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How to Pet a Cat According to Science

How to Pet a Cat According to Science

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If you’ve ever shared the company of a cat, you might have noticed they can be…unpredictable.

One second you’re cuddling with them and everything is fine, and the next second they’e irritated!

There’s actually a simple explanation: you may be petting them incorrectly.

Once you understand how to approach cats correctly, their behavior becomes more predictable.

This makes experience of interacting with a cat safer and more enjoyable for cats and humans alike.

Now you may already consider yourself a cat petting expert, but you’d be surprised! Science is always giving us new and exciting information about cats that you may be unaware of.

Keep reading to learn how to teach yourself or your visitors how to pet your cat correctly to build trust, strengthen bonds, and reduce stressors.

The Golden Rule: Each Cat is Different

Before you even consider petting a cat, remember that they’re just like us when it comes to what they do or don’t like.

Each one is unique; they all have different personalities, along with their own preferences.

Some of them may enjoy social interaction with people, some may tolerate it, and others may actively dislike it.

Their upbringing likely influenced this. There is a key socialization period for kittens between their birth and seven weeks old.

How much human handling and exposure they get during this period will determine how open they are to petting, cuddling, etc.

For example, a former feral cat may never be as open to human contact as cat that was adopted as a young kitten.

Since we can’t pick up on their chemical messages and may not understand their body language, it’s important to let cats control the interaction.

Introduce Yourself To The Cat

You wouldn’t just walk up to a friend and grab them with no warning, so show cats the same courtesy (if you do make a habit of surprising friends, well, just don’t do that to a cat).

There are many ways to bond with a cat.

Letting cats know you’re in the room and introducing yourself puts them at ease and shows them you’re not a threat.

If you’re unsure about how to introduce yourself, here’s a quick rundown

1. Let the cat come to you; go about your business as usual and don’t deliberately try to find the cat. 

2. Let the cat sniff you and decide whether or not they want to continue interacting. If they stick around, extend your hand.

3. If the cat sniffs your hand and then rubs or bumps against it, try opening your palm to see if it receives the same treatment.

4. From there, try scratching the cat’s chin or other areas they like to be petted, discussed in the next section.

5. Watch their body language to make sure they’re enjoying being petted; if that changes at any time, stop petting them.

Hopefully, you have a great petting session and the cat enjoys it the whole time.

But even if this is the case, don’t assume it will be the same way next time!

Repeat this process every time you see a cat. Once you get to know them better, they may choose to begin skipping introductions.

Always leave that decision up to them.

Continually introducing yourself and allowing the cat to control your interactions will establish a stronger sense of trust.

In time, they’ll recognize you as a friend.

Places Cats Like To Be Pet

There are some areas cats like to be petted more than others, no matter what the circumstances are or how long they’ve known you.

When a cat approaches you and seems open to being petted, it’s best to start with these “safe zones.”

Then, if the cat seems okay with it, you can move onto other spots.

Here are some areas that cats generally enjoy being petted:

  • Base of their ears
  • Under their chin
  • Around their cheeks
  • Around their necks

You may notice that the areas cats like being petted are near their scents glands.

This allows them to mark you with their scent, which can help them feel more at ease.

When petting them, make sure to move in the same direction of their fur. Mohawks may be adorable, but cats generally don’t appreciate them.

Here are some areas that you should steer clear of until you know the cat better or receive a feline go-ahead:

  • Their stomach
  • Their backs
  • Base of their tail
  • Their feet

Notice cats don’t like to be petted in vulnerable spots and areas they would naturally protect from predators.

It’s best to steer clear of these areas unless you receive a clear invitation from the cat.

For example, if they begin arching into your hand and moving around, they’re likely fine with you petting their back.

This is just one of the signs that a cat enjoys being petted. More are discussed in the next section.

Sings That a Cat Likes Being Pet

One of the most obvious signs that a cat likes being petted is purring.

If they continue rubbing against you or seeking contact, these are also reliable signs.

Here are a few more signs a cat enjoys how you’re petting them:

  • Holding their tail upright or gently waving it
  • Kneading or “making biscuits” with their paws
  • Relaxed posture with ears pointing forward
  • Rubbing their head or cheek on you, called ‘bunting’

If you notice the cat is showing one or more of these signs, it’s a good indication that you can keep going.

But remember, keep letting the cat control the interaction. If the cat pulls away, pause and reassess.

Similarly, if the cat shows any body language covered in the next section, give them some space.

Signs That A Cat Is Irritated

Obviously, a cat is irritated if they hiss, smack or bite you during petting. The goal is to spot signs of irritation before this happens.

If you notice any of these signs, stop petting the cat and let them decide if they want to continue:

  • Shifting or turning their head away
  • Remaining passive and/ or tense
  • Short bursts of grooming
  • Rippling or twitching skin on their back
  • Swishing or thumping their tail
  • Suddenly turning to face you

Cats who display any of these signs usually need a break from petting.

Whether or not they enjoyed being petted initially, they may change their minds at any time.

When this happens, simply stop petting them and move your hands out of their personal space.

Is the Cat Irritated or Injured?

Cats may also not enjoy petting if they’re in pain because of an underlying illness, injury, or other condition.

If a cat is in pain, they’re more likely to be hypersensitive to touch.

It may be that petting them is overstimulating or causes them more pain. They may also just not be in the mood for petting at that moment.

Either way, they’ll let you know if they’re not interested.

But how can you tell the difference between a cat that’s irritated and one who’s in pain?

We’ve already discussed signs that a cat is irritated, so below we’ve cover signs that a cat may be in pain.

  • Sitting still and/or hunching over
  • Excessive grooming in one spot
  • Excessive and/or unusual vocalizations
  • Resting weight on their front legs

If you introduce yourself to a cat and notice any of these signs, it may be best to hold off on the cuddles.

Similarly, if you’re petting a cat and pick up on any of these behaviors, take a break.

The cat may initiate contact again, in which case you can keep petting them (with caution).

Keep in mind, these are all behavioral indications.

If you notice physical signs of an illness, such as swelling, fast/ shallow breathing, open wounds, etc., contact your vet or point them out to the cat’s owner.

Be Patient

Just like people, cats have their own personalities and their own tolerance levels in terms of socialization.

Some of them love being petted, while others don’t get as excited about it.

Introducing yourself to a cat and properly petting them helps us gauge where they are in terms of their “social battery.”

Watching their body language and the signals they’re giving off tells us if our petting makes them happy or irritated.

Being sensitive to a cat’s needs and their current emotional state benefits everyone involved: the cat, you, and everyone around you.

It ensures everyone stays as safe and happy as possible.

Though it can be hard to resist the fluffy pull of petting cats, showing restraint in the short-term makes life better for everyone in the long-term.

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