Many of us have experienced petting an amiable cat that loves the gesture, only to scratch or bite the next. It might be easy to blame it on the cat, but the more likely scenario is that we're simply not doing it right.
To understand what might be the cause, we need to understand more about feline ancestry. Domestic cats' forefathers (the African wildcat) were seen only as pests control, while our cats today are valued as friends or even "fur babies."
This social shift in the human-cat partnership is believed to occur around 4,000 years ago—a little later than dogs. Although this may seem like an ample amount of time for cats to fully adjust to the different social roles, this is not the case for our feline friends. Domestic cats have relatively small hereditary differences from their ancestors, suggesting that their minds are possibly still wired to act like wildcats.
Wildcats live solitary lives and invest considerable effort and time communicating indirectly—through chemical and visual signs—to avoid having to see each other. So it's unlikely that domestic felines have complex social skills.
It's not surprising that our first reaction when we see a cat is to pet them. On the other hand, humans have always been social creatures—closeness, touch, and blatant displays of love. We are also drawn to infant-looking features—huge eyes and the temple, a small nose, and a round face—which is why most of us will look at pets and be disarmed. However, we should not be surprised that most cats will find this interaction upsetting.
Petting Your Cat Is Important
We know that petting a pet can help alleviate stress and anxiety in humans, but that does not mean you're the only one benefitting. Petting your cat the right way—more on this below—is a way to communicate socially and help establish a bond. Petting your cat can also help you detect any issues under their coat that you can't see, like fleas, ticks, scrapes, bumps, and other skin conditions. It can be challenging to know when a cat is unwell or hurt, so understanding these first signs allows the opportunity for immediate veterinary care early on.
How to Pet a Cat
It may look easy, but the last thing you need to do is jump right in and start petting a cat without first being aware of the situation. If you wish to pet a dog or a cat, start slow and see their reaction. Focus on giving the feline as many options and control as possible; for example, the choice to signal whether they want to be cuddled and control over where to pet and how long.
Because of our responsive nature and the love of lovely things, this will not come instinctively to many of us. And it will likely require more awareness than usual. However, it can reasonably pay off, as research shows that interactions with cats are likely to last much longer when the feline initiates them rather than the human.
It's also important to be sensitive to the cat's behavior and stance throughout communications. When it pertains to touch, less is more. This is not just true during vet handling but also with casual interactions with humans.
As an essential guide, many cats will enjoy being touched around the regions where their face glands are located. This includes the base of their ears, under their chin, and cheeks. These places are generally preferred over their tummy, back, and base of their tail.
If it's not your cat, ask first if it's okay to pet the cat. Felines are typically distrustful of strangers and might respond with aggression. Ask if the cat has a sensitive area that is off-limits.
Read the Cat's Body Language
Any time you're touching an animal, it's essential to be respectful of their space and whether or not they want to be petted. Felines specifically can be very sensitive to touch and will let you know if they're okay with a cuddle or brushing using body language. Purring is generally a great indicator; however, averting, trying to leave, scratching, or hissing indicates that it's time to stop. A happy cat will be relaxed and might also rub the sides of its mouth across your hand or nudge below your hand when you stop petting to urge you to continue.
Learn Where Your Feline Likes to Be Petted
In general, cats like to be touched under the chin or around the ears. Paws, stomach, tails, and whiskers (extremely delicate) are best avoided. But every cat is different, and it may experiment to learn how and where to cuddle your cat.
You might find that your cat enjoys things that other cats don't like. Do not presume other cats like that same as your own. It's also good to avoid hugging or picking up cats unless you are close to them and you know they like it.
Signs that a cat is satisfied:
- The tail held upright and initiated contact.
- Purring and kneading you.
- Softly waving tail from side to side while kept in the air.
- A relaxed face, ears erect and directed forwards.
- Give you a gentle push if you stop briefly.
Signs of dislike or stress:
- Shifting, moving away, or turning their head away from you.
- Being passive or indifferent (no purring or rubbing).
- Exaggerated blinking or licking their nose.
- Rapid, short bursts of grooming.
- Rippling or shivering skin, usually along their back.
- Swishing, thrashing, or thumping their tail.
- Flat ears to the sides or backward.
- A sharp and sudden turn of their head.
- Biting or batting your hand away with their paw.
If you discover and notice these behaviors, leave the cat alone. They may come back to you when they are more relaxed and ready to be petted.
Know When to Stop
If your cat was purring and relaxed but suddenly starts to change positions or make any other movements that show they're done, respect and let them move on. This will help establish petting as a good experience for them. Even the most clingy cats can get touched out, so it is essential to observe the cat's body language while petting.
There are many reasons why cats enjoy petting. Cats often interact with each other by massaging, nuzzling, and grooming to share scents. They use the same behavior to connect with people. By petting a cat, you are combining love back to the feline.
Ultimately, when it involves cats, it is necessary to appreciate their limits—and the wildcat within—even if that means admiring their cuteness from afar.