How to Pet Cats and Dogs

Give pets a choice, observe their body language and know where they prefer to be stroked.

An Australian Shepherd dog cuddles with a brown tabby cat on the bed
Photo: Julie Vader/Shutterstock

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A few years ago, I wrote a post about how people with pets can learn from the ways scientists give companion animals choices in research. It was a popular post that generated a lot of discussion. Today I thought I’d return to the topic of choice and look at how we can give dogs and cats choices when we are stroking them.

Why does it matter? Because giving pets a choice can help them to feel in control and less stressed, which is good for their welfare. And there’s the added benefit of making them less likely to bite or scratch us, because we are not forcing them into a situation where we do things they don’t like.

A senior Boxer dog sleeps on the bed with a white cat cuddled close

Does your dog or cat want to be petted?

For many of us, one of the things we love about our companion animals is the fact we can pet them. 

It’s relaxing to sit and stroke a cat or dog. But do they always enjoy it?

One way to find out is to see if your dog or cat will come to you to be petted. Put your hand down and see if they come over. You can also call them if you like. (Don't put your hand in their face--they won't like that. Keep it at a safe distance where they have a choice of whether to approach or not).

It may help if you get down to their level, especially with a dog or cat that is fearful. And don't stare at them, because that may be perceived as threatening. You can even turn sideways and take care not to look directly at them.

If your cat comes over, sniffs your hand, and then walks away again, unfortunately they do not want to be petted at this time. But if they rub their head or even their whole body on you, it probably means they would like to be petted, so you can begin to stroke them with your hand. (Why do they rub their head on you? They are depositing pheromones, which are an important communication signal for cats. Read more about pheromones in what your cat’s nose knows).

Similarly, if your dog has a sniff of your hand and then walks away, they don’t want to be petted either. But if they hang around, and even nuzzle or nudge your hand, you can begin to stroke them.

Where to pet cats and dogs

Animals have preferences about where they prefer to be petted.

Cats generally prefer to be petted on the face near to the scent glands. Cats have scent glands on the chin and cheek, between the eyes and ears where there is less fur, and around the lips. They may also like to be petted under the chin. Cats generally don’t like to be petted near the tail. (For more information, see where do cats like to be stroked).

If you’ve made the mistake of trying to pet a cat on the tummy, you will probably have learned the hard way that when they stretch out and show their tummy, they are not asking you to pet it. 

Although every cat is different, the majority of cats do not like to be petted on the belly, especially by someone they don’t know.

Dogs also have preferences about where to be petted. Generally, they prefer to be petted on the side of the chest or on the shoulders, or at the top of the chest under the chin, but aren’t so keen when people reach to pet them on the top of the head. Try not to lean over their head when petting them. They also typically don't like to be petted or held on the muzzle, or have the collar held. We know this from a study that looked at dogs’ body language when petted by people who were either familiar or unfamiliar to the dog. 

And sometimes dogs are not asking you to pet their belly when they roll over and show it to you, either. Again, every dog is different so pay attention to the one you’ve got in front of you to see what they want.

With both dogs and cats, stroke them in the direction of the fur, not against it.

Consent tests

Once you’ve already initiated petting you can do a consent test. Simply stop petting and see what happens. If the dog or cat gets up and wanders away, you have to assume they’ve had enough.

On the other hand, if they paw at you or nuzzle you for more it’s a good sign they would like you to pet them more.

If they lean on you, that’s another sign they were enjoying the petting and would like you to resume. In that case, go ahead and keep petting.

Pay attention to body language when petting your cat or dog

Another way to check if your pet is enjoying being stroked is to pay attention to their body language.

With both dogs and cats, if they are leaning in to the petting it’s a good sign they are enjoying it.

Cats will often purr while you pet them. One of the lovely things about living with a cat is getting to hear the soft rumble of a happy cat purring away.

Another sign that your cat is enjoying the petting is if they close or half-close their eyes.

How to pet cats and dogs. One way to tell if a cat is enjoying being petted is to look at the eyes; if they are closed or half-closed, like this cat's eyes, it's a good sign
Photo: AnastasiaNess / Shutterstock

But keep an eye on the tail, because if it starts to twitch it may be a sign they are getting over-excited or finding the petting too much, and you should stop. Other signs to look for include dilated pupils, twitching skin, pushing your hand away with a paw, getting the claws out or trying to scratch you, or looking at your hand and fixating on it.

