How to
pet a cat
How to pet a cat copyright (c) 2021 Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

What is the best way to approach and pet a cat?  Cat lovers know cats appreciate
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

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 with an outstretched finger 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

  • 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.

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 friend.

Cafazzo S, Natoli E. (2009) The social function of tail up in the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus).  
Behavioural Processes. (1)60-6

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Cats are not uncomfortable being held upside down due to their righting reflex
(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
This a better way to hold a cat you know
(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.
This is the right way to hold a cat
(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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