petted, or continue to pet a cat that doesn’t want it anymore.

When you let the cat initiate the petting session, you already know you have their permission. Then it’s just a matter of doing what they want. When you hold out your hand, they will direct you.

Cats prefer being in control of the situation

This is why you should avoid picking up a cat, or hugging a cat tightly. It feels like we’ve completely lost control, and our instinctive response is to get away as quickly as possible. If you have a cat that likes being held and hugged, I can almost guarantee that you and that cat already have a very close long term relationship. It may even be part of a routine you have with them. It’s not common behavior, and you can consider yourself fortunate (and you probably already do).

Where most cats enjoy getting pets.

When you present your hand to a cat, usually they’ll rub their faces on your fingers. And cats do prefer having their cheeks, chin, and the base of their ears stroked and rubbed. (Don’t try to handle cat ears, though — we don’t like that! Every so often on my therapy cat visits, a patient will touch my ears, and I flick them! Some cats will lay their ears flat when you try so you can’t touch them at all.)

If a cat is enjoying the session, they may move closer so that you are stroking their back. A lot of cats like having their back stroked, but some don’t, so if the cat doesn’t make itself available for longer strokes, pass on doing that.

Where cats may not enjoy physical contact

  • Generally, cats don’t like their paws being rubbed, and trying to handle their legs usually bothers them.
  • Even if they are comfortable with having their back stroked, use caution patting them by the base of their tail. Even if a cat likes it, it’s very easy to overstimulate them in this area.
  • The majority of cats don’t like their tummy rubbed. When a cat presents you with their tummy, they are showing they trust you enough to show you this very vulnerable side. So touching it is actually something of a betrayal of that trust. Never touch the tummy of a cat you don’t know well.
    Of course there is a minority of cats that do like it (I’m one of those). But usually when I hear of a cat that enjoys tummy rubs, it’s only with a human they know very, very well.
  • Never handle a cat’s tail. There’s really no reason, as there aren’t any feel-good nerve endings there. And we need that tail to express ourselves, so don’t get in the way of that.

Signs of a cat that’s happy to be petted

  • Purring
  • Kneading, or happy paws
  • Soliciting more strokes by leaning into your hand
  • Tail held high and waving in a slow relaxed manner
  • A relaxed posture in general

Signs of a cat that dislikes you touching them

  • No purring or reacting at all. You feel like they’re just tolerating you.
  • Grooming themselves immediately after you’ve petted them.
  • Flattened ears
  • Licking their nose. This is common cat language for when they’re stressed or mildly annoyed.
  • Moving away from you, or trying to leave altogether
  • Warnings of a cat that’s about to totally lose patience with you

    • Skin twitching along back
    • Taił swishing quickly back and forth
    • Low, quiet growling, or growling underneath purring.
    • Suddenly moving their head towards your hand

    The easiest way to tell if a cat is done with a petting session is to stop petting them. If they want more, they will ask for it. If they don’t, they won’t, so quit while you’re ahead.

    The biggest problem people have with petting cats is that they ignore the signals, either out of ignorance or willfully. So know the signals — and obey them. You’re only petting a cat because you want a pleasurable experience. The way to accomplish that is to make sure the cat is having an equally nice time.

    Somali cat enjoying being petted

    I hope this helps! If you have had any experiences petting or handling a cat that you’d like to tell me about, let’s discuss it in the comments.

    Here are some helpful posts about cat behavior:

The Right Way to Pet a Cat, According to Cats Themselves

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