Curious about how your cat likes to be petted or even if she likes being touched at all? Find out the best way to pet a cat so you can make sure to scratch all the right spots.

Cats of all kinds beg to be touched. Most have soft, downy hair that fingers love to get lost in, and when they nuzzle up close and loudly purr, we take it as a sign that they love the attention. But is contentment really what she's feeling when you rub her head or belly? Maybe not. Believe it or not, there's a right way and a wrong way to pet a cat and many people don't know the difference. 

Whether you're a new cat owner looking for all the answers about taking care of your feline family member or you're a longtime cat lover just hoping to improve the bond between you and your kitty, anyone interacting with a cat could use a lesson on how they like to be touched. These secrets to cat contentment might surprise you.

woman petting cat
Credit: Westend61 / Getty

Start by Introducing Yourself

If you've ever been around an unfamiliar cat, you know it can be a game of mixed signals. One moment, she seems like she loves you—and the next, you get a scratch to the arm. Nipping or scratching doesn't necessarily mean that the cat doesn't like you or doesn't want to be around you. It may just indicate that you're not touching them the way they'd prefer to be touched.

To start, you need to introduce yourself. If you skip straight to petting her, she may feel threatened and retaliate. Take things slow and allow the cat to make the decisions. Gently extend your fingers towards her nose so she can get a good whiff of you and know that you aren't a threat. Let the cat make the choices on her terms—you're much more likely to have a good interaction if you allow the cat to come to you.

Diagram of the best places to pet a cat
Credit: Grace Canaan

Where Do Cats Prefer To Be Petted?

Once you've gotten to know each other a bit, Fluffy will be able to relax. Remember that when it comes to petting a cat, less is more. Unlike dogs (who tend to crave attention and scratches), cats are often indifferent when it comes to human interaction. This will require some restraint if you're the type of person who sees a small animal and thinks: Must. Pet. Now. Give them as much choice as possible, and they may reward you with some snuggles.

"Cats tend to like soft, gentle strokes that move in the same direction of their fur, rather than back and forth petting," Samantha Nigbur, an ASPCA Behavioral Sciences Team Counselor, says. 

Generally, the best places to pet a cat are where the scent glands are located around her face. If you extend your hand and they meet it with pressure to their head or cheek, this means they are depositing their scent onto you, a practice called bunting. Bunting leaves a scent marking their territory, but it's also a way of showing affection.

Spots where most cats like to be petted include the scent glands that are located between the ears, at the base of the ears, on their cheeks, and under the chin. They may also enjoy light pressure down their neck and back, stopping right before their tail.

There's a Right Way to Pet a Cat … Does That Mean There's a Wrong Way?

Yes! Cats are very particular about physical touch, and one wrong move can have them running in the opposite direction. If your cat doesn't enjoy being petted, respect her desire not to be touched much. "Cats are like people—some enjoy a lot of physical contact with others, and some enjoy only a little," Nigbur says. 

Cats typically don't like being petted on their tummy, legs/feet, or tail. Of course, there are always outliers—some cats will love every bit of affection, no matter where they're touched or who's doing it. But generally, you shouldn't pet a cat you don't know on their stomach or extremities.

If you're unsure whether or not they're enjoying it, keep an eye out for these signs of tension:

  • Suddenly jerking their head to face you or your hand
  • Batting your hand away with their paw
  • Hissing at you
  • Shifting away from you
  • Twitching the skin on their back
  • Shaking their head
  • Thumping their tail
  • Ears rotating backwards
  • No response (no purring, rubbing, etc.)

How Can You Tell if Your Cat Likes Being Petted?

Don't be overwhelmed by the possible signs of tension. Nigbur says there are many ways a cat can show you that they're loving what you're doing, including:

  • Initiating contact and being forward with you
  • Keeping their tail upright and slowly waving it side to side
  • Ears pointed upwards and forwards
  • Relaxed posture and facial expression
  • Purring at you
  • Rhythmically pushing their paws in and out (kneading)
  • Gently bunting you

If the cat is doing any (or all) of the above, that means you're petting her correctly and she wants to let you know it. Maintain a steady level of touch and attention in order not to overwhelm her, and she'll become more comfortable in your presence. 

"It's important to remember each cat is an individual and has their own preferences for how they like to be petted," Nigbur says. "They may prefer different types of petting interactions with different people." 

Bottom line: Take the cat's lead when it comes to touch.