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 aloof, 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 kitty's signals and end up touching her the wrong way or in a spot where she doesn't like to be touched.
Let's say, for example, she rolls around on the floor and exposes her tummy. This is her way of showing that she trusts you. If you try to rub your cat's angelic belly fluff, however, she'll probably respond with a scratch or a bite. You may think (with good reason) that your cat hates you, or that it's her way of telling you she doesn't want to be petted at all. In reality, she's telling you that she just doesn't want you to pet her right there, right now. Some cats do love a good belly rub, explains Petful, but you have to approach it with finesse, and only when she's calm and relaxed.
In 2013, a study from the journal Physiology & Behavior 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 animal's anxiety. (The experiment actually looked at how cats that live alone experience stress differently from those in multi-cat households.) Petting can comfort your kitty, 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 her favorites. 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 her preferences.
When approaching your kitty, the most important trick is to allow her to take the lead, Animal Planet's Jackson Galaxy tells Petcha. Let your cat sniff your index finger and touch her nose against it first. If she wants to cuddle, she'll push her face against your hand and direct you to her ears, chin, or wherever she wants to be petted. Going slowly will create a more relaxed, warmhearted environment. If she starts nudging you with her head or rubbing her cheeks against your body, it's a good sign, says Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. "Bunting" behavior is how cats transfer the scents in 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 her up. Be sure to secure all four of her legs so that they don't dangle. If she feels safe in your arms, she'll be more inclined to stay there. If she squirms and wants to get away, set her 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 her personality or upbringing. If a kitten isn't socialized with humans at an early age, she may be reluctant to accept affection. She may also need more coaxing if you adopt her as an adult and don't know her backstory. You can acclimate your kitty using some of the strategies above, but some cats simply don't enjoy being picked up, preferring to be a nestle-next-to-you cat instead of a lap cat.
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 a belly rub).
Christine O'Brien is a writer, mom, 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.