How to pet cats properly and why you’ve been doing it wrong

A tabby cat being petted
(Image credit: Getty)

We all think we know how to pet cats - how hard can it be? And our feline friends definitely like what we’re doing, right?

Apparently not. According to Dr Lauren Finka, a cat behavioral expert at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Animal Rural & Environmental Sciences, there’s a good chance your cat is only humoring you, and actually may not like this particular brand of attention at all.

“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,” said Finka to Science Focus. “They’re probably just very tolerant of it because of the benefits a relationship with you brings – think of all the food, treats, and attention you give them.” 

According to Finka, petting on the back near the tail produces the most negative response. The belly is also to be avoided, as is the navel, as cats have evolved to protect these areas, and may see touching them as a threat.

So where’s okay to pet them? The face is good - namely the cheeks, base of the ears, and under the chin. These are the areas where they produce scents, so may like to have these areas stimulated. As regards how you do it, there are a number of steps to take.

How to pet cats properly

  1. Gently offer your hand, and let them approach you. If they want to be touched then they’ll rub against you.
  2. Pause every four or five seconds when petting. If they rub against you for more, then carry on!
  3. Pay attention to their body language – if they stop purring, move away from you, flatten their ears, lick their noses, shake their head, start grooming themselves, or sharply turn their head to face you or your hand, then these could be signs to stop.

Follow this advice, and your cat might appreciate the attention that bit more! 

Steve Wright

Steve writes and proofreads buying guides, news stories and advice for Pets Radar, drawing on his lifelong experience as a pet owner. Currently sharing his house with two cats and a dog, he draws on the many highs and occasional lows of pet ownership he has borne witness to in his writing. He has worked in publishing for 15 years as an editor, sub editor and writer on a range of titles, such as SciFiNow, How It Works, All About History, Real Crime and Horrorville. You can follow him on Twitter @stevewright22