How to pet a cat
I can imagine telling one of the non-cat people in my life that I’m writing a post about how to pet a cat. They’d probably have the same look on their faces if I told them I was writing a post about how to blink, or breathe.
This is not, however, a post about how to pet a dog. That post would go something like this:
Step 1: Place your hand on the dog anywhere.
The end. You’ve just made this the dog’s best day ever.
But cat people know: petting a cat is a more nuanced affair. One moment, she’s eating up all the lovin’ you’re giving her; the next, she’s swatting and snarling. Let’s find out why.
How would you pet a wild cat?
Cats and dogs feel differently about petting because they came into their relationships with humans very differently. Our house cats are most likely descended from African wild cats from Eygpt around 1500 B.C. Ancient people took cats along with them on their land and sea trade routes for rodent control, but that was the extent of our attempt to domesticate them. In fact, wild cats and domestic cats are almost genetically identical. The only way people began to be able to tell them apart was when domesticated cats began to develop tabby markings. This change emerged during the Middle Ages, but tabby cats didn't become common until the 1700s.
Dogs were domesticated much earlier than cats, and we deliberately bred them for different purposes, selecting for traits that eventually also made them good pets. Cats were perfect just as they were, so we left them alone.
What does that mean for petting? It means that our house cats’ brains are wired a lot like their wild cat ancestors. Wild cats, who lead more solitary lives than our domesticated cats, tend to communicate indirectly, using scent, sound, and visual cues. They might spray urine to mark their territory, or swish their tails or hiss to send a message, but they would otherwise keep their distance. That doesn’t mean our house cats don’t enjoy petting, but it means that cats can be more selective about “contact behaviors” and individual cats can have higher or lower petting thresholds.
(How social are cats? Read more about the topic here: How to introduce a new cat to your cat)
Humans love to pet!
We humans are very social. We love to be close to others and we like to touch to show affection. Cats are just plain irresistible to us, as it turns out, because their faces have a lot in common with human babies. Humans are hardwired to care for cute baby-like things and so we find cats particularly alluring. We have a tendency to overwhelm cats with our love. Sorry, cats. We can’t help ourselves.
Do cats actually like being petted?
It depends on the cat.
Well, you probably already know what kind of cat you have. In one of my favorite studies, researchers got a peek into how cats feel about people, and we learned that many cats will choose interactions with humans over food, toys, and scent.
(If this topic interests you, you’re going to love this post: Are cats protective of their owners?)
To have a cat who loves interacting with people, you have to make sure they get to know humans during the critical developmental window between two to seven weeks old (and sometimes up to 14 weeks old). During this short period in a kitten’s life she is receptive to new experiences and needs to be handled by people if she is going to become a well-socialized adult cat. Kittens who do not get accustomed to humans during this crucial time in their lives never really become cozy with us in the same way.
(To learn more about the difference between pet cats and feral cats, read I found a stray. Now what?)
There was a study published in Physiology & Behavior about cat stress that seemed to indicate that cats get really stressed out by petting, and the media went wild with it. The study, some said, was "proof" that cats hate petting even if they appear to tolerate it. But in spite of all the hoopla, the study was misread and misrepresented. Whatever you may think you know about petting being stressful to all cats is probably wrong.
The part of this maligned study that I found particularly interesting was that the cat owners involved in the research were asked to self-report whether their cats “enjoy,” “tolerate,” or “dislike” petting. It says to me that there really is a spectrum of cats’ feelings about petting and their owners already know where their cats fall on it. I'm sure you know how your own cats feel about petting.
When to pet a cat
Knowing that cats are cats and not humans when it comes to their appreciation for physical contact, means that we have to practice some personal restraint when it comes to petting them.
The best time to pet a cat is when he asks for a pet, not when you feel like petting him. This will probably not come naturally to most people, but it’s worth practicing self-control in the name of respecting another living thing’s boundaries. There’s also a payoff. Science tells us that a cat will spend a longer time interacting with a person when the cat initiates contact, than the other way around.
The main thing is to allow the cat to take the lead. A cat who is interested in being petted may approach with tail held high, may sniff your hand, or nudge you with her head, as if to say, “Pet me right here.” If you’re unsure about what a cat’s intentions are, offer your hand for a sniff. If she shows no interest, back off. If she sniffs, meows, or rubs against you, it’s probably an invitation to continue.
Where to pet a cat
Cats enjoy petting in areas of their body that contain scent glands. Petting a cat in these areas helps her spread her scent, which, in turn, makes her environment smell like her, and thus feel cozy and familiar. Here is a cat’s favorite petting spots:
Where not to pet a cat
Dogs love a belly rub. Cats do not. It may be because a cat, while a predator, is also a prey animal and all the parts that need protecting are in the belly. Touching a cat’s belly can trigger a bite or scratch.
Some cats seem to be forever presenting the belly as if asking for a pet, but don’t take the bait. Even if a cat learns to tolerate belly rubbing it doesn’t mean that she enjoys it. Stick to her known favorites, above.
When to continue petting a cat
How do you know your cat is enjoying the petting and whether to continue?
Purring and kneading with paws is a sure sign that your cat wants the petting to continue. A nudge with the head that seems to say, “more please,” is also an invitation for you to continue. If the cat appears to be relaxed, with ears forward, that is also a sign that he is still on board with the interaction.
If you’re caressing the cat along his back down to the base of the tail and he lifts his backside in response (famed veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker calls this “elevator butt”), it means, “do it again.”
When to stop petting a cat
When a cat suddenly bites, scratches or bats at your hand, you know that she’s done with the petting. Heed.
Other signs may be more subtle. A thumping or thrashing tail is a sign of growing annoyance as is sudden spurt of grooming. Flattened ears, twitching skin, or a stiffened body are also indicators that the cat is no longer enjoying the interaction.
Even more subtle: a passive cat who stops purring or rubbing against you has probably had enough. A polite cat may simply turn away, or turn his head away from you. Don’t make him go to DEFCON 2.
What to do if your cat reacts negatively to petting
Cats have varying degrees of petting tolerance but you should not take it personally. Your cat is who she is, and she is entitled to be who she is. Could you try to condition your cat to tolerate petting in certain areas or for a certain length of time? You could, but then the petting would be all about you, and only you.
Do not, do not, do NOT hit or yell at your cat for biting or scratching you during petting. You will damage your precious relationship with your cat, and you will confirm for her that you and your hand are extremely unpleasant. She will become less tolerant of petting, not more.
If your cat bites, stop touching him and ignore him for 5 or 10 minutes, or however long it takes for him to relax again. If he’s on your lap and still irritable, stand up slowly and he will jump off.
Use the moment to learn what triggers your cat. Does she enjoy petting in certain spots, but react negatively to others? Does she seem to enjoy petting for a certain amount of time before growing irritated? Become an observer of your feline friend, and use that information to inform your next petting session. The end result of truly listening to what your cat is communicating can only be a deeper, and more mutually satisfying relationship between the two of you.
 Smith, Casey. “Cats Domesticated Themselves, Ancient DNA Shows.” National Geographic, 19 June 2017, www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/06/domesticated-cats-dna-genetics-pets-science/.
 “Petting-Induced or Overstimulation Aggression in Cats.” HSHV, 18 July 2018, www.hshv.org/petting-induced-or-overstimulation-aggression-in-cats/.
 Finka, Lauren. “Here's the Best Way to Pet a Cat, According to Science.” LiveScience, Purch, 24 July 2019, www.livescience.com/66013-best-way-to-pet-your-cat.html.
 Little, Anthony C. “Manipulation of Infant-Like Traits Affects Perceived Cuteness of Infant, Adult and Cat Faces.” Ethology: International Journal of Behavioural Biology, 25 May 2012, alittlelab.com/littlelab/pubs/Little_12_infant-like_Eth.pdf.
 Shreve, Kristyn R. Vitale, et al. “Social Interaction, Food, Scent or Toys? A Formal Assessment of Domestic Pet and Shelter Cat (Felis Silvestris Catus) Preferences.” Behavioural Processes, Elsevier, 24 Mar. 2017, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0376635716303424.
 Ramos, D., et al. “Are Cats (Felis Catus) from Multi-Cat Households More Stressed? Evidence from Assessment of Fecal Glucocorticoid Metabolite Analysis.” Physiology & Behavior, Elsevier, 7 Sept. 2013, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031938413002771.
 Delgado, Mikel, et al. “Do Cats Really Hate Petting?” The Berkeley Science Review, 4 Dec. 2019, berkeleysciencereview.com/2013/11/do-cats-really-hate-petting/.
 Becker , Dr. Marty. “Four Places to Pet Your Cat - and One to Leave Alone.” Vetstreet, 21 Nov. 2012, www.vetstreet.com/dr-marty-becker/four-places-to-pet-your-cat-and-one-to-leave-alone?page=2.
 “Petting-Related Biting.” The Anti-Cruelty Society, anticruelty.org/pet-library/petting-related-biting.