How to pet a cat

By 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 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. (Continue reading below)

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. Soft, "elevator" voices work for cats vs the higher pitched tones we use around dogs. Less said the better around cats.

  • - 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 encounters.

  • - Friendly gestures cats may offer include head butts or bunting and social rolls (dropping and rolling to the side). These are not invitations for belly rubs. Not sure about that? Watch cats displaying these behaviors around each other. Notice no belly rubs. .

  • - 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.

Go slow to go fast with cats. Build trust by tossing treats to or past where the cat is - the idea being not to force them to advance to take the treat. If the cat is not stressed (flattened ears, flicking tail, whiskers back, etc.) by your presence, sit alongside (not too close) and read softly out loud a paragraph or two from a good book about cats.

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 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

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