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A few years ago, the journal Frontiers in Psychology confirmed what pet parents already knew: that positive interaction with animals reduces stress in humans. This is great news for your health and longevity, but if you have a cat, you may wonder if the feeling is mutual. Do cats like to be petted? Do cats like to be held as much as we like to hold them?
If you do it correctly, the answer is yes. Many cats, despite the common and persistent myth that they are not friendly, welcome affection from their people. In fact, petting and holding your cat helps build a loving relationship between the two of you.
Approaches to Petting
Petting your cat can be a tricky business. It's easy to misread a cat’s signals and end up touching them the wrong way or in a spot where they don’t like to be touched.
Let's say, for example, that your cat rolls around on the floor and exposes their tummy. But when you try to rub their angelic belly fluff, they respond with a scratch or a bite. Cats Protection explains that rolling on their back is your cat’s way of showing that they trust you. However, for most cats, it’s not an invitation for a belly rub! If you’re met with a scratch or bite, you may wonder if your cat hates you, or that they don't want to be petted at all. In reality, they're just telling you that they don't want you to pet them right there, right now.
In 2013, a study from the journal Physiology & Behaviour was widely misrepresented as proof that petting cats stresses them out. John Bradshaw, director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol, England reassures National Geographic that it was something in the cats' lives and not the act of petting that contributed to the animals' anxiety. (The experiment actually looked at how cats that live alone experience stress differently from those in multi-cat households.) Petting can comfort your cat, so go ahead and snuggle up.
Head, Shoulders, Cheeks and Nose
So, in which places do cats like to be petted? The head, chin and neck are often their favourites. While some cats enjoy having their tails touched, others will recoil and even experience pain from a tail stroke. Take it slowly, paying close attention to your cat's reactions to your touch and always respecting their preferences.
When approaching your cat, the most important thing is to allow them to take the lead. Let your cat sniff your index finger and touch their nose against it first. If they want to cuddle, they'll push their face against your hand and direct you to their ears, chin or wherever they want to be petted. Going slowly will create a more relaxed environment. If they start nudging you with their head or rubbing their cheeks against your body, it's a good sign. "Bunting" behaviour is how cats transfer their scent, via their cheek glands, to beloved surroundings and family members.
In addition to being petted, do cats like to be held? Sometimes. Most cats love to snuggle, and they're typically responsive to being held if you introduce them to it gradually. The best way to approach your cat for a hug is to start with a few soft pets, then carefully pick them up. Be sure to secure all four of their legs so that they don't dangle. If they feel safe in your arms, they'll be more inclined to stay there. If they squirm and want to get away, set them down gently and try again later. Learning to snuggle takes baby steps (and occasionally a tasty reward for not mauling your arms on the way down!).
Does Breed Matter? What About Age?
Don't be alarmed if your cat resists physical attention. It may just be part of their personality or upbringing. If a kitten isn't socialised with humans at an early age, they may be reluctant to accept affection. They may also need more coaxing if you adopt them as an adult and don't know their backstory. You can acclimate your cat using some of the strategies above, but some cats simply don't enjoy being picked up, preferring to be by your side instead of in your lap.
Building trust is a gradual process in any relationship. When you invest your love and affection, you'll be rewarded with a feline best friend (and maybe even the opportunity to give a belly rub).
Christine O'Brien is a writer, mum, and long-time cat parent whose two Russian Blues rule the house. Her work also appears in Care.com, What to Expect, and Fit Pregnancy, where she writes about pets, pregnancy, and family life. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien.