How to Pet a Cat: The 3 Basic Dos and Don’Ts

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Image of a person petting a cat.

When we think of adopting a cat, we humans conjure wonderful images like a cuddle with our new kitty on the couch. Off we go and find this beautiful creature.

We bring her home, only to realize that those imaginings of our new cat and attempts to pet are met with tail swishes, scratches, or nips at times. Why, oh why, can it be so hard to pet a cat?

First, Not All Cats Like To Be Petted

Enjoyment of petting often has a lot to do with socialisation and handling at an early age (under 8 weeks old). Often, we wouldn’t have even met our pet cat before this age, never mind getting them used to handling and petting.

So if it’s important to you that you have a cat that enjoys being petted, find out from the breeder or welfare organisation whether your potential pet has had positive handling as a kitten. If not, and the kitten or cat appears overly cautious, this may not be the kitty for you.

Additionally, some kittens are born to very shy mums who fear people. This fearfulness can be learnt by the kittens too. Being gentle and taking things slow are important if you were to adopt a shy cat or kitten.

Genetics also play a role in how much a cat wishes to interact or not. A study was done where it was found that bold sires were more likely to have bold kitten offspring. These are the little kittens that are more likely to be outgoing and adventurous, hence less fearful of interactions with people.

DO: Find out about your potential cat’s history. If he is overly shy or fearful, he’s less likely to readily accept pats. If he’s been handled gently at a young age, he’s more likely to enjoy petting. And if your kitty has a friendly, bold dad, then he is more likely to be outgoing too.

DON’T: Don’t expect shy or fearful cats to enjoy petting just because you are wanting to be kind to them. It’s important to think about interactions from the animal’s perspective.

If a cat is fearful and we continue to try to approach or pet, even when they’re showing us that they’re scared or don’t want to be petted, then they’re going to be even more fearful the next time.

Second, Things May Change

All cats’ behaviour is influenced by genetic background, previous learning, and present circumstances. We’ve already seen how genetics and early life experiences affect behaviour, so it’s important to take note of previous experiences as well as what is happening right now.

If a cat is squeezed tight, or hurt during petting, we can expect that it is going to be nervous and want to avoid that situation again. Having this pattern repeated over and over is even more likely to result in future fearful and aggressive behaviours.

Ensuring that handling is always gentle and considerate helps us avoid situations that a cat would perceive as unpleasant.

We can also expect that a cat may not feel like being petted right now because it’s wanting to do something different or is just not in the mood.

How Do We Know if Our Feline Friend Is Enjoying Being Petted?

A cat who enjoys being petted is more likely to approach, lean into the scratches, and rub scent glands on her face into your hand. She may show bunting, kneading, and purring. Cats may also turn for long strokes along the cat’s back or scratches near the base of the tail.

How Do We Know if A Cat Is Not Enjoying Petting?

Some cats avoid human interaction, show fidget behavior, or make openly aggressive displays. Why? Some cats just don’t want to have a snuggle right now and would rather enjoy some fun playtime instead.

Factors affecting a cat’s present behaviour include: feeling too hot, being in a noisy environment, feeling hungry or thirsty, feeling unwell or painful, or just tired and wanting to go to sleep.

DO: Pay attention to your cat’s body language. This is the most accurate information at that particular point in time as to whether your cat will enjoy petting or not.

DON’T: Force your cat to accept pats. This will end badly and may set up a pattern of interactions for the future when your cat is going to be more wary of you approaching.

How to Pet Your Cat

Image of a happy cat.

Many cats enjoy being petted underneath their chins and in other areas around the face.

Places to Pet Your Cat

Often, we cat owners make the mistake of thinking that cats are like mini dogs that should enjoy all the affection that we are willing to dish out to them. This is a mistake, for both dogs and cats.

Just as we have areas that we are comfortable touching and being touched by others, animals have those areas, too.

Cats are generally more likely to enjoy scratches near the sweet spots: under the chin, around the back of the ears, sometimes the top of the head, and long strokes along the back of the body.

