There are a few things in the world that are near-impossible to resist. Money. Power. Sour gummi worms. But the most tempting of all- the shining, beautiful, oh-so-soft bait we all know we must try with all our might not to allow to seduce us… is the belly of the cat. We are here to save you by informing you how to pet a cat (and keep your fingers!).
We know what will happen. We all know. It’s a venus flytrap and our hands are the hapless insect. But when that blessed and cursed time comes and the cat shows us their belly, do we do the smart thing and simply admire it from afar? Of course not. It’s worth the pain.
Mercurial as our feline overlords can be, though, the art of petting a cat is one of respect and understanding. Your cat has their own boundaries, preferences, and opinions. They’re living creatures. Of course they are- it would be a little weird to love a stuffed animal this much, right? And I don’t know about you, but I definitely have times, places, and situations where I do not want to be touched. What might be appropriate or acceptable for, say, my physical therapist, would be most unwelcome from a stranger on public transit. Why shouldn’t cats be allowed the same autonomy?
Cats are independent-minded, to be sure, and there’s no question that they are agents of chaos. But there are reasons behind some of their common snuggle preferences and understanding those can help you to strengthen your bond with your cat and build trust.
GOOD: The Cheeks. I mean, who can resist that sweet little face anyway? Cats have scent glands in their cheeks and chin and, apart from just feeling good for the cat, rubbing their face on things deposits their scent. Your cat may rub their faces on you or on all kinds of various surfaces in order to scent mark. It’s a way of staking a claim to things and of making them smell familiar. When they rub their face on you, it’s a way of saying “I like this one. This one’s mine.” Even Southern Living gets it.
BAD: The Tail and Butt. “Do not touch someone’s bottom without their consent” is a good rule of thumb in general for all species. I will assume you already know why a cat might not want their actual under-tail area messed with (despite their weird habit of shoving their buttholes in people’s faces), but what about the tail itself? Cats’ tails are delicate pieces of machinery, used for balance and communication, and they’re sensitive. There are a lot of muscles and nerves that go into making those tails talk the way they do. Also, the tail is a vulnerable spot, so if a cat doesn’t feel entirely safe in their surroundings, they may be especially on alert and take touching their tail as a threat.
GOOD (most of the time): Above the Tail. Have you ever stroked a cat down the back and had them do the “elevator butt” move when you get to the spot just above the base of their tail? Some will get really into it and start marching their back feet, rubbing their faces on every surface, and weaving back around to beg for more if you stop too soon. Have you ever wondered what they think is so great about butt scratches? Cats’ spinal cords end before the tail and there’s a bundle of nerve endings right in that area, making it a very sensitive area. Most cats love being scratched there, but those who don’t tend to REALLY dislike it, so keep an eye on your individual kitty’s reaction.
BAD: Anywhere… After They’ve Had Enough. Some cats give subtle signals and some give clear ones. Some will escalate gradually, while others seem to go from “this is great” to “get away from me!” in the blink of an eye. Part of being a good companion to an animal you love is learning to look for signs that they’re uncomfortable and, even more so, learning to give them their space without taking it personally. Yes, they are cute and furry and perhaps the whole reason you got them was so that you could hug them and squeeze them and name them George. But if you want your cat to trust you, you have to show them that they CAN trust you. And in the end? Not every cat (or dog or person) enjoys cuddling. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you. Watch for other signs of affection and trust, such as sleeping nearby, slow blinking, meowing at you, or trying to instigate play. Bonding happens in a lot of different ways and it’s not always obvious.
GOOD: Understanding Your Own Cat as an Individual. My cat? Well, she’s a little unusual in a lot of ways, but she absolutely loves having her belly rubbed. But if you touch her around her scruff and she can’t quickly get away? Well, if you ever decide to try it… I’ll make sure to tell your family that you loved them. The closest accurate thing to a blanket rule regarding what cats do and don’t like is simply, “cats are weird.”
Weird, cuddly, violent, social, lazy, shy, sweet, wild, or all of the above apparently at random, cats are amazing companions. So flex your fingers, find your kitty, and let the bonding commence!
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Janie founded 4-Legged Kids, Inc in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1997 and provides education through her PetBizHIVE podcast and her PetBizMBA membership and courses. She is a Certified Professional Animal Care Operator, Fear Free certified and a Certified Professional Pet Sitter. Learn more about the Founder, Janie Budnick.