How to pet a cat (c) 2011- 2019 Frania Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved
What is the best way to approach and pet a cat? 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?
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.
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 identify 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
- 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
Take a closer look at this live. 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
Cafazzo S, Natoli E. (2009) The social function of tail up in the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus). Behavioural
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(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.
(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 (see
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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