Curling up with a cat for a cuddle is a wonderful part of any day. You probably think you know how your cat likes to be pet and cuddled but would you listen if they tried to tell you something different? How often do you ask them what they want?
Listening to and respecting your cat’s preferences about interacting with you (and others) is about more than treating them kindly. Giving them choice and control in their life can lead to other benefits. Cats that can say “yes” or “no” about being touched may become more tolerant, more social, and better behaved. It’s a small but powerful part of giving your cat their best life.
What Do (Most) Cats Like?
In 2014, research by Dr. Sarah Ellis (University of Lincoln) found that cats preferred petting around their head and under their chin. The tail was a no-go zone for most cats in this study. The stomach wasn’t included in the testing, probably because the researchers valued their hands! Also of note, many of the cats participating in this research chose to walk away from the person petting them at some point during the interaction.
So science and observation tells us that cats usually prefer petting around their head and neck, under their chin, and behind their ears. Petting all the way down their back can trigger a reaction in some cats and most cats prefer you avoid their tail and belly. Gentle stroking is less likely to cause a negative reaction than hard scratching or vigorous rubbing. Short interactions might be better than longer ones.
But Does Your Cat Like That?
Those are the preferences of the “average” cat but, of course, your cat isn’t average. Your cat is special and unique and loves when you rub their belly and carry them like a baby. Or do they? The best way to find out what your cat really likes is to ask them!
Pet your cat for a few strokes and then stop. What do they do? If they rub against you, sniff your hand, or otherwise get closer you know they were enjoying the experience and would like it to continue. On the flip side, if they move away, twitch their back, or flick their tail, they may prefer a different type of interaction. Try touching different areas and in different ways to see if your cat shows a preference.
All cats will appreciate being able to tell you what they want but, in particular, nervous or sensitive cats will benefit from this. Often our cats have to escalate their behavior to hissing, growling, swatting, or biting to get us to understand what they are saying. If you practice looking for signs that they are uncomfortable and giving them the choice to say “no”, you can prevent many of those issues. A cat that previously avoiding touch may be comfortable with a short petting session once they learn that they can control the interaction.
If Your Cat Says “No”
It can be disappointing to want to pet or cuddle with an animal who doesn’t want to interact with us. It’s very tempting to keep trying to see if you can win them over. With cats though, this usually backfires and leads to the cat racing away (and possibly scratching in the process).
If your cat tells you they don’t want to be pet in a particular way, consider different ways of petting them. Some cats will even show you by moving that body part under your hand. Build trust by petting gently a few times at first, then giving the cat a choice again. As they get used to this new way of being treated, many cats begin to allow and enjoy more petting.
There are also other ways of enjoying your cat’s company if they don’t want to be pet right now. Play is a great way to bond and help your cat feel safe and relaxed. Teaching tricks for treats is fun and can be very useful (imagine your cat going into a carrier on cue!).
Most cats will have preferences not just about how they are touched but about when, where, and for how long. If your cat says “no” now, they may be perfectly happy to cuddle later. But if forced now, they may learn to avoid you or be less tolerant later.
By listening to and respecting your cat’s preferences about petting and cuddling, you can form a more trusting bond. Over time, your cat may become more comfortable with more touch because they know you will listen if they ask you to stop. Asking your cat what they want is easy and will benefit both of you!
If you want to learn more about helping your cat enjoy pettin, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.