You should pet your cat with sensitivity, respect and in a limited way. Although domestic cats generally like the same areas to be petted, each individual has their natural limit to how much they will enjoy or tolerate it. You can’t automatically presume that a domestic cat will always enjoy being petted for as long as you want to do it.
There are two limits to petting (1) the vigour with which you pet your cat including the amount of force applied and (2) the length of time that you pet your cat. Both limits can be detected from your cat’s response. The general guideline is to employ a light touch and do it for a limited time. This avoids play stimulation and/or irritation.
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Cat owners generally know by now, thanks primarily to a wealth of information on the internet, that cats generally like being stroked on the head, neck and back including the shoulders. My cat particularly likes the back of his head to be stroked. I flea combe him every day on the sides of his face, at the back of his head, on his shoulders and at the base of his tail. He thoroughly enjoys it. It is an alternative to the conventional petting i.e. using your hand or fingers, and it has a secondary purpose.
Domestic cats aren’t impressed if you try to touch their legs, tail or stomach which are the most sensitive parts of their body. This is dependent upon the individual cat, however. Some cats will allow the stomach to be petted. Mine does for instance. Although it should be done with sensitivity and in a limited way. You can gauge the reaction by looking at your cat’s expression and body language. Sometimes cats invite their stomach to be petted – gently. It has to be gently otherwise you stimulate a play reaction which can include a bite.
How do you know if your cat wants you to stop petting him or her? You can tell by general demeanour and body language but it can be quite subtle. They say that if a cat’s tail is swishing from side to side this may be an indicator and it probably is. You may have gone past the point of acceptance at that time! Excluding feline hyperesthesia (a medical conndition), if the back of your cat momentarily ripples it can be a sign of irritation. Some authors say that if a cat puts their ears back it’s a sign that they are out of patience. I’m not sure about this advice because cats put their ears back when they are listening behind them or as a preliminary to a fight in order to protect the ear flaps.
The best way to gauge how long you should pet a cat is to know that there are limits and to play safe and do it for a duration of time which is well within those limits. Petting should always be gentle and respectful, as mentioned. You will learn your cat’s likes and dislikes through observation. Gentleness is a byword. Respecting the cat as a cat and not a baby is a good guide. Craddling a domestic cat like a baby with the belly up is ill-advised.
One expert says that when you pet a cat you should do it in a way which imitates a cat’s tongue by which they mean you use the pad of your finger rather than the palm of your hand. I’m not sure about this either. I think domestic cats relate to us as large animals and therefore the pseudo-lick from us which is the stroke of our hand comes from a large animal and therefore they accept the hand of a person as the tongue of another animal. Consequently they accept the hand stroke as a lick. The back of the hand can be more gentle as it is more flexible.
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