This doesn’t mean that they will be comfortable with all people giving them scratches though, just as we don’t necessarily feel comfortable with being hugged by complete strangers on the street.

Pay Attention to Your Cat’s Body Language

We also need to be aware that some cats may enjoy petting for a longer time than others, just as we would feel comfortable with a pre-covid handshake rather than a long embrace when meeting someone new.

Paying attention to body language like a stiffened body, shifting weight away or a tail beginning to twitch, tells us that the cat has had enough and now is the time to stop.

DO: Offer scratches around the head, base of the ears, and under the chin. Stop before your cat becomes agitated or annoyed. Short and sweet is always better than drawn out and annoyed.

DON’T: Attempt to pet every cat you come across. Not all cats enjoy scratches or pats from unfamiliar or even familiar people. Do not attempt to scratch a cat’s belly!

This is a “no-go zone” and is more likely to be met with a scratch or bite if someone tries to pet this vulnerable area.

What’s Important to Remember About Petting a Cat?

Image promoting pet insurance for cats.

Watch for signs that your cat is interested in interacting and not attempting to avoid contact. Scratches around the head and neck, and perhaps long strokes along the length of the back are places cats generally prefer touch.

Keep sessions short and pleasant for the cat and always stop before your cat looks uncomfortable or attempts to move away.

Lastly, if you notice a change in your cat’s behaviour during a petting session, i.e. she usually enjoys pats but now appears painful, agitated, or is avoiding contact, there may be something more going on and you should get in touch with your vet.

Also Read: What Your Cat’s Tail Can Tell You

Frequently Asked Questions

How does a cat like to be petted?

Cats generally like scratches around the head, neck and behind the ears. They may enjoy long strokes along the back of the body. Do not attempt to scratch the belly or legs – these are places that cats do not generally enjoy being touched.

How do you get a cat to let you pet?

Slow and considerate should be your approach. Pay close attention to your cat's body language and stop before the cat appears agitated or tries to move away. Offer scratches around the head and neck. Do not force a cat to interact by backing them into a corner, attempting to give a belly rub and definitely do not squeeze them tight to try to hold on to pet them.

Where do cats not like to be petted?

Do not try to pet a cat’s belly, even if it is lying on its back. This is an area where they feel very vulnerable and is more likely to be met with a scratch or bite.

How can I please my cat?

Offer your cat pats on it’s terms i.e. when the cat wants a pat or feels like having a scratch. This way he or she is more likely to approach you again for another scratch at a later date.

View Sources

The impact of paternity and early socialisation on the development of cat' behaviour to people and novel objects. S McCune - Applied Animal Behaviour Science 1995

Friendliness to humans and defensive aggression in cats: the influence of handling and paternity. IR Reisner, KA Houpt, HN Erb, FW Quimby - Physiology & Behavior 1994

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About Bronwen Bollaert, BVSc MSc MANZCVS (Veterinary Behaviour)

Dr Bronwen has worked as a vet in behaviour practice, general practice, zoo medicine, research and welfare over the last 19 years. She has always been fascinated by animal behaviour and this interest has grown into managing behaviour patients in her dedicated Veterinary Behaviour practice in Brisbane, Healthy Pet Behaviour Services. Dr Bronwen is fascinated by how animals' minds function; how their development, environment and learning all interact to influence the way they behave. Seeing how animals can grow from terrified and nervous, with gentle and appropriate care, to enjoying life is very rewarding.

14 thoughts on “How to Pet a Cat: The 3 Basic Dos and Don’Ts

    1. small mallory photoMallory Crusta

      Hi Sharon, what you’re struggling with is a common issue! Many cats tend to wake up earlier than their humans would like them to. If you’d like to encourage your cat to stick to a different routine, you can refer to the tips in this article.

    2. Susan saraulla

      I had this problem when I retired after getting up at 5:00 am for many years . Cats get used to a routine and can be very demanding Try not reacting to the cats demands and whatever you do dont feed the cat if it wakes you up early . Try to ignore her . It will take time.

