Why you're stroking your cat completely wrong (and how to do it right)
Fun fact: your cat probably hates the way you're currently petting them.
What’s the best way to stroke a cat? Answer: probably not the way you’re doing it. Although you may think petting is a proven way to bond with your moggy, there's no guarantee they'll enjoy this physical contact.
As Dr Lauren Finka, cat behavioural expert from Nottingham Trent University, explains: “Although some cats certainly do like a lot of petting, lots of them probably don't want to be stroked the way that we would usually prefer to do it. They’re probably just very tolerant of it because of the benefits a relationship with you bring – think of all the food, treats and attention you give them.
"When it comes to petting, it’s best to remember that cats as a species aren’t inherently social or tactile."
In short: if you suspect your cat only puts up with your fondling to nab another bite of dinner, you’re probably completely right. Particularly if you’re consistently touching their back end.
“Granted, we know limited amounts about this from a scientific perspective. Although people often think cats like being stroked at the base of their tail, research suggests that this can actually produce the most negative behavioural responses from cats,” says Finka.
Alongside the lower back, Finka advises staying away from the belly, with your cat having evolved to keep this area protected. A cat’s vital organs are exposed at their navel, so they’re likely to see touching in this area as a threat.
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“With this said, there is a lot of variability in what cats enjoy. This is based on their personality, but also their early experiences. Cats that are well handled and socialised by humans from a young age – particularly during the ‘sensitive’ period of two to eight weeks of age – are usually more likely to enjoy handling,” says Finka.
“However, just because you have a friendly cat doesn’t mean they love being mollycoddled and squished. Even if a cat is meowing and rubbing against you, it doesn’t mean they’re fine with any sort of handling. You need to pay attention to their body language.”
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So, what subtle signs of annoyance – or, as feline behavioural experts call it, “negative arousal” – should you look out for? “When annoyed, cats might very sharply turn their head towards our hands. Or they may turn their heads to look at us. They might also simply freeze or stop actively encouraging the interaction (such as stop purring)” says Finka.
“Normally, when they're doing this, they're going to have ears that are not pointing directly forward – they might be slightly rotated or flattened.
“You may also notice nose licking, head shaking, alongside a sudden burst of grooming or rippled fur. A moving tail (either thrashing or twitching) held horizontally or close to the ground is also usually a negative sign (while a vertically raised tail is normally associated with 'positive arousal').”
“These relatively subtle indicators are happening quite often in many cats I observe being touched, but people usually tend to not focus on them – or misinterpret what they actually mean.”
What is the best way to stroke a cat?
As you might have guessed by now, there’s a lot you can do wrong when stroking a cat. However, there are areas where friendly cats may be most likely to enjoy being petted: around the face – predominantly, the cheeks, the base of the ears and under the chin.
“This is probably because these areas of the face contain a lot of skin glands that produce scent,” says Finka. “Cats are very motivated to use these areas to spread their scent, so these regions probably intrinsically feel quite nice to be stimulated.”
Of course, your cat, being the absolute weirdo it is, may also enjoy being stroked in other areas. If in doubt, looking for “positive arousal” signals: purring, rubbing against you, kneading and gentle tail waving side-to-side are all good signs.
Overall, when it comes to stroking your cat, it may be best to consider Finka’s petting guidelines (currently being researched for the benefit of felines at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home).
And you’re not going to believe the acronym it follows…
C: Provide the cat with choice and control during the interaction.
- Gently offer your hand to the cat, allow the cat to approach you, and let them choose if they want to interact or not.
- If the cat wants to be touched, they will rub against you. If they don’t make contact, avoid stroking the cat.
- Allow the cat to control how much you stroke them. If stroking the cat, briefly pause every 3-5 seconds to ‘check in’ with the cat – when you stop stroking them, do they rub against you to ask for more? If not, they may be ready for a break.
A: Pay attention to the cat’s behaviour and body language; the following are also signs that the cat may need a little break:
- They go a bit still and stop purring, leaning in for strokes or rubbing against you
- The cat moves away from you
- Their ears become flattened or rotate backwards
- They shake their head
- The fur on their back appears to ripple
- They lick their nose
- They go a bit still, and stop purring or rubbing against you
- They sharply turn their head to face you or your hand
- They suddenly start grooming themselves, lasting only a few seconds
T: Think about where you’re touching the cat.
- Most friendly cats will prefer being touched under their chin, around their cheeks and at the base of their ears, so try to stick mainly to these areas.
- Avoid the base of the tail and tummy, and be cautious then touching the cat’s back, legs and tail – pay close attention to their body language to see if they appear comfortable.
Follow this guidance and, who knows, your cat may come to truly love you. Well, enough to cross your off their lengthy ‘humans that must be destroyed’ list anyway.
Dr Lauren Finka is a cat behavioural expert from Nottingham Trent University. She has over a decade’s experience working academically with felines.
Finka is also a specialist consultant for Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and also works with International Cat Care (ICatCare) and International Society for Feline Medicine (ISFM) on various behaviour and welfare projects.
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Thomas is Digital editor at BBC Science Focus. Writing about everything from cosmology to anthropology, he specialises in the latest psychology, health and neuroscience discoveries. Thomas has a Masters degree (distinction) in Magazine Journalism from the University of Sheffield and has written for Men’s Health, Vice and Radio Times. He has been shortlisted as the New Digital Talent of the Year at the national magazine Professional Publishers Association (PPA) awards. Also working in academia, Thomas has lectured on the topic of journalism to undergraduate and postgraduate students at The University of Sheffield.
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