How to Actually Pet Your Cat, Because You're Probably Doing It Wrong

A scientist shares her tips.

Petting a Cat
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Despite their reputation for being aloof, there are plenty of cats that enjoy human touch—well, on their own terms, at least.

Sorry cat lovers, but if you've ever stroked a seemingly friendly feline only to have it swipe at you without warning, it's more likely that the issue is with the way you're petting than with the animal itself.

Lauren Finka, a doctoral student specializing in the behavior and welfare of domestic cats, recently outlined proper cat-petting procedure with The Conversation. To understand why kitties don't always crave physical touch, she starts by pointing out that cats were domesticated just 4,000 years ago—later than dogs became man's best friend. Though that may seem like more than enough time to adjust to touch-happy humans, studies have shown that domestic cats display only a modest genetic divergence from their ancestors, meaning their brains still work a lot like their solitary ancestors.

Furthermore, science has shown that human interaction is something cats have to learn to enjoy, and this learning must take place during their short "sensitive period," which occurs when they are between just two and seven weeks old. Even then, many cats simply tolerate petting in exchange for food and lodging.

According to Finka, the key to cat-stroking success is to "focus on providing the cat with as much choice and control during interactions as possible." That means leaving it up to your feline friend to indicate whether they want to be stroked or not, and letting them control where we touch, and how long for. Research has found that interactions with cats tend to last longer when the cat, not the human, initiates them. Not surprisingly, when it comes to cats, less is also more.

As for where to stroke, Finka said that most friendly cats enjoy being touched around their facial glands: at the base of their ears, under their chin, and around their cheeks. Cats often don't enjoy being touched on their stomachs, backs, and at the base of their tails.

It's also important to understand when your cat is digging your touch—and when you should really stop… like, now.

Signs your cat is enjoying an interaction include an upright tail; purring and kneading with their front paws; and gentle nudges if you stop stroking. A sharp sudden turn of their head; biting, swiping or batting your hand away with their paw; flattened ears; and a thumping tail are all telltale indicators that your stroking isn't appreciated.

WATCH: Science Says Being a Cat Lady Is Good for Your Health

"Lots of cats do like being touched, but lots probably don't—and many tolerate it at best," Finka concluded. "Ultimately though, when it comes to cats, it's important to respect their boundaries—and the wildcat within—even if that means admiring their cuteness from afar."

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