How To Tell If A Cat Wants You To Pet Them

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When you see a cute cat, what is the first thing you want to do? If you’re anything like me, the urge is to pet them. As a cat behavior consultant, I know that isn’t always a great idea so I typically resist my urge. Sometimes, though, the cat wants you to pet them. How can you tell if a cat wants you to pet them? It’s easier than you’d think if you know what you’re looking for.

Behaviors Associated With Sociability In Cats

If a cat wants to be petted, they will typically display body language that indicate they’re feeling confident and secure around you. Examples of these behaviors include:

  • Approaching with a tail up and a curve tip of the tail
  • Bunting (affectionate head butting)
  • Slow blinking
  • Following you around or lounging near you
  • Purring
  • Rubbing against your legs
  • Wrapping their tail around you

This is hardly an exhaustive list, but these behaviors are a good starting point. If you want to learn more about cat body language in an easily digestible way, I strongly recommend Lili Chin’s Kitty Language book. It’s got great illustrations and is easy to read.

Friendly Doesn’t Always Mean Wanting To Be Petted

Of course, a cat may not always want you to pet them even if they like you or are feeling friendly toward you. For example, during the winter I noticed that my cat Zoloft would come curl up on my lap more frequently. He often wanted me to pet him, but sometimes if I did, he’d give me a “bite gesture” where he’d turn his teeth toward my hands. I knew this was a sign to give him space! Poutine currently does the same, though he usually just pushes my hand away.

Why would they sit on my lap if they don’t want to be petted? There are a lot of possible reasons. In the case of Zoloft, it was that he liked my warm lap. He also was pretty obsessed with being near me (and I was equally obsessed with him being near me), but didn’t always want to be petted.

Joey and Zoloft, a lynx point Siamese cat, sitting together.
Honestly, he wanted me to pet him most of the time.

Think about it like this: do you have people you like spending time with and would invite over to your home, but under no circumstances want them to give you a hug? I bet you can think of a few! Cats are the same way. They may like you and want to be near you, but not want you to pet them. They may also start out wanting to be petted, but change their minds.

That’s okay! We don’t talk about consent with animals as much as we should, but it’s an important thing to think about. Ethics and cat welfare aside, it benefits you as it prevents injury.

How To Ask If Your Cat Wants To Be Petted

Speaking of consent, it’s easier than you’d think to ask your cat if they want to be petted. Asking a cat if you can pet them involves doing something called a consent test. It’s not as hard or as fancy as it sounds, but it can have huge results.

Simply offer your cat a hand at a distance and let them sniff it. Wait for them to initiate contact and if they do, you can probably give them a few pets where they rub against you. That usually means their cheeks or chin as cats love being petted there. Your cat may be different and prefer somewhere else. The good news is that cats aren’t shy and will often just direct you to where to pet them. Zoloft loved having the base of his tails scratched and would often just move under my hand until he was being petted there.

After a few pets, pause and ask again. Your cat will reinitiate contact if they want to be petted. If they don’t, respect that desire and give them space. You don’t want to get bitten!

A Common Mistake

A common mistake I see is people will halfway do this. They’ll offer a finger to a cat and let them sniff it. Rather than waiting for the cat to initiate contact, however, they’ll just start petting.

Remember, sniffing is not the same as initiating contact. You want the cat to initiate contact, not just sniff you!

What If My Cat Doesn’t Want To Be Petted?

In some cases, your cat may not want to be petted or rarely want to be petted. Some shy cats may prefer interacting in other ways. That’s completely okay and there’s nothing wrong with your cat. It also doesn’t mean your cat hates you. Your cat may show affection in other ways.

One of my own cats, Prozac, wasn’t super snuggly at first. He enjoyed playing more when I first brought him home. I bonded with him by playing using his favorite toys and occasionally giving him a few scritches on his terms. We also did training which allows us to communicate effectively and I still loved the little bug even if he wasn’t constantly wanting to snuggle.

Now? Things are different all because I let Prozac have some control.

Joey smiling sitting on a couch with Prozac, a flame point Siamese cat, curled up in his arm.
He was a secret snuggle bug.

Ultimately, it benefits you to respect your cat’s wishes about being petted. It can be disappointing if they say no, but it’s better than getting a cat bite.

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Joey Lusvardi

Joey Lusvardi CCBC is an IAABC Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and professional cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation and cat training service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. Joey is available for in home sessions locally or virtual sessions wherever you are located!