There’s a very wide spectrum of feline sociability. At one end, you have those very aloof and skittish kitties (often rescues or semi-feral cats) who reject all attempts at physical contact with a hiss and a swat. On the other, you have those loving cuddle-bugs who simply cannot be pet enough. Petting, stroking, scratches, tickles — they just love it. Some cats will want to climb onto your lap for snuggles. Others, like my British Shorthair, prefer to sit nearby and graciously accept pets. When you think about it, the cat’s desire to be petted by a human seems a little odd. Where does it come from?
Why do cats like being pet? Cats enjoy physical contact because they’re fairly social animals. In the wild, feral cats live in loose colonies. They display behaviours like mutual grooming and co-sleeping. Petting your cat is a stand-in for the mutual grooming they would have engaged in with other cats.
You’ve arrived on this page because you have questions about cat behaviour. Why do cats like being pet? Why do some cats enjoy petting and not others? Why do cats like to be petted in certain spots and not others? Can you persuade a shy cat to let you pet her? Why do cats scratch you after petting? What can you do if a cat wants to be pet too much and won’t leave you alone?
Keep reading, because we have the answers you’re looking for. You’ll learn all about feline affection and how to pet your cat without getting scratched.
Why Do Cats like Being Pet?
Despite their reputation as solitary and aloof creatures, cats are actually quite social animals. Feral cats living wild will naturally drift into loose colonies, typically watched over by a matriarchal older female. In these colonies, cats often play, scuffle, groom each other and sleep together for warmth and safety.
They may share duties, such as hunting for sick and injured colony-mates, or watching over and even nursing another cat’s kittens. Nuzzling and rubbing between cats helps to transfer pheromones between cats, which allows colony members to recognise each other through scent.
It’s no wonder, therefore, that many cats absolutely love being petted by humans. Stroking and patting are very similar to grooming and nuzzling from other cats. The sensation is pleasant and reassuring, helping your pet to relax and feel secure. Petting and other affectionate interactions can be highly beneficial for many cats, especially those who are anxious and insecure.
Some cats are more fond of being handled than others. My British Shorthair adores being stroked and having his ears scratched, but prefers to sit or stand next to me rather than sitting on my knee. On the other hand, my little domestic shorthair will always try to get into my lap whenever I sit down and will mew plaintively until I stroke here and tickle her under the chin.
Conversely, old Siamese mix didn’t much care for petting at all. She preferred to perch somewhere nearby and peer at me, occasionally making conversation. She’d tolerate a quick head-pat or two but would swat you away if you tried to pet her for too long. Some cats are just like that, and you need to learn to respect their personal space. They’ll express their affection for you in other ways, like hanging out on the bookcase while you work.
Why Does My Cat Always Want to Be Pet?
Some cats can get a bit obsessive in their quest for physical affection. My domestic shorthair is a little like this. If I stop cuddling with her before she’s done, she will sometimes fuss and complain.
The problem usually comes down to insecurity. Because she was abandoned as a fairly young cat, turning up at a shelter when she was about 12 weeks old, she ended up having a lot of attachment issues. When I fist got her, she was terrified of people and would hide under the furniture when she saw me coming.
I was patient, though, and let her come to me. I offered treats to encourage her to come out, gradually persuading her to come closer until she was able to take snacks from my hand. Eventually, she was ready to accept petting and stroking too. After that, though, things accelerated and now she’s one of the clingier cats I’ve owned. She can sometimes get anxious if she’s not receiving physical affection.
The approach I’ve taken with my anxious, attention-hungry kitty is to make time for her. I spend plenty of time focused solely on her, petting and playing with her. I try to make sure she can see me, leaving doors open when I go into another room (except the bedroom). She still wants cuddles but is better able to self-soothe now when I’m not around or just can’t play with her. Having another cat for her to play with helps a lot, too.
Why Does My Cat Scratch Me When I Pet Her?
There are a lot of reasons why this can happen. One is that you simply have a cat who doesn’t like being pet. Some cats really don’t, especially rescues or former outdoor cats. Some come around over time, while others will never let you pet them.
If your cat normally likes being pet but sometimes lashes out, it may be that you’re petting her in a way she’s not okay with. One common error I see is that people try to muss their cat’s fur as if it was a child’s hair. This bothers the cat immensely. You know the expression, “It rubbed me up the wrong way”? It comes from the way cats like to be stroked with the direction of their fur rather than against it. Stroke from the head towards tail.
Sometimes a cat gets overstimulated while being stroked or petted. They’re fine at first, but eventually it all gets a bit much and you end up with a nip or scratch. If you see your cat’s tail start to twitch and lash, stop petting her for a few seconds to let her calm down. then you begin again, try just stroking her head and neck instead of running your hand down her entire back.
The “Belly Trap”
A complaint I often see from cat owners is: “My cat asks for belly-rubs, then attacks me when I touch her tummy!” The implication is often that the cat deliberately engineered the whole incident because she’s mean or hates her owner.
This is a widespread misconception. A cat who rolls on her back and exposes her belly may indeed want a belly rub. More commonly, though, a cat who does this wants the opposite: for you not to touch the belly. We interpret the cat rolling on her back as “hey, pet my tummy!” when what the cat is saying is “I love you, I trust you, and I can be vulnerable like this because I know you’d never be so aggressive as to touch my tummy.” And what do we do? We go straight for the exposed tum. How rude! No wonder the disappointed and frightened cat goes on the offensive.
If you’re not sure whether a belly-rub is being requested, you can slowly reach your hand over from the side while observing the cat’s reactions. Watch that tail. If the cat is comfortable, she’ll allow you to pet her stomach. If she reacts by going stiff or lashing her tail, pull back and give her some space.
Some cats simply have areas of their bodies that they hate to have touched. For some it’s their bellies, for others their flanks or their paws. It’s a good idea to learn which spots your cat does and doesn’t like to be stroked or patted.
If you suddenly find that your cat is responding badly to being petted on a spot that’s normally okay, you should suspect an injury or a health problem such as a cyst. Try and get a look at the area to see if there’s any visible signs of a problem. Look for blood, inflamed skin, swelling or irritation. Cats are absolute masters when it comes to disguising pain or injury, and you might not see any symptoms until you look carefully. If you do see anything, check in with your vet. Your pet may need medical attention for the issue.