The header graphic for the 2003 Redwood Review
The Seaview Inn

How to Pet a Cat by Lori Dillman

Review this piece

Recent statistics show that cat people now outnumber dog lovers, and cats do seem to be everywhere. On greeting cards, on apparel, on calendars, cats stare back at you with soulful eyes. Many people who used to avoid cat contact, for whatever paranoid, misguided reason, are now finding it necessary to overcome their prejudice. Cat lovers may include your boss, a prospective client, or a new romance. If you are to sustain a relationship with a cat person, you’d better learn what makes a feline, and thus his care provider (cats are never owned), happy.

The petting of a cat may seem to be elementary, but it is, in fact, a highly developed art. Do not think you can avoid a cat, and thus the deed, for it has been proven in countless experiments that a cat will make a beeline for the one who least wants to see it coming. This is inner radar cats have, probably related to their uncanny ability to find their way back home from wherever they may have been dumped.

So, smile cheerily, acknowledge the introduction to Kitty Yum Yum, and then deliver the perfect pat to endear you to the cat’s caregiver forever.

Spring Bull Gallery

Newport Yaching Center

Thames Street Books


Petting Techniques

  1. The Dribble: By far the most common pat given by non–cat lovers, it consists of a quick series of tap, tap, taps on the head with the fingers, similar to the dribbling of a basketball down the court. It is the equivalent of going “kitchy-kitchy-koo” under a baby’s chin, and about as much appreciated. The Dribble Pat is jarring, as the cat’s head tends to bounce up and down under it. He will often squint his eyes and jerk his head away in disgust, exposing you to all who may be watching as an insincere petter. Avoid the Dribble Pat.
  2. The Stroke: As the name implies, this is the movement of your hand from between the cat’s ears as far back as you wish to carry it. Spreading your fingers wide as you do the Stroke adds to the cat’s enjoyment and, if properly done, is one of the favorite pats. Carrying the Stroke all the way up the tail denotes a true cat expertise that cannot fail
    to impress.
  3. The Ear and Chin Scratch: This is tricky and belongs in the expert category, but you might want to try it if you are visiting a cat lover you particularly want to awe. It involves cupping half of the cat’s head in your palm and using your index finger to rub behind the ear. This is an especially vulnerable spot for a cat, an erogenous zone, so to speak, and he will become putty in your hand, or palm, provided you don’t stick the finger in his ear, a definite no-no.
  4. The Tail Squeeze: Not to be confused with the Stroke Pat, which can go all the way up the tail at times, this pat begins at the base of the tail and travels up to the tail’s tip. While no cat likes to have his tail pulled, he will usually put up with a gentle caress of this type since all cats are vain, especially of their tails. You will know immediately if a cat does not like the Tail Squeeze, because he will spin around with unbelievable speed, seize your hand between two paws, and bite — hard. The Tail Squeeze, therefore, is reserved for expert petters.
  5. The Tummy Rub: It is a very rare cat who will tolerate this, and only a dog-oriented individual who would try it. First off, it tickles — and just as your instincts cause you to double over when poked in the tummy, so do a cat’s. Because of a cat’s claws, this can be painful — to you.
  6. The Paw Spread: This is truly a connoisseur’s pat and not always known to even the most devoted cat people. Taking light hold of a leg (it works best on a hind leg for some reason), hold it with one hand while using the middle finger of the other to gently tickle the middle pad of the paw. If the cat is in the right mood — after-dinner drowsiness is good — he will soon spread his toes in delight and commence a deep-throated purr, a sign to one and all that you have succeeded.

There are other kinds of pats, and several variations of the ones mentioned above, but these should be enough to get you through a visit or two. However, do not make the mistake of thinking you are now ready for action. You must also learn something about various types of cats so you will know which petting technique is best suited for the type of cat at hand.


Cat Categories

The Short-Haired Domestic: This is the most common cat around and also goes under the name of “Alley Cat,” a label likely to be shunned by its caregiver as very gauche. The Shorthair is an “easy pat.” Aside from the Marmalade, which will be dealt with later, this cat is usually nonchalant about the type of caress it receives. While their personalities are as diverse as their ancestors (so that you may come across a Shorthair with a Siamese streak of stubbornness), as a rule, they will not give you much trouble.

An exception might be an unaltered Tomcat, whose head, when touched, is likely to be a mass of bumps and knots and, consequently, somewhat sensitive. Some Tomcats can be horrendously ugly, with eyes swollen shut, ears chewed into ragged flaps, and oozing sores in various stages of infection. Any suggestion on your part that poor Joe Louis be relieved of his troublesome masculinity will be met with incredulous stares of outrage from his owner, coincidentally also a male. “Deprive old Joe of his swinging lifestyle?” he will ask in amazement. “Why he’s the toughest, and the most satisfied, cat in the neighborhood!”

Since Tomcats are either asleep (daytime) or out carousing (nighttime), it’s unlikely you will be faced with the necessity of petting one anyway.


