By Elizabeth Xu
Sure, you know how to pet a cat (and you’ve likely done it countless times). But while you may think you’re bonding with your furry friend, how do you know they’re enjoying it too? Although all cats are different, there are a few signs you can look for and common favorite places to pet a cat. Whether you share your home with a one or just like to be friendly with every kitty you see, keep these tips in mind to make sure the cat’s having a positive experience, too.
How to Pet a Cat
The first step to cat petting is simply announcing yourself. Even if you’re interacting with a cat you know well, it’s nice to make your presence known before trying to pet the cat, said Pam Johnson-Bennett, cat behavior consultant and owner of Cat Behavior Associates, LLC. She recommends extending your fingers towards the cat so that it may sniff them first. From there, the cat can take the lead by rubbing its head against your fingers or meowing.
After you’ve been given the go-ahead to pet the cat, you should still consider what’s best for him or her. It might seem small, but even the way you move your hand is important. You should always pet in the direction the fur goes and be sure to actually pet the cat, not pat it, Johnson-Bennett said. It’s also important to consider how your behavior looks to the cat and that you should never block their vision, as reaching across a cat’s face to pet it can be perceived as threatening, Johnson-Bennett said.
Where to Pet a Cat
Even though you may have a general idea of where to pet a cat, keep in mind that petting animals isn’t something that comes naturally to people, especially to children, many of whom are drawn to animals. Young children should always be supervised around cats for the safety of both the child and the pet. Teaching good cat-petting habits from the start can help avoid unnecessary problems. While every cat is different from the other in terms of their favorite places to be pet, there are a few tried-and-true areas where you can begin.
According to Johnson-Bennett, most cats like being pet on the back of the head and under their chin, with some enjoying long strokes down their back towards their tail (other cats, however, may not want you near their tail). She suggests trying a spot briefly and watching the cat’s reaction closely to determine whether they enjoy that spot being touched or if you should try a different one.
How to Not Pet a Cat
If you regularly interact with cats, it’s important to understand how not to approach them just as much as how to approach them. Even if a particular cat has been friendly towards you before, there are signs to watch out for that will tell you the cat’s not enjoying the petting.
For most cats, the stomach is an “off-limits” area. While there are always exceptions, petting a cat’s stomach should be avoided, especially if it’s a cat you don’t know well. Though it may sound strange, too much petting can lead to over-stimulation or aggression, so look out for any changes in the cat’s behavior as you pet it.
“Watch the [cat’s] tail movement; the more dramatic movement in the tail, the more stimulated the cat is becoming as a result of petting,” said Brian Ogle, an anthrozoology (the study of interaction between humans and other animals) instructor at Beacon College who specializes in animal behavior and pet ownership. “This is usually the signal of when to stop, or change, how you are petting the cat.”
Other signs a cat that is unhappy being pet might be subtler, but you’ll still spot them if you’re observant. If the cat stops purring, turns to look at you, or changes their ear position, you should take them as signals that the cat isn’t enjoying what you’re doing, Johnson-Bennett said. Never force attention on a cat that is signaling that she’d rather be alone.
Tips for Petting a Cat
Be patient: if you’re meeting a new cat for the first time, try to contain your excitement until you’re sure your new furry friend wants to be touched. “Many cats do not mind greeting new humans, but being touched by a new human can be a scary experience,” Ogle said. “Let the cat voluntarily approach you.”
Break the ice: if the cat’s interested in you but still not sure about being pet, Ogle says that playing with the cat and his or her favorite toy can help make them more comfortable with you.
Pay attention: a little attention can go a long way when it comes to figuring out your cat’s signals, so zoning out while you pet it probably isn’t the best idea. “When you pet, you shouldn’t just absentmindedly pet forever,” Johnson-Bennett said. “Watch your cat and make sure it’s still a pleasant experience.”
Petting a cat isn’t difficult to do, but with a little time and effort, you can learn your cat’s petting preferences so that next time they might come to you instead of deciding to hang out in solitude.