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How to pet a cat the right way

The essentials

  • Read a cat’s body language before petting them — A cat may be more receptive to being petted if they’re exhibiting positive body cues like purring or a relaxed posture.
  • Some cats prefer being rubbed more than others — Every cat is different, but generally between the ears, under the chin, and down the back are an affectionate cat’s favorite petting spots, while the tail, legs, and belly are off-limits for many.
  • Ease into petting your cat — “Introduce” yourself to your cat by getting on their level and letting them come to you.

With their soft fur that rivals even the cushiest of pillows, it’s hard to resist giving your cat a good rub when they’re near you. Some cats welcome it, while others may have their reservations. Regardless of where your whiskered friend stands on being touched, cat owners should be aware that there is a right way and a wrong way to pet their favorite feline.

Not all kitties are the same, and you’ll get to know your specific cat’s preferences. Let’s dive into the specifics.

Pay attention to your cat’s body language

When it comes to petting a cat, body language is key. Our favorite fur babies are excellent communicators and can tell you a lot if you know how to listen. You’ll need to pay close attention to their movements, posture, and behaviors to assess whether or not they’ll be receptive to petting.

Signs your cat is enjoying being petted

Cats can be notoriously difficult to read, and some breeds like ragdolls and Persians are known to be more affectionate than others. So how can we tell if they’re up for a gentle rub? Here are body language cues to look out for that indicate your cat is enjoying getting pets:

  • Purring. While cats sometimes purr to communicate stress and sickness, it is more commonly a sign of happiness and affection. In addition to being cute, purring can lower blood pressure and reduce stress for cats and owners alike.
  • Kneading. Often referred to as “making biscuits,” kneading is an instinctive behavior in which cats will move their paws up and down against an object, person, or fellow pet when they feel at ease.
  • Slow blinks. Have you ever noticed your cat slowly opening and closing their eyes when looking at you? This is usually considered a sign of trust.
  • Relaxed posture. Maybe your cat has saddled up to you and exposed their belly. Or maybe they’ve formed a “loaf” position with their front and back legs and tail tucked under their chest. A relaxed posture is a good indication that your cat is enjoying being petted.
  • Vocalizing. Your cat may audibly communicate their satisfaction with you. A cat’s meow can just as easily be a sign of contentment as it could be a sign of stress or hunger. To understand the difference, you’ll have to look towards other body language cues they’re doing in conjunction with the noise. Consult your vet if vocalizations persist.

Signs your cat doesn’t enjoy being petted

While some behaviors like biting or running off are clear indications that your cat does not want to be pet, other cues may be more subtle. If your cat exhibits any of these signs while you’re petting them, stop immediately:

  • Hissing. More often than not, hissing among felines is a bad thing. This is often your cat’s warning to back off, and you should listen.
  • Tail position. Similar to dogs, cats will tuck their tails when they’re nervous. They also may make their tail stick straight up to appear more threatening to others. Rapid tail movements can also signal stress or overstimulation in cats.
  • Pawing. If your cat pushes your hand away with their paw while you’re petting them, you can probably guess what that means. Take their cue and pull your hand away.
  • Head jerking. In some cases, your pet may seem relaxed, but then they whip their heads towards you or your hand when you start petting them. This probably means you’ve startled them and should stop until they’ve relaxed again.
  • Slanted ears. Sometimes referred to as “airplane ears,” cats will flatten their ears and stick them out to the side when they’re angry or anxious.
  • Biting and scratching. Perhaps the clearest sign your cat doesn’t want to be pet is if they bite you or scratch you with their claws. This will likely be their last resort after you’ve ignored other cues.

👉 If your cat is demonstrating aggression or other bad habits, read our training guide for curbing unwanted cat behaviors.

How to properly pet your cat

So how exactly should owners go about petting their furry friends safely? It’s important to let your cat call the shots and interact with them on their terms. If you don’t ease into it, you could catch your cat off-guard and give them a negative association with contact or training. Follow our detailed guide for the best way to begin giving your feline pal a rub.

1) Introduce yourself

You may know it’s best to introduce yourself to a dog before you touch them, but did you know the same goes for cats? To do this, crouch down low so you’re on their level, and then slowly hold out two fingers towards their snout. Once your cat has had a chance to smell you, they may let their guard down and start “bunting,” a behavior in which they rub their head against your hand, face, or elsewhere. This is a cat’s way of exchanging scents through the glands in their head.