The Marmalade: Anyone who has ever come in contact with a Marmalade does not need to be told that they are a special cat. While it may be as wrong to judge a cat by his color as it is a person, an orange tabby feline has a weirdness all its own.

Nonetheless, the Marmalade is just the type of cat who will approach a perfect stranger for a pat. Indeed, he will jump directly into your lap, look you straight in the eye with those marvelous yellow orbs, and demand a pat. But beware — a Marmalade is nothing if not schizophrenic. While it may have jumped on your lap, where it is now kneading stitches into your thigh, a hand raised for a friendly Stroke Pat by you may be suddenly attacked, forced down, and subjected to bites, scratches, and ferocious hind-leg kicks. To the cat, this is nothing but a little rough foreplay. He may just as suddenly stop in mid-attack and begin licking and nudging your hand with undying love.

If you are counting on rescue by Marmalade’s caregiver, forget it. He has long since been put in his place and is likely to be relieved that the cat’s attention is diverted from him. Look around the home of a Marmalade, and you will see shredded upholstery, scratched table legs, and a noticeable lack of knick-knacks cluttering up the place. You may also notice your host’s hands swathed in Band-Aids. Marmalades are fearless, often to their own detriment. They will bring not only dead mice, moles, and birds to the doorstep (or into the house if not watched), but also giant bullfrogs, squirrels, and even snakes. The squirrels will usually put up quite a fight, and the final appearance of victor and loser at the door can be rather gory. Marmalade owners have high vet bills.

It is natural to wonder why any sane person would choose to share his home with such a cat. The answer lies in the very versatility and character of the beast. Marmalade people, like the owners of large, fierce dogs, are usually very proud of their pets. The fact that they can live in relative harmony with such an unusual personality implies that they must be very special, too.

So, when a pretty orange kitty comes into view, and you are put in the position of having to pet, it is best to do it from behind. Lift your hand high in the air and bring it down squarely on top of the cat’s head, just behind the ears. Then give one firm, quick Stroke Pat, bringing your hand away immediately and sitting on it as unobtrusively as possible.


The Siamese: Siamese cats are easily identifiable by their mask-like face markings, as well as dark feet and tail tips on otherwise cream-colored bodies. They also have gorgeous blue eyes and talk a lot in high-pitched, shrieking howls. Since a purebred Siamese can be expensive to obtain, they are usually treated as real treasures, and you will be expected to regard them as such. Because of that same value, they are almost always house cats. You will have little choice of avoiding them, because they will not be “out” when you are visiting.

The good news is that they are often very antisocial with strangers, so if you are visiting the home of a Siamese and find it hard to ignore King of Siam draped over the tea table, it is best to inquire first whether he likes to be petted by outsiders. This will probably evoke an hour-long parade of stories about King’s unique personality, and maybe even King himself will get bored enough to leave before you are forced to pet. If not, a light, very respectful, Stroke type is probably best.


Longhairs: All longhaired cats have two things in common: they are very vain about their lovely, long fur, and their main goal is to get as much of it as possible on you. Therefore, petting a longhaired cat must be undertaken with caution. One good Stroke Pat can release hundreds of winged hairs into space, all of which will invariably land on you.

But to ignore a Longhair is a virtual impossibility. They are usually loving creatures and will come up to you and rub against a leg until noticed, so unless you want to go home with furry ankles, you had best pay attention to them right away and get it over with. This might be the time for the strokes we have studied that are not very popular with the feline itself, since you do not want to encourage it to hang around. A good, hard Tail Squeeze, with a little extra tug at the end, may earn you an annoyed look as the cat stalks away. The Dribble will also be discouraging as it shows no acknowledgement at all of the cat’s super fur.

When visiting the home of a Longhair, choose your seat carefully. If you happen to pick Samantha’s favorite, you will not only get a fuzzy bottom, but also earn fierce stares from the displaced cat. Not even Archie Bunker is more outraged at being ousted from “his chair,” and your hostess will likely either speak directly to you about it or be reduced to nervous stares and giggles until you realize something is wrong.

If, after a pat or two, your newfound friend insists on settling in on your lap for the duration of your visit, there is only one course of escape open to you. Tell your hostess, very regretfully, that you are allergic to cats and, although you would dearly love to spend the next several hours with Samantha embedded in your lap, your doctor has absolutely forbidden it. At this point a sneeze is called for, as authentic as you can make it, and it becomes clear that either you or the cat will have to leave the room. Do not be offended if you are handed your coat.


Kittens: A special word of warning about kittens of any kind. Kittens were designed by the Creator to wend their way into a stony heart and help reduce the homeless cat population of the world. They are totally helpless, adorable puffs of fur that somehow convey the illusion that they will stay that way forever. Alas, this is not the case. In a remarkably short time, that lovable little blue-eyed darling will grow into an awkward adolescent and then full-fledged cathood — tripping you on your way to the refrigerator and yowling to be let out at midnight and in at 6 a.m. Remember this when your beaming host leads you over to a pink and blue streamer–decked box to show you “the babies.” He is setting you up. One “Oh, aren’