My first cat and me

How to stroke a cat: 5 useful tips How to stroke a cat: 5 useful tips

How to stroke a cat: 5 useful tips

Before learning how to stroke your cat… 

No doubt you’ve heard of cats who absolutely love being stroked, but the truth is that not all of them do. To understand the reasons why, it’s worth looking to the past and remembering the origins of the three million cats who, according to the statistics, are now sharing our homes in this country. 

Today’s domestic cats are all related to a distant wild ancestor in Africa, felis silvestris lybica, a subspecies of the bobcat. 

The cat was only domesticated around 4,000 years ago. Although that may seem like a very long time, in the history of evolution 4,000 years is the blink of an eye. This is why domestic cats still retain considerable genetic similarities with their wild ancestors. 

You’re probably asking yourself why we’re telling you all this, when all you want to do is stroke your cat! Well, it’s because your cat has a lot more in common with his wild ancestors that would at first appear to be the case. As feline ethologist Lauren Finka explains: 

‘A domestic cat’s brain is still programmed to think in the same way as a wild cat’s does. And wild cats lead solitary lives, spending a good deal of time and effort on indirect communication, using visual and chemical messages in order to avoid needing to form close relationships.’ 

So by definition, cats are not animals that are ‘programmed’ for direct physical contact. Which of course is in direct contrast with human beings, who are highly social animals.

For people, closeness and contact are signs of affection. For cats however, they are not. And this difference is the product of the genetic evolution of each of the two species. 


Instructions on how to stroke a cat

Now that you know that your furry friend is much closer to a wild cat than you ever suspected, you’re ready to understand that the first thing to bear in mind when you want to get affectionate with your feline is: 

The objective should always be for both sides to enjoy - the stroker and the stroked as it were. 

Taking this as a starting point, we’re now going to look at some more detailed instructions on how to stroke a cat: 

1. Your cat should always be able to choose, and to control interactions. 

It’s about observing your cat to see whether or not he’s feeling like accepting your affection when you approach him, and above all leaving him to himself when he decides that he’s had enough. 

In fact it’s very likely that interactions last longer when it’s the cat who initiates them, rather than the person. 

2. Never stroke him by surprise

Following the same reasoning as in the previous point, remember that one of the norms to be respected when considering how to stroke a cat is to allow him to choose whether or not he really feels like being stroked. So don’t upset him with unexpected displays of affection, or rather don’t be surprised if he’s simply not interested at that moment in time.  

3. Choose which parts of the body you decide to stroke well

In general, the areas that give cats most pleasure when being stroked are where their facial glands are: 

  • The base of the ears
  • Under the chin
  • Around their cheeks

However, they’re not generally so keen on having the tummies, backs or the base of their tails stroked.

4. Don’t corner your cat, or tell him off when he won’t let you stroke him. 

Now you know that felines don’t use the same language as we do, and that direct physical contact is not their natural way of showing affection. So the best advice we can give on stroking cats is always to understand and respect this. 

5. If your cat seems tense, stop stroking him. 

It’s best if he doesn't get to the point where he shows signs of being uncomfortable, but if he has and you haven’t realised, just stop touching him and take note for next time. You’ve crossed his tolerance threshold, so next time you'll just need to be a bit more careful. 

Signs that your cat’s enjoying himself 

  • His tail’s up, and he’s the one initiating contact. 
  • He’s purring or or kneading with his front paws..
  • His tail’s upright and he’s gently swishing it from side to side. 
  • His body language and facial expression are relaxed - for more about feline body language and what it means, take a look at our article on the language of cats. 
  • If you stop stroking him, he pushes at your hand to ask for more. 

Signs that you cat’s uncomfortable

We’re now going to list some of the main signs of stress that you need to learn to watch out for when you're stroking your cat. Note that they’re equally valid for noticing tension in any other situation or everyday interaction. 

  • He tries to escape or moves his head away from the person who’s stroking him. 
  • He lashes her tail from side to side.
  • His ears are back, or flattened against his head.
  • He doesn’t purr, or seek physical contact.
  • He licks his nose or shakes his body.
  • He suddenly starts grooming himself.
  • He blinks in an exaggerated way. 
  • He tightens his spine.
  • His hackles rise.
  • He bites or scratches the hand that’s stroking him. 

Some cats react aggressively to being stroked, others tolerate it, although they don’t like it. You need to bear this in mind as there are studies that show that inhibited cats who allow themselves to be touched but don’t like it have higher levels of stress than those who simply refuse to accept the contact. 

Why some cats just don’t like being stroked

Part of the explanation goes back to the origins of the cat as we've seen, but there is also another determining factor.

The time between two and seven weeks of age is what’s known as the ‘socialisation period’. If during this time his contact with people is negative, or even non-existent, it’s very likely that he will perceive human beings as a threat.  


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