  1. Lisa Dovey

    Hello-I really appreciated this article. We adopted 2 -7 week old kittens who were abandoned by their mother at 3 weeks old in a yard. Happened to be a vet tech so they were taken to the clinic where she worked and kept there during the week, staff played with them and on the weekends different people took them home. They got a lot of human attention. They don’t like to be picked up much but as soon as we got them we would hold them briefly and sat them down.. We can hold them for longer periods now. They did roll over and seemed to enjoy belly rubs from us and this started the day we brought them home. We have continued to do belly rubs and one of them seems to want this done-is this wrong? They are not sitting on our laps but will come and sit next to us sleep in the same room or spend time in bed with us at night. They are now 4 1/2 months old.. Are we on the right track?

    1. small mallory photoMallory Crusta

      Yes! Yes, you are on the right track. Absolutely. It sounds like you’re doing everything right—exposing them to new things like picking them up for short peroods of time, giving them belly rubs within their boundaries, and respecting their needs when it comes to sleeping near, but not on, you. This is what raising kittens should look like. Keep up the good work, and here’s to many years of happiness with these kitties!

  2. Diane Granville

    I think it’s important to recognize that it’s almost impossible to make generalizations when it comes to cats. The sweet spots are usually ok. But I have discovered strange things over decades of assorted kitties. Common wisdom is to stroke a cat with the fur, not against it. One guy liked to have me vigorously scratch up and down his back. Nothing else was stimulating enough. One cat rolls over for belly scratching. He stretches out as far as he can reach and waits. When he’s had enough, he’ll let me know with gentle bunny feet. And it’s rare that I come across a cat who doesn’t enjoy a few moments of base-of-the-tail scratching. Elevator butt. Of course there are always the kitties who will only permit you to scratch the top of the head for exactly 17 seconds.

  3. Michelle Gardiol

    My Siamese absolutely loves having his lower belly rubbed. I call it his jelly belly but it’s the section that hangs to protect their intimate areas from predators. Anyway Solo loves having this section rubbed and played with so much that if I try and move further up to his chest or chin or even his ears he will move my hand back down by using his paw to tell me nope I want the lower belly rubbed only. It’s hilarious as he will sit like a kangaroo as well so I can get to his belly.
    Goes to show the love and trust he has in me.

  4. Mo

    Desperately in need of articles on how to play with declawed cats who are SO limited and cannot grasp MOST toys to play. My Bengal is quickly bored with MOST cat & human baby toys. I am constantly trying to fabricate toys she can ‘bat’ on the end of a long shoestring; buy her sparkly fabric craft balls but she doesn’t like chasing ANY toy& was bored with the flopping fish stuffed w/catnip. How can i entertain my Bengal with no front claws (sadly)? She seems to need an obstacle course to ambush and run but i have only an 8 ft. tunnel. She doesn’t even use her cat treeS xcept rarely. She NEEDS entertainment but i can’t seem to satisfy her. Grateful states r FINALLY outlawing this heinous practice of inhumane declawing or amputation, as I call it; shame on ANY vet who performs this crippling severing. Thx for your informative articles; i read them all!

    1. small mallory photoMallory Crusta

      Hello Mo, thank you for the comment! This is a great question. I wonder if your Bengal would enjoy going out for walks with a harness and leash—a little bit of outdoor adventure would give her that “obstacle course” without demanding that you purchase a network of toys and barriers for her. Bengal cats have a lot of energy and tend to be great on a leash, so I imagine the two of you could have a great time out there!

      1. Mark

        Try those rings that are under the cap of a gallon milk jug. I have had cats go nuts with them. The cat will learn to fling it themselves and then chase it. There’s always a pretty irresistible laser light toy. Recommended for cats but don’t use on dogs. Dogs will obsess over it where cats will forget about it and move on to something else. That ring from the milk jug is also effective when attached to a string and stick like you’re going fishing.

  5. Lisa

    Most important thing is to let a cat sniff your fingers first before you try to pet them, This will tell them so much about you and let them know you aren’t just all about what YOU want. LOL


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