Or, they may just scamper away, and that’s fine too! Your cat could just not be in the mood for interacting at that particular moment. Don’t force it by following your cat around and sticking your fingers in their face, as that can end up making them even more resistant to being petted, and might even lead to an aggressive response. Be patient and try again another time when they may be more receptive to contact.

2) Let your cat come to you

Once you’ve introduced yourself, your cat may decide to come closer. Keep in mind that just because your cat is approaching you, it doesn’t mean they’re ready to be petted. You need to consider the body language cues discussed above. There’s a big difference between rubbing up against you and purring, versus walking over with a raised tail and slanted ears. Give them a chance to feel out the situation and relax before you start engaging with them further.

3) Pet your cat in the right places

When you’re ready to start petting your cat, it’s important to know which areas cats generally prefer to be touched, versus spots they get fussy about. It is believed that cats have a sweet spot for areas of their body where their scent glands are located, around their head.

Of course, every kitty is unique, so you’re going to want to gauge their body language to suss out their favorite places to be rubbed, and which parts are off-limits. For example, while one area may be commonly considered a spot cats like to be stroked, a condition like arthritis might make it a sensitive spot in your individual cat.

These are generally the best places to pet a cat:

  • Under the chin. Gently rub or scratch your furbaby directly below their jawbone.
  • Between the ears. Cats also tend to enjoy soft rubs on top of their heads between or behind their ears at the base.
  • Cheeks. Softly rub your cat on the side of their face behind the whiskers. If the whiskers point out, this is considered a sign of relaxation, whereas inward whiskers can indicate agitation.
  • Back. Cats often prefer to be stroked in the direction of their fur, as opposed to back and forth. Run your hand from their forehead down to the base of the tail while applying gentle pressure.

4) Know when enough is enough

While you may naturally want to stroke your cat’s fur for hours on end, you should be careful not to overdo it. Monitor your kitty’s body language the whole time so you can get a sense of when they start to seem “over it.” Your cat may communicate they’re ready to wrap up the petting session by shifting positions, stopping their purr, or inching away from you. When this happens, stop petting them so they don’t develop negative associations with it.

Do cats like being petted?

Cats have a reputation for being aloof and independent creatures. But the truth is, they crave attention more than you may think, even if they have a funny way of showing it sometimes. They are social creatures that often enjoy nuzzling and grooming fellow cats. While they know people aren’t cats, they will turn to them for similar interactions, whether in the form of contact, talking, or simply being around.

Petting a cat has been shown to benefit owners by reducing stress , improving cardiovascular health, and normalizing anxiety levels. It also benefits cats, as the action of being petted mirrors the action of being groomed by their mother or fellow kittens in their litter. In some cases, spending quality time with a cat can ease their depression and help them maintain a healthy immune system.

For many pet parents, the chance to pet their little furball is the reason they wanted to be a pet parent in the first place. If you’re careful to read their body language and not rush into it, you are not only setting yourself up for success but also setting your kitty up for bountiful rubs!

Frequently asked questions

How do you pet a cat properly?

To pet your cat properly, let them come to you and read their body language to ensure they’re receptive to being petted. Cats generally prefer being pet on their heads between their ears, their cheeks behind their whiskers, under their chins, and along their backs.

What not to do when petting a cat?

Don’t pet a cat that is exhibiting aggressive or standoffish body language cues, like a tucked tail or hissing. When petting them, avoid areas they generally don’t prefer to be touched, like the belly, tail, legs, and paws.

How do cats show love?

Some of the things cats do to communicate love and affection are purring, kneading, slow blinking, and rubbing their heads against their human’s head, hand, or other body parts.

What are the benefits of petting my cat?

Petting a cat mimics the grooming and rubbing they would get from their mothers or other kittens in their litter. For humans, it can reduce stress and anxiety, and improve heart health.

Why won’t my cat let me pet them?

If your cat isn’t being receptive to your petting, don’t force it or they’ll develop a negative association with petting and may resort to aggression. You can get your cat used to you by “introducing” yourself on their level with a couple of fingers extended towards their nose so that they get used to your scent, and then wait for them to come to you.