People who don’t know a lot of cats often think they are aloof and cold—but we know differently, don’t we? Cats can be affectionate—downright snuggly—but only on their own terms.
And herein lies the problem: our terms are often very different from theirs.
Case in point: my favorite way to unwind at the end of the day is wine in hand, cat in lap, and an episode of whatever show I’m currently obsessed with. Part of this routine requires the cooperation of said cat. Most of the time my feisty feline will oblige—but not always. And as every cat employee knows, you just can’t make your cat do anything they don’t want to do…unless you want the scratches to prove it.
The key to understanding why our cats behave the way they do when we’re desperate to show them some affection is understanding why our cats behave the way they do period.
So, let’s start there, and then we’ll explore the meaning behind some of our cat’s 4 most common petting behaviors.
Cat Behavior: The Background Story
You might already know that your cat’s whiskers are incredibly sensitive. But did you also know that cats have short, fine whiskers all over their bodies?
The highest concentration of whiskers are on your moggy’s muzzle, but if you look closely you’ll also find them on their torso, paws, head, back, and upper limbs. This means that cats are far more sensitive to touch than we think. If your furry friend enjoys a certain “style” of petting (soft, short strokes or long, head-to-tail glides) it’s because their whiskers enjoy that. If you then decide to change things up, that may be fun for you—but it’s not enjoyable for your pet.
Did you know that cats can be ticklish? Not all of them, of course (because our cats are as unique in their tastes and quirks as the people who live with them) but many have a low threshold for the kind of petting we want to bestow upon them.
I had a beautiful gray tabby who would happily tolerate any amount of petting—and carrying, cradling, even bathing—without complaint. My children carried him around the house, trussed up like a baby at one point, and as their pony (complete with toilet paper and sock saddle) at another. We could roll him over where he was asleep on the rug to vacuum behind him, rub his tummy, then roll him back into place.
I’m sure there are other cats like him in the world, but I’ve never met one. The rest of my cat companions have hated vacuums with a passion, attacked at the first sign of a belly rub, and have a hard limit when it comes to the amount of physical human affection they’ll accept.
These cats have no qualms telling you when they’ve reached that limit—and when you have exceeded it. They’ll let you know about your social faux pas so that you can modify your behavior accordingly. And if you don’t modify your behavior, you’ll continue to be assaulted for your over-the-top human displays of affection.
When it comes to feline body language, you can make understanding it as simple—or as complex—as you like. I tell most people who come to me to keep it simple:
If your cat’s tail begins to flick or swish back and forth, she’s probably nearing her limit. Gentle your petting or stop and move away from their space. As we’ll be exploring in the next section, she can let you know if you’ve got it all wrong.
Don’t confuse this with the subtle twitch of the very tip of the tail, or the question-mark curl—both of which are signs that your cat is happy and comfortable.
A calm, happy cat has narrow pupils. Often as you pet him, his pupils will dilate. This is a simple pleasure response, but it is also a sign that your furry friend has reached total stimulation saturation.
Another easy to read signal from your cat is flat ears, or ears pointed backward. If your pet shows either of these signals, they are not enjoying themselves and you should stop—lest they send you a warning.
If your cat gets her back up—literally—you’ll see a ridge of fur along her spine stand up on end. Likewise, if her skin bunches up or ripples and doesn’t instantly relax back into place, she’s tense. Both of these are signs that you should leave your cat be for now.
4 Ways Your Cat Communicates Through Petting
#1. My Cat Hits Me When I Stop Petting Him
If your cat hits you when you stop petting him and pull your hand away, or gives you a little swat or sideswipe, he’s trying to tell you to keep going. He’s not done!
What seems like a swipe could also be your cat’s way of trying to grab a hold of your hand, to keep you near them. All cats communicate with their people in different ways, but if your cat is hitting you when you stop petting and pull away, their comms are universal: don’t stop yet, they’re saying.
Another version of this is when your cat starts tapping you with their paw while you’re patting, or when you’ve stopped but haven’t pulled your hand away. This, as many animal behaviorists note, has to do with the fact that petting your cat is as good for their well being as it is for our own. Often, your cat will attempt to pat you in return.
Some experts believe this is because they enjoy it, while others claim it is because they know we enjoy it. Whatever the reason, if your cat likes to pat, tap, or rest a paw on you while you are enjoying some quality time together, take it as the deep compliment it is.
#2. My Cat Shows Her Belly and Then Attacks Me
It feels like a trap, doesn’t it?
Your furry friend rolls over onto her back shows you her silky, downy belly. She purrs happily. You reach down to give her a Buddha belly rub just as her claws ensnare your hand and the bunny kicks ensue.
I’ve fallen for that trap too many times in my life.
In reality, your cat is not inviting you to rub<span style=”font-weight: 400;”> her belly. She’s just showing it to you, as a sign of trust.
In animal instinct-speak, exposing her belly is her way of communicating: “you are much stronger than me. Here is my soft, squishy middle to show you that I have given up fighting. I trust you will have mercy on me and let me serve you.” She accepts you as the stronger opponent in this battle (which, granted, never actually happened), but instead of running away, she’d like to be your friend…or possibly your Second-in-Command.
When your response is to continue to “attack her” by rubbing her vulnerable belly, you are essentially violating her trust and shunning her offer. In animal instinct-speak, you are forcing her to fight back. The correct response is to stop attacking and leave her alone as you celebrate your victory quietly somewhere else.
#3. My Cat Thinks It’s Playtime When I Try To Pet Him
The first reason that this happens is that some cats prefer playing to petting. If your cat knows he has you to himself for a little while, he potentially just wants to spend that time doing something he enjoys—and completely disregards that you want to snuggle.
The second reason he wants to play is that he is happy. Often, the chain reaction goes something like this:
Cat gets petted – cat feels happy – happiness makes a cat feel playful – cat forgoes petting for playtime.
The third reason is that your cat is bored, and needs more mental or physical stimulation. When you interact with him, he is excited to have your attention and wishes to spend that time playing with you rather than “resting”.
None of these reasons is wrong. Your cat is just trying to connect with their person in the best way they know how: through fun and games.
#4. My Cat Bites Me When I’m Petting Her
Most of how cats communicate in the wild are through body language and instincts. When they live in our homes, they still have a part of that wild self inside them, dictating their behavior.
One of these behaviors is an attempt to discipline a wayward member of their group—like they would discipline a kitten. If a kitten was being annoying, a small bite—usually without teeth, and always without breaking the skin—would put it in its place. The cat is simply using the methods available to her to communicate what she wants you to do.
If you are petting her and she gives you a small bite, it could mean that your petting needs to be more gentle—or better, in some way. It could mean ‘don’t stop’ if your patting is tapering off, or ‘slow down’ if your patting tempo is too fast.
Most often, though, it’s just your cat’s way of saying: “hey, I really like what you’re doing. Keep up the good work.”