How to stroke your cat
While you may love stroking and petting your favourite feline, they may not feel quite the same way. Cat behavioural experts suggest we need to take time to understand our pets better so we can figure out when they do – and don’t – want a show of affection.
Question: What’s the best way to stroke your cat? Answer: Probably not the way you’re doing it. And, if you’ve been an ailurophile (cat lover) all your life who knows quite a bit about cat body language, cat behaviour and even cat psychology, this news will probably come as a bit of a shock...
Do cats like being stroked? Can it really be true that all the stroking, petting and signs of affection we shower upon our beloved felines is really only tolerated by them?
That’s the conclusion of new research conducted by cat behavioural expert Dr Lauren Finka. In BBC Science Focus magazine, she explains: “Although some cats certainly do like a lot of petting, lots of them probably don’t want to be stroked the way that we would usually prefer to do it. They’re probably just very tolerant of it because of the benefits a relationship with you brings – think of all the food, treats and attention you give them. In short: if you suspect your cat only puts up with your fondling to nab another bite of dinner, you’re probably completely right.”
This might sound a little cynical, but, with more than a decade’s experience working academically with felines, Dr Finka knows what she’s talking about. As well as being a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Nottingham Trent University, she’s also a specialist consultant for Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and a works with International Cat Care and the International Society for Feline Medicine on various behaviour and welfare projects.
DID YOU KNOW?
Cats often lick other cats and animal family members to show their affection. According to animal behaviourists, if your cat licks you, it’s their way of showing they really like you.
Dr Finka reveals that the areas being stroked that produce the most negative behavioural responses from cats include the base of their tail and alongside the lower back and belly. This is because a cat’s vital organs are exposed at their navel, so they’re likely to see touching this area as a threat.
She continues: “With this said, there is a lot of variability in what cats enjoy. This is based on their personality, but also their early experiences. Cats that are well handled and socialised by humans from a young age – particularly during the ‘sensitive’ period of two to eight weeks of age – are usually more likely to enjoy handling. However, just because you have a friendly cat doesn’t mean they love being mollycoddled and squished. Even if a cat is meowing and rubbing against you, it doesn’t mean they’re fine with any sort of handling. You need to pay attention to their body language.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Although kittens meow to their mothers, adult cats don’t meow to other cats – probably because their mothers stopped responding once they were weaned. Grown up felines reserve this vocalisation purely to communicate with humans.
The wildcat within
Clint Witchalls, Health and Medicine Editor at The Conversation explores the cat/human affection conundrum, stating: “Many of us will have experienced that super friendly cat who seems to love being stroked one minute, only to bite or swipe at us the next. It might be easy at this point to blame it on the cat, but what’s likely happening here is that we’re just not stroking them right.
“To understand why this might be, we first need to know a bit more about kitty’s ancestry. It’s likely that the domestic cat’s ancestors (the African wildcat) were regarded as mere pest control, but modern-day cats are often treated as our valued companions or even ‘fur babies’. This social shift in the human-cat relationship is thought to have occurred around 4,000 years ago – a little later than ‘man’s best friend’ – the domestic dog. Although this might seem like a sufficient amount of time for a species to fully adjust to increased social demands, this is unlikely to be the case for your feline friend. Domestic cats also display relatively modest genetic divergence from their ancestors, meaning their brains are probably still wired to think like a wildcat’s.”
And it’s this that’s key to understanding the way our pet cats react. Witchalls continues: “Wildcats live solitary lives and invest considerable time and effort communicating indirectly – via visual and chemical messages – just to avoid having to see each other. So it’s unlikely that domestic cats inherited many complex social skills from their relatives. Humans on the other hand, are an inherently social species – favouring proximity and touch during displays of affection. We are also drawn to infantile looking features – large eyes and forehead, a small nose and round face – this is why most of us find the faces of cats so cute. It’s not surprising, then, that our initial reaction when we see a cat or kitten is to want to stroke, cuddle and smush all over them. Though it should also come as no surprise that many cats can find this type of interaction a little overwhelming. Whether cats make good ‘fur babies’, then, is very debatable. Lots of cats do like being touched, but lots probably don’t – and many tolerate it at best. Ultimately though, when it comes to cats, it’s important to respect their boundaries – and the wildcat within – even if that means admiring their cuteness from afar.”
Your Cat magazine agrees, suggesting we can take our cue from watching the way bonded cats act together: “It seems that long sessions of petting are not part of natural cat behaviour. Friendly contact between cats is usually short – they will rub against each other or twine tails for a few moments then move apart. Even if they groom each other, long sessions may end in a spat when one of the cats decides he has had enough.”
Spotting the warning signs
Understanding your cat’s body language is key, or you could end up with a full claws out swipe. As Dr Finka advises: When it comes to petting, it’s best to remember that cats as a species aren’t inherently social or tactile.” There are subtle signs of annoyance – or, as feline behavioural experts call it, ‘negative arousal’ – to look out for.
“When annoyed, cats might very sharply turn their head towards our hands. Or they may turn their heads to look at us. They might also simply freeze or stop actively encouraging the interaction (such as stop purring),” says Dr Finka. “Normally, when they’re doing this, they’re going to have ears that are not pointing directly forward – they might be slightly rotated or flattened. You may also notice nose licking, head shaking, alongside a sudden burst of grooming or rippled fur. A moving tail (either thrashing or twitching) held horizontally or close to the ground is also usually a negative sign (while a vertically raised tail is normally associated with ‘positive arousal’). These relatively subtle indicators are happening quite often in many cats I observe being touched, but people usually tend to not focus on them – or misinterpret what they actually mean.”
DID YOU KNOW?
If your cat slowly blinks while looking at you, then that means they love you as they trust you enough to close their eyes in your presence. If you want to show them you love them too, try returning the gesture by slow blinking back.
What’s the best way to stroke a cat?
Thankfully, there are areas where cats prefer to be petted and if you stick to areas around their face – the cheeks, the base of the ears and under the chin – your feline friend should quite enjoy it. “This is probably because these areas of the face contain a lot of skin glands that produce scent,” reveals Dr Finka. “Cats are very motivated to use these areas to spread their scent, so these regions probably intrinsically feel quite nice to be stimulated.”
However, every cat is an individual and your fussy feline may enjoy being stroked in other areas. Signs of enjoyment or ‘positive arousal’ include purring, rubbing against you, kneading and gentle tail waving side-to-side.
To help cat guardians to make the right stroking moves, Dr Finka has created some guidelines, currently being researched for the benefit of felines at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. And these couldn’t be easier to remember:
C: Provide the cat with choice and control during the interaction
A: Pay attention to the cat’s behaviour and body language
T: Think about where you’re touching the cat
Gently offer your hand to the cat, allow the cat to approach you, and let them choose if they want to interact or not. If the cat wants to be touched, they will rub against you. If they don’t make contact, avoid stroking the cat. Allow the cat to control how much you stroke them. If stroking the cat, briefly pause every three to five seconds to ‘check in’ with the cat – when you stop stroking them, do they rub against you to ask for more? If not, they may be ready for a break.
That’s enough now
Signals that your cat would rather you refrain from petting and stroking them include:
- They go a bit still and stop purring, leaning in for strokes or rubbing against you
- They sharply turn their head to face you or your hand
- Their ears become flattened or rotate backwards
- They shake their head
- The fur on their back appears to ripple
- They lick their nose
- They suddenly start grooming themselves, lasting only a few seconds
- They move away from you (and you can talk to the tail...)
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Cats are ‘obligate’ or ‘true carnivores’, which means they must eat meat to survive and thrive. Obligate carnivores require nutrients found only in animal flesh and, while they might be able to ingest small amounts of plant matter, they’re not able to fully digest it.
- Cats have a very specialised digestion, with a small intestine that’s only about three times the length of their body.
- Their stomach secretes digestive juices that act primarily on meat.
- As strict carnivores, cats have high protein requirements and their metabolism appears unable to make essential nutrients such as retinol (Vitamin A), arginine (an amino acid), taurine (an organic compound found in animal tissue) and arachidonic acid (a polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid).
- In order to get these essential nutrients, a cat has to eat meat.
The optimum diet for your cat is one that supplies the correct number of calories and balance of nutrients for their size, life stage and lifestyle. This means calculating the nutrient content and dietary components such as protein, fat, carbohydrate and vitamins and minerals required. This is what our expert team of nutritionists do when we create our delicious recipes. Burgess Cat Food is a complete food. This means, whatever variety you choose for your cat, it will contain all the nutrients they need in the correct balance.
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