Many of us have already experienced this super friendly cat who seems to love being caressed for a minute, then biting or sweeping our eyes next time. At this point, it might be easy to blame the cat, but what is probably happening here is that we are not giving them a reason.
To understand why this might be, we must first know a little more about cat ancestors. It is likely that the ancestors of the domestic cat (the African wild cat) were considered as a simple means of pest control, but modern cats are often treated as valuable companions or even as "furry babies".
It is thought that this social change in the relationship between man and cat occurred about 4,000 years ago, a little later than the "best friend of the man", the domestic dog. Although it may seem like a long enough time for one species to fully adapt to growing social demands, this is unlikely to be the case for your feline friend. Domestic cats also have a relatively modest genetic divergence from their ancestors, which means that their brains are probably still wired to think like wild cats.
The Wildcats lead a lonely life and invest considerable time and effort into indirect communication – through visual and chemical messaging – just to avoid seeing each other. It is therefore unlikely that domestic cats have inherited many complex social skills from their loved ones.
Humans, on the other hand, are an intrinsically social species, favoring proximity and contact during manifestations of affection. We are also drawn to infant looking traits – big eyes and forehead, small nose and round face – that is why most of us find the faces of cats so cute. It is therefore not surprising that our initial reaction, when we see a cat or a kitten, is to caress, cuddle and choke them. However, it is not surprising that many cats find this type of interaction a bit difficult.
Although many cats like to be fondled and, in some contexts, we choose better than food, human interaction is something that they must learn to appreciate during their relatively short period of sensitivity, between two and seven weeks.
With regard to human-cat interactions, the characteristics of the man are also important. Our personality and gender, the areas of the cat's body that we touch and the way we treat it in general can all play an important role in how the cat responds to our affections.
And while some cats may react aggressively to unwanted physical attention, others may simply tolerate our social advances in exchange for good things (food and shelter). That said, a tolerant cat is not necessarily a happy cat. Higher levels of stress are reported in cats described by their owners as tolerant rather than not actively fondling.
How to pet a cat
The key to success is to give the cat the most choice and control possible during interactions. For example, the choice to indicate whether they want to be petted or not, and to control where we touch them and for how long.
Because of our tactile nature and our love for cute things, this approach may not happen instinctively to many of us. And it will probably take a bit of restraint. But that could pay off, because research shows that interactions with cats will probably last longer when the cat, and not the human, initiates them.
It is also very important to pay close attention to the behavior and posture of the cat during his interactions, in order to make sure that he is comfortable. When it comes to touching, the less often it is. This is true not only during veterinary manipulations, but also during more relaxed encounters with people.
As a general guide, most friendly cats will appreciate being touched in areas where their facial glands are located, especially at the base of their ears, under their chin and around their cheeks. These places are generally preferred to areas such as the belly, the back and the base of the tail.
The signs of enjoyment of the cat:
- Tail holding straight and choosing to make a contact.
- You purring and kneading with their front paws.
- Gently shaking their tails from one side to the other while staying in the air
- A relaxed posture and expression of the face, ears erect and directed towards the front.
- Give you a slight boost if you pause while you stroke them.
Signs of dislike or tension:
- Move, move or turn your head away from you.
- Remaining passive (no purring or rubbing)
- Exaggerated blinking, shaking your head or body or licking your nose
- Fast, short bursts of grooming.
- Rippling or contraction of the skin, usually along their back.
- Swishing, flying or flapping.
- Ears flattening on the sides or swiveling to the back.
- A sudden whim to face you or your hand.
- Bite, slip or hit your hand with their paw.
That cats make good "furry babies" is therefore very debatable. Many cats like to be affected, but many of them probably do not like it – and many tolerate it at best. In the end, when it comes to cats, it's important to respect their limits – and the feral cats that inhabit them – even if it means admiring their kindness from afar.
Lauren Robin Finka works as a consultant for Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and also writes a monthly column for the magazine "Your Cat". This article was originally featured on The Conversation.