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Petting a Cat

Petting your cat – Something to Purr About

And you’re right. Heck, yes. A few granules short of a litter box. If your cat were a person, he’d be holding in-depth conversations with giant, walking tacos. But we have some small consolation for you–so is everyone else’s cat. At least, that’s the conclusion researcher Penny Bernstein is reaching. Dr. Bernstein, an associate professor of biology at Kent State University’s Stark campus, has begun collecting information for a study on cats and petting. She came across the topic during another study about cats in the home.

“When I get these surveys, people apologize for how strange their cat is,” Dr. Bernstein said. “It turns out a lot of cats are like that, so they shouldn’t be embarrassed to report what’s going on.”

The information she’s collected so far hasn’t been well-documented, but it won’t startle cat owners. Cats like to be petted on certain areas–the top of the head, the cheeks, the face, under the chin, on the chest, on the stomach, and at the base of the tail.But many owners also said their cats preferred a certain order to the petting. For example, a cat might present its head to be petted, then expose a cheek, lift the head for the chin to be scratched, then move so the owner would run a hand down the back, and finally pause for the owner to rub the base of the tail.

” One person said the cat didn’t like him to move his hand–he would like him to put his hand out, and [the cat] would move under it,” she recalled. The degrees varied–some fairly democratic cats could be petted everywhere but on the stomach. Others took a totalitarian view–”Only the head and nowhere else. You had to stop at the neck or it would bite you.”

And then there were the cats that only like to be petted in a certain place–no, not the head, not the back. These cats preferred a certain location. Think “location” in the sense of “Finland. “Those cats would lead their owners to the appropriate spot in the house–the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom–where it wanted to be petted. “Some cats will only be petted in the bathroom,” Dr. Bernstein noted.

She calls it the “leading ritual.” The cat would appear and solicit petting. The owner would put out a hand, and the cat would move away, occasionally glancing back to make sure the owner was following. When it reached the appropriate spot, it would flop down on the floor, a signal for the petting to begin.

This, by the way, is the point at which we begin to use the term “owner” loosely. But it doesn’t seem an uncommon behavior, although Dr. Bernstein and other behaviorists are at a loss right now to explain it–which would be why people do studies in the first place, of course. It could be a simple conditioning process, said Dr. Petra Mertens, assistant professor in behavior at the University of Minnesota. The cat begins to associate a certain action with a certain location–if the two of you cuddle often on the couch, the cat heads for there because it knows that’s the place where that happens.

In that case, the behavior could be altered with effort. You’d start by petting the cat just briefly in other locations–a stroke on the head in the living room–in addition to giving the new place pleasant associations, Dr. Mertens said. Maybe the living room is where the cat gets a treat, or where the two of you play with a cat toy. Make it a good place, and gradually change the cat’s attention to that location.

The preference for certain sensitive spots is well-known, behavior experts said. Many cats have a strong dislike for having their bellies or feet touched, Dr. Mertens said. Some of it may have to do with the way their mothers interacted with the kittens, some of it may have to do with the way the cat was introduced to people, said Dr. Kathy Gaughan, an assistant professor with the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine clinical sciences department.

Kittens that are handled gently by people early in life tend to develop motor skills more quickly and open their eyes sooner–it’s possible that social skills come along with that gentle handling. Alternatively, if the kittens experience something negative–like getting a tail pulled, or being petted too roughly, it may make them averse to having that spot petted, she said. Generally, cats much prefer the head and back for petting. But owners, um, may not want to hear the theory why … “There is no proof, but it definitely makes sense that they like to have areas petted that have [associations with] sexual and social behaviors,” Dr. Mertens said.

Part of it’s a grooming function–horses will chew on the upper part of each other’s necks, a place they can’t reach. This also strengthens the social bond, as you know if you’ve ever had someone scratch between your shoulders or give you a massage. Sometimes they bond a lot. “Cats definitely like to be petted around the area of the ears and neck–the area a tom will lick and bite when they mate,” Dr. Mertens said.

As part of the mating/heat behavior, female cats will crouch down with their rears stuck up in the air–similar to the behavior they exhibit when their back is petted, Dr. Mertens said. The explanation could be simpler–it could just be those are itchy spots that cats like scratched, Dr. Bernstein said.

As for the insistence on only petting the head, or the back, and never out of order, that can be frustrating. Some cats nip when they’re overstimulated, Dr. Mertens said. Cats bite each other after mating. But sometimes they’re just cranky. ”Cats are sometimes very opinionated,” she said. (Sounds like a cautious employee evaluation: “The supervisor can be very … opinionated.”) “Some like total control over interaction with others, and they’re very despotic that way.”

And they do tend to warn before they bite–the eyes dilate, for example. The tail twitches. It’s when people ignore or fail to notice the warning signs that they may get bitten. If a cat is really frustrating in its refusal to be petted, behaviorists can help owners develop a program in which they gradually desensitize their cat to its dislike of petting. But most cat owners know their pets likes and dislikes, and accommodate them. “Older cat owners appreciate the individuality of their cat,” Dr. Mertens said.

Dr. Gaughan has had clients warn her in the exam room not to touch the cat’s belly, or stroke his back end–but they don’t complain about the restrictions, she said. “They modify their behavior around the cat’s behavior.” And perhaps that’s the key–the real reason your cat wants you to pet him, head to tail only, in the bathroom, on the floor near the sink, except on Sundays during a full moon if the temperature is below 65 degrees, in which case you need to move to the porch, on the glider, and the petting should be ears only …

It simply the way we interact with them, Dr. Bernstein theorized. “It may be this is this nice, interspecies interaction that’s designed for cat and human,” she said. “We’re always thinking that it’s something they do with another cat–maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just something they do with people.”

Reproduced by permission
Written by: Tracy Vogel

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