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If you’re unsure how to pet a cat (i.e., maybe you didn’t have cats around growing up), it can be helpful to bear in mind that petting is a grooming activity. Grooming each other is how cats bond. Of course, each cat will have individual preferences, but the fact that it’s a grooming thing gives you two basic places to start:

  • Scratch areas that the cat has difficulty reaching, like the chin and upper throat, behind the ears, or the the very top of the head. (Watch the body language here - you’ll know if you pick the wrong spot right away.)
  • Work your fingers deeply into areas of thick fur where tangles are likely to form, like around the shoulderblades or the ruff of the neck. (You may come away with a handful of loose fur; this means you’re doing it right.)

Also, if you’re unsure of how to approach, try extending your hand with the palm up and the fingers relaxed for the cat to sniff. It’s the cat equivalent of a handshake - cats sniff each other to see where they’ve been, and for humans, it’s the hands that carry our scent history, since we touch everything constantly.

It’s kind of amazing watching all the folks who didn’t know that petting is a grooming behaviour come to the realisation that cats lick you because they want to pet you back.

Another thing you can do with skittish cats is offer your *closed fist*.

A cat that is shy of an open hand that can grab may approach a closed hand that they don’t perceive as trying to grab them. (Needless to say, don’t actually grab them, please.)

They bonk against your hands (and your head, if they are at head level) the same way they bonk against one another’s heads. It’s a friendly greeting that often ends in friendly cats turning and licking each others shoulders, necks, and ears a few times.

They scent mark by rubbing their faces on things. Their cheek glands produce a pleasant-smelling (to them, we can’t smell it) pheromone that projects friendship and reassurance. When they scent mark you like this, it is a friendly gesture.

So with this in mind, try letting the cat bump your fist, then gently rub the fist past the side of their face as they rub their face against your fist. Think of your fist like a cat’s head, and you are scent marking them back. You are sharing a friendly gesture.

A worried cat may warm up after a few passes of this, and you may be able to pet the neck and back of the head. The under-chin/throat area can be a little dicey. They don’t casually kiss each other there.very often and it can make them feel vulnerable.

Rolling over to show the tummy does not always mean the same thing it means for dogs. Unless you know the cat, be very careful touching the tummy. It might not be an invitation. It might be a readiness posture.

Digression: cats don’t show submission by rolling. Rolling is a defensive maneuver that prepares them for possible combat with other cats by putting their most powerful weapons – their teeth and back claws – into play simultaneously. They fight other cats by hugging with the front legs, biting anything they can reach, and kicking with the incredibly strong hind legs. It is an advantageous position for fighting/play fighting, lets them see all around them AND above, where humans usually approach them from, and it keeps them from getting pinned on their bellies, unable to retaliate. If they need to, they can flip and run away easily because cats are FAST.

So yeah, some cats love tummy stuff. Some hate it and just want you to admire from afar. A gentle hand placed on their tummy should tell you whether they want actual pets there or not. If they stretch or open up their body language, that’s good. If they tense or “sit up” to look at your hand, that’s not good. Stop petting and go back to the head.

Obviously if they grab your hand and rabbit-kick and bite, then you should not pet them there.

Some cats have a hair trigger. Sorry about that.

You can also pet them without moving your hand, just hold it out and let them rub against it. This will give you a good idea of where they like to be touched and how hard and for how long.

Very shy cats, once they realize you are willing to pet them without grabbing, may really come to enjoy approaching you.

We have a cat like this. If you let him see you respect him by not over-petting, he will rub against your hands and legs for a long time.

The moral is that cats are not inconsistent jerks, it’s just that we misinterpret their body language.

It’s also that we do not respect their boundaries when they present them, because we, as humans, want to be allowed to pet all soft things, and, somewhat spoiled by dogs, who love it nearly unconditionally, we unreasonably expect it of cats, a very very different animal.

If you want a cat to come back for more, don’t push yourself on them. They will remember you are a Cool Human and will come back for more.

(Also, speak softly.  Cats usually really hate loud people.)


I have had 3 cats for an excess of 5 years, and I feel ashamed to say I knew almost none of it ;-;

Do not feel bad, friend!  I, an Old Person, did not know most of this until the last handful of years!  And I have had cats since I was an infant.

The information about the belly, particularly, was only explained to me a few months ago.  I knew they had this behavior, but did not know WHY.  Now that I know, A LOT of cat behavior makes a lot more sense.  And if you love the fact that cats are murdering little carnivores like I do, it’s actually COOL.

I have since done research for a writing project that led me to look up some videos featuring wild mountain lions and jaguars fighting with (not just hunting, but actual fighting) other animals.  (Don’t do this if you are even slightly squeamish.  It’s potentially really upsetting.)

Especially with animals half their size you’d think they’d just jump on and and hold them down.  No.  Discounting a couple of beautiful Ezio Auditore insta-kills that happened in mere seconds, they grabbed and rolled every single time.

Grisly but it seems to prove the theory as it was explained to me.  It’s an ingrained, instinctive response, and it is a combat response, not a hunting one.

When you pet a cat and it hugs your arm and kicks and bites, playfully I hope, that is what they are doing.  It’s play combat.  Or, if you push your luck, actual combat.

I’ve had a berserk-angry cat full-on latch onto my arm and attack me with its back legs, holding on tight enough that I was able to lift it up off the ground to shoulder-height while it ripped at me with its back claws (it was upside down and still using its hind legs – cats have incredible core muscles).  Even a housecat can be a terrifying opponent.  Do not mess with an angry cat.  If I hadn’t been wearing a VERY thick leather jacket and it hadn’t gotten me behind the wrist, I would have wound up in the emergency room getting stitches and antibiotics out the wazoo.

I love cats, I love them more than anything, but I don’t fuck with ‘em.

Additional tip for shy or wary cats: don’t face them directly; angle your body away from them slightly and rather than looking right at them, look a little bit past and to the side of them, while holding yr hand out away from yr body for them to come sniff. It feels less confrontational to them while still signaling invitation to come close.

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