There are at least four cat "dos" and at least one big "don't" when it comes to petting pleasure: Go for the scent glands. Before you reach out to caress an unfamiliar cat, however, make sure that she's open to your affection. While you may see it as a chance to bond and share love with your feline friend, some cats are shy or skittish, and are genuinely afraid of being touched. Petting is an aggressive and frightening action for them, and they may run and hide, hiss, bite or attack your hand. Watching your cat's body language will indicate how she is feeling, letting you slowly train her to enjoy petting. Once she is used to you and ready to cuddle, her personality will let you know her favorite petting places.
Look Before You Pet
Each cat is different, and may have differing triggers for their source of fear or anxiety. When your cat shows any signs of indecision, hesitation, fear or aggression, stop attempting to pet her, and give her some space. Never hold your cat against her will, or hug her tightly in an attempt to comfort or control her: This is more for your physical well-being than hers. Not only may you soon sport the scars of this lack of foresight, but you will set back any positive socializing.
Cat Scratch Fever
Let your cat come to you, and simply reach out a hand as she passes. Start slowly, on the hindquarters of your cat. With the most skittish cats it's important to let them know that your touch is not meant to harm them. Back off at any of these signs of fear and aggression:
- Ears flattened
- Whiskers pulled back
- Hissing or growling
- Holding up one paw
- Striking a paw
- Lying down, immobile
- Wide eyes
- Poised on one paw, ready to run.
Don't rush your cat through the stages of learning to be touched. As tempting as it is to speed up socializing once she begins to respond positively, going too fast impedes her training.
If your kitty's fearfulness does not change through extended efforts, check with your vet to make sure she is in good physical condition. Sick cats are often anxious, aggressive and not willing to be touched.
As your progress continues, be encouraged by the small victories, such as responding to treats, or her name. After some time -- the length of which depends upon the cat -- her body language will change. Instead of fearful, she'll be indecisive and nervous. This is indication that things are getting better, and the signs include:
- One ear back
- Lip licking
- Both ears forward with a rigid body
- Some hissing
- Looking away
- Pressing against another object; a couch, wall or cage, for example.
Every time your cat makes a positive step forward, reward her with a favorite treat or toy. She'll associate you with good things, making her more likely to want to spend time in your company. You can tell when your cat is curious and approachable by these body language moves:
- Blinking at you
- Forward whiskers
- Both ears up
- Touching her nose to you
- Lying down with tucked paws
- Rubbing her head against objects, other animals or you.
Some cats may take months or never make the leap into fully socialized behavior. Their fear of you does not mean that your home is bad for them. A safe, secure home where they are fed and loved provides the best space for a skittish cat, even if she does not immediately show her affection.
That Sweet Spot
When looking for that special spot that will turn your fuzzy friend to blissful butter, try the scent glands first.
When your cat is rubbing her face over your couch, your feet and your hands, she's attempting to mark you with her scent. According to veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker of Vetstreet in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, this action makes her content, and is a great place to start when petting a friendly cat. These locations can be found at the:
- Base of the chin: Stroke her along the bottom of her head, where her jaw connects to the rest of her skull.
- Base of the ears: "Bunting" is when your cat headbutts you, demanding attention and scent-marking you. Scratch and rub at the very base of the ears, and get ready for some crazy purrs.
- Cheeks: Right behind the whiskers is a major scent gland. While this isn't a favorite spot of all cats, you can tell that yours likes it if she rotates her whiskers forward to accommodate your scritches.
- Base of the tail: It may not be the most pleasant to suddenly have your cats rear end in your face, but she is likely looking for pets that go down her back and add pressure toward the base of her tail.
For all of these great petting spots, however, be aware that there is one part of a cat's body that you should not rub: their bellies. Even if the most precocious kitten goes tummy up in play, putting your hand on soft kitty stomach is an almost surefire way to get kicked, bitten and scratched. Of course, there are always fluffy exceptions to the rule, but perhaps don't risk your fingertips to find out.
Perhaps the best thing to keep in mind while working on bonding with your feline friend is to pay attention to her moods, and to let her have the space she needs. Don't chase her down to cuddle; let her come to you on her own time. When she does, you'll have the proper information to pet the places she'll like best: a little insider kitty information.