How To Pet A Cat

By Allegra Ringo
Man stroking cat's head
credit: KandM-photography/iStock/GettyImages

If you've owned a cat or simply been within ten feet of one, you probably know that cats are fickle creatures. They force you to play by their rules, especially when it comes to petting them. These rules may seem arbitrary or hard to guess, but luckily, there are a few fairly consistent ones that you can follow to make sure the cat you're petting is as happy as possible.

Where to pet.

Among cats' many funny behaviors is the habit of rubbing their faces along surfaces like table corners and couches. The good news is that this behavior can serve as a guide for where to pet your cat to make them happy. Cats rub their faces on furniture (as well as people) to spread their scent, which is pleasing to them because it makes their environment smell familiar.

Cats enjoy being petted on the areas where their scent glands are concentrated. (These are the areas they're rubbing against your couch, bed post, or legs.) These spots are:

  • Cheeks
  • The base of the chin
  • The base of the ears
  • The base of the tail
Child's hand stroking head of white cat
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If your cat has ever pressed any of these spots against you, they're marking you as "theirs." Aww, your cat loves you. Scratching or gently petting these areas usually feels good to cats, as they're the areas they naturally rub against other things (and people) to spread their scent.

Where not to pet.

Although there are certainly exceptions, it's safest to avoid petting a cat on the belly. According to Dr. Marty Becker, DVM, this is because "while dogs are generally pretty secure in their identity as a predator ... cats have to be more careful when they're on the prowl," because they are both predator (to small rodents) and prey (to large predators like coyotes). So cats may be more protective of their bellies, which house important organs, than dogs are.

Of course, there are exceptions, and some cats may enjoy a belly rub. However, when petting any cat for the first time, it's a better bet to avoid the belly area.

Person scratching a cat's chin
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Words of warning.

As you probably know, all cats are different, and petting preferences can vary from cat to cat. This article can serve as a guideline, but of course, won't be true of every cat. Always respect a cat's preferences — they'll let you know what they like and don't like!

Are you ready to dive further into the mysterious world of feline behavior? Start with this article about how to tell if a cat likes you and then scroll through our guide about interpreting a cat's body language.