How to
pet a cat
How to pet a cat (c) 2011- 2017 Frania Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved

Cats are the number one pet in the United States, second only to dogs in pet lovers’
affections.  We like our cats so much, that those of us who live with cats typically live
with more than one. To share your home with a cat is to know just how very special
cats are, that feline combination of composure, self-indulgence and "purrs-for-pets" is
certainly not of the canine world.  Cat lovers know cats appreciates feline friendly
handling but exactly what signs should you be looking for to make sure that the
attentions are welcome or not?

Your feline friendly approach begins by considering the cat point of view.  To do this,
take your cues from how cats greet each other:  Friendly cats raise their tail (“tail up”)
and greet nose to nose.  Close affiliates may rub along the flank or bunt heads as they
greet.  Cats may signal affiliation with a slow blink, a tail tipped toward a welcoming
cat and any number of welcoming vocalizations.  These behaviors may be combined or
not, they may be fleeting or repeated.  The more you observe cats greeting each other,
the easier it will be to recognize social greeting behavior and to indentify what degrees
of friendship or standing are being signaled
.   
A study done on a Roman cat colony showed that  tail up was more often used by lower
ranking cats towards more dominant individuals and might serve as a signal of
amiable intentions, a recognition of social order and to hinder hostile behavior. Female
cats were found to be more likely to initiate the greeting sequence with tail up and
rubbing towards males while the males were more likely to initiate nose to nose
greeting towards females.  There is a tremendous amount of communication going on
between cats --they already know what it means, we’re the ones who have to figure it
out.

Our interactions with our cats can be a stand in for greeting postures when we stroke
along the side of the muzzle or along the flank of a cat we know very well.  Keeping it
feline friendly confines the touching to the head and face initially.  Stroke along the
sides only of the cat you know appreciates flank touching.  The same goes for petting at
the base of the tail.  Grooming each other (allogrooming) is another way cats bond
socially and this too is mostly concentrated on the head.

Ready?  Follow these steps for successful cat petting:

  • Start by announcing your presence.  When you enter the room or approach the
    area where the cat is say hello and use the cat’s name in your greeting.

  • Approach from the side and avoid direct eye contact on your approach.

  • Do not bend over or loom over the cat.  Sit next to the cat or bring yourself down
    or close to cat level.

  • A slow blink in the cat’s direction may be welcomed (and watch for a blink back
    to know your technique is working).

  • Offer your hand from below (so the cat can track where it is coming from) and
    pause so the cat may sniff it.  A sniff is a good invite to go further.

  • Confine your petting to one or two strokes along the side of the muzzle, behind
    the ear or between the ears.  Remember to keep it to one or two strokes initially;
    unless you know this cat well or the cat bunts your hand in return—in those
    cases a few more strokes are bound to be welcome.

  • Do not pet alongside the flanks or at the base of the tail during initial cat
    encounters.

  • Belly rubs are not welcomed by most cats.

  • Petting is not always what a cat wants.  Cats may seek out affiliates for social
    proximity or physical contact.

  • Pay attention to cat body language at all times, flattened ears, whiskers pulled
    back, tail flicking, lip licking and rippling muscles are all signs that petting is
    not welcome at that moment. If you see any of these it’s time to stop and try
    your approach on a different occasion.

The relationship you are cultivating with your cat takes time to nurture and develop.  
Take the time to allow your cat to trust you and you have a forever friend.

References
Cafazzo S, Natoli E. (2009) The social function of tail up in the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus).  
Behavioural Processes. (1)60-6
(Maria Gray)  This is not the way to hold a new cat. The cat in this picture
is tolerating the hold, notice the ears rotated outward and stiffened front legs.
Request a consultation
(Maria Gray)  This is a variation on a correct cat hold.  The cat is held
close to the body, the hindquarters supported.  Familiarity permits
the arm across the chest and the cat appears relaxed and content.
(copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen)  This former feral (note the clipped
right ear) is cautious in who she trusts.  This type of cat benefits from
being held against the body with the chest and hindquarters securely
supported.  Always be careful to hold gently and not grip.
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