A recent survey by feline welfare charity Cats Protection found that it's difficult for cat owners to recognize signs of stress in their pets.
More than half of survey participants said they'd calm their stressed cats by cuddling them — the opposite of what their frazzled felines would want.
"Being held or stroked for too long can be very stressful for some cats," Nicky Trevorrow, Cats Protection’s behavior manager, said in a news release. "Space and peace is often what they need. They're not small furry humans, so what would comfort us won't necessarily comfort them."
The warning signs
Not all cats like to be petted or held, and those that do vary in how much affection they enjoy.
If you have a cat, you probably know where your cat likes to be rubbed and scratched. You also likely know what happens when your feline friend has had enough of your affection.
Cats will often bite or scratch to communicate that petting time is over, but if you're paying attention, your cat's body language will give you an earlier warning that he's had enough.
Your cat may tense up, flatten his ears and start twitching his tail.
"Watch out of that classic swishing, thumping tail," said Dr. Kat Miller, an ASPCA certified applied animal behaviorist. "Cats don't wag their tails like dogs, so this is a definite sign of 'Stop what you’re doing.'"
Petting-induced aggression isn't well understood, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but behaviorists think that petting can become unpleasant for a cat if it's a repeated motion on the same area of the body.
Miller compares this to how we might feel if someone rubbed the same spot on our back over and over again. Although pleasant at first, the repetitive touching can quickly become irritating.
Where to pet your cat
Cats enjoy being petted in areas where scent glands are concentrated. That's why your kitty will scratch his chin on the corner of furniture or rub his head and tail against your legs.
Such motions spread your cat's scent, marking items in his environment — including you — as his own.
So when you pet your kitty, focus your scratches and rubs on your cat's head, chin, cheeks, ears and whiskers.
Of course, there are some areas that are off-limits for cats. Although your dog may enjoy a good belly rub, this is what Miller calls a "no-go zone."
"We have no-go zones as well," she said. "For example, an arm around shoulders is acceptable. An arm around the waist is too, but more intimate. But an arm around the thigh is just weird, and around the neck it’s threatening."
Teaching your cat to enjoy petting
Most cats can be taught to tolerate more petting if they learn to associate your strokes with treats.
The next time your cat indicates he's in the mood for affection, let him sniff your hand before you try petting him.
"The important thing is to let your cat choose when he wants attention," Miller said. "Let him sniff your hand first. Cats greet each other nose to nose, so getting a sniff is like a handshake."
After he's sniffed you, give him a few strokes, but watch his body language closely and count how many strokes you get in before your cat gets irritated.
The next time your cat approaches you for attention, stroke him only that number of times and give him a treat afterward. Then step away for a few minutes and give him a break.
Continue this pattern for a few days and then gradually try to sneak in additional strokes. Also, remember to vary how you rub and scratch your cat so you won't cause annoyance.
If your cat ever gets irritated with petting, don't force him off your lap or punish him. Simply stand up and let him jump down.
If all goes according to plan, you'll soon transform your one-stroke kitty into a cat that enjoys more than one scratch.
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