Q&A How to Pet a Cat

Q: Okay, I know this is a stupid question, but can you tell me the best way to pet a cat?

A: This is not a stupid question at all. It might seem like an absurdly easy question to answer, but I have seen people pet their cats the wrong way for decades. Every cat is different on physical interaction, and each should be treated as an individual.

To learn how to bond with a kitten who isn’t interested in petting and cuddling, see this article: Q&A: How do I get my kitten to like petting?

There are some major factors and minor factors that generally determine how a particular cat likes to be petted. Some of the major ones are:

  • Personality Is it an affectionate kitty, or a little more standoffish? Is it skittish or bold? There are several personality traits that will determine how the cat will prefer to carry out physical contact.
  • Mood Hyper, angry, or otherwise perturbed cats generally don’t like to be touched.
  • Age Kittens don’t generally enjoy it unless they are veeery sleepy, and even then, there’s a limit. As the cat grows older, and your bond grows stronger, cats usually get more and more cuddly and affectionate as they get older.
  • Health Injury Old age, pain, discomfort, or other health issues can determine whether or not a cat wants to be touched.

General rules:

  • When attempting to get to know any cat, you should start with simple offering the back of your hand for it to rub against. Bolder, more mature, more affectionate cats will usually take you up on the offer. Let the cat pet your hand, not the other way around.
  • Most cats do not enjoy full-body strokes, so never pet a cat you don’t know well using large strokes along the back.
  • Even if the cat rolls over, do not go for the belly unless you know the cat well. Unlike dogs, when cats roll on their backs, it does not mean, “Rub my belly!” It generally means, “I like you! I feel good!” People who are more used to dogs are therefore left flabbergasted when a cat becomes peeved when they try to go in for a belly rub. If you think the cat might enjoy a belly rub, start with some gentle chest scratches. Most cats like that.
  • Keep the petting to small strokes and rubbing of the head, chin, and neck. You could also try for a gentle cheek rub. The best way to initiate the first attempt at a cheek rub, try presenting a knuckle in front of the cheek (not to the side, you want the cat to be able to see its proximity to its cheek), and let the cat rub against it at their leisure, so they are the ones in control.

WARNING Signs If you see any of the following behaviors, stop petting immediately and look somewhere other than at your cat:

  • Cat watching your hand
  • Ears flattened to the side or back
  • Love Nips (small bites not meant to hurt, just to say, “Stop doing that!”)
  • Growling or hissing
  • The cat’s skin gets twitchy where you’re petting it
  • Tail twitching or swishing quickly

The good signs are fairly obvious: the cat keeps coming back for more, kitty starts purring, or curls up in your lap, rolls over, or otherwise seems completely blissed out.

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