Monday, August 31, 2009 9:12 AM

The Science of Petting Cats

If you are a cat lover, you know just how enjoyable it is to pet a cat, not to mention good for your health (see "Cats: Part of a Healthy Lifestyle"). If you are not, well, you don't know what you're missing, although you dog lovers can certainly identify.

After decades of owning (or being owned by, the jury's still out on this) cats, I feel that I can say with certainty that all cats like petting. Mind you, there are all variations on this theme. Some cats like all petting all of the time, even interrupting what they are doing in order to get some extra time in. We have three of this style of cat living here right now. Then there are cats who want petting once in a while, and entirely on their terms. If you don't take advantage of this mood right away, it will pass quickly and you won't get another opportunity until the next blue moon. Between these two extremes are all manner of attention-seekers, some more lovey-dovey than others. I know some people will claim that they know a cat that never wants petting, and to you I say: Sure she does--you just need to learn the signals.

As you probably know, there are many styles of petting. One that almost all cats enjoy is the long, slow, nose-to-toes pet. This works best if the cat is lying on his side, stretched out. Start at the top of the head, and, open-handed, continue down the back to the tip of the tail. You must know your cat, though, as some don't care for touching lower than mid-back. Some get frisky, some get swipe-y. Most cats find this very relaxing; move your hand slowly down the back, watching the cat's reaction. My cats like the two-handed technique, whereby I place my other hand under the chin and move down the stomach to the tips of the rear toes. This is a good near-massage technique for calming a nervous cat. It also gets rid of loose fur, as you will no doubt notice very soon after beginning this endeavor!

Another calming "pet" is to stroke the cat between the eyes, using one finger. This will often put kitty into a trance and cause the purr-switch to turn on to "high". If you want to see your cat act like he's had a few too many, use all fingertips to increase the pace and scratch the top, sides and underneath of the head. They usually get sick of this one fast, since it's so intense; a good one to use when you're in a hurry and the petting session needs to be abbreviated a bit.

Another fast-paced petting technique is the scratching-from-head-to-base-of-tail pet. This is an all-time kitty-cat fave. Be careful getting toward the tail unless you know the cat well! Gold male cats really love this, as both Goldie and Miss P.'s Punkin will attest. They make the funniest head movements, turning in a wide arc as if they just can't figure out what's going on over there! Then they point their noses to the sky (or ceiling, for indoor cats) and groove. There's just no other way to put it.

How do you know when a cat's had enough? Our cats will move off, letting me know that I can now leave and they will take over my warm spot on the couch. Or, they start licking themselves. This works well, since no one wants to pet a wet cat, even me! Other cats will swipe or bite; Sweet Pea was the only cat I ever had that did this. Once I learned the signals, though, I was able to avoid a smack (most of the time).

Tip: If you want to create a cat that loves petting, give her lots of attention when she's young. If you adopt an adult, work at it slowly, but know that eventually it will work. I know--I've done it!
Chat later!

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Amanda has worked with animals for many years and has always had cats in her life. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two excellent cats.
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