With dogs, look for a relaxed, happy open mouth and a nice loose tail wag. They might be leaning in to the petting, or move their body to put the part they want stroking nearer to you.

Signs the dog is not enjoying it include panting, looking away, licking the nose or lips, yawning, sniffing the ground, freezing, and of course a growl. Also keep an eye on the tail – if it is low or even tucked, they are not very happy – and if they are leaning away from you.

If you notice any of these signs, stop petting them. (And don’t punish them if they growl – this is their way of letting you know they are unhappy and it’s an important warning).

"The must have guide to improving your dog's life" and a photo of a happy Bernese Mountain Dog to advertise the book Wag
Get Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy

Keep the intensity low

Most pets would prefer petting sessions to be low intensity.

When I asked Sam Gaines PhD of the RSPCA for her tip on how to make the world better for cats, she pointed out that cats like interactions to be frequent but short:
“Sadly the social behaviour of cats, and especially their interactions with people, is very misunderstood. Most cats typically want high frequency but lower intensity interactions whereas many people want fewer interactions but for a longer period of time. This mismatch can lead to defensive aggression in cats with some being labelled as grumpy or spiteful. Having more realistic expectations around the interactions which cats appreciate; frequent but short, will avoid unnecessary stress, fear and worry and will help strengthen the bond between cat and owner.”

So it’s best to pet your cat often but only for a short time each time.

Dogs also prefer lower-intensity interactions. For example, most dogs and cats prefer not to be hugged. A hug is quite intense and it’s hard to move away from. So don’t envelope your dog in your arms; make sure they still have the freedom to move away.

Kisses are also quite intense (and often involve holding the dog or cat tightly) and are also best avoided.

Dogs generally prefer to be next to you rather than embraced by you. And some cats will prefer to sit beside you on the settee, rather than on your lap. That's okay – it's up to them.

Can children pet pets?

Take special care when children are petting dogs and cats. Young children are still learning motor control and may accidentally be too rough. Children also tend to like quite intense interactions (like hugs) which cats and dogs will not appreciate.

Interactions between children and pets should always be closely supervised. With very small children, you should guide their hand to help them learn to be gentle.

It’s especially important to teach children never to approach a dog that is sitting still or lying down, as this is a common scenario in which children get bitten.  

Instead, help your child call the dog to them, and teach them that if the dog does not come, they have that choice and should be left alone. And if they do come, you have to be ready to intervene if needed.

Unfortunately many people make the mistake of thinking a dog is relaxed in an interaction with a child when this is not the case. People are also more likely to let their guard down when a dog is familiar. Remember to supervise carefully and be ready to intervene; if this is not the case, you can use pet gates to keep a dog and child separate, but they can still be in visual contact with each other.

If it's not your pet

If it's not your dog or cat, then you should ask the owner if it is okay to stroke the animal. They will let you know if their pet likes this kind of interaction with strangers.

Just as with your own pet, try to ensure they have the opportunity to  move away if they wish.

And never try to pet a dog that is on a chain or behind a fence. 

Individual differences

Remember that every dog and cat is an individual. They will have their own preferences about where and how they like to be stroked. And some are more tolerant than others.

Maybe some of you are even thinking, ‘but my cat likes to be rubbed on the tummy’ or ‘but my dog loves hugs.’ Maybe they do!

But remember to pay close attention to your dog or cat’s body language. Don’t assume they will like something. Look out for signs of stress or contentment and let that guide you as to what they like.

And any time you are not sure, do a consent test: stop petting and wait for them to let you know if they want more or not.

This will help you to have a better relationship with your dog or cat.

The relationship with the person is also a factor in what each animal likes. Just as most of us wouldn’t like a complete stranger coming up and giving us a bear hug but we might not mind if it was our best friend, dogs and cats have preferences too.

I’ve written before about the importance of paying attention to our dogs and cats. Learning to read a dog or cat’s body language comes with experience and it pays dividends in improving our interactions with animals.

How to pet cats and dogs

So remember, give your cat or dog a choice, aim for a low intensity interaction, stroke them in the places they like best, and keep an eye on their body language throughout.

Where does your dog or cat like to be petted?

If you've enjoyed this post, you might like my books Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy and Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy.

"Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read." and the cover of the book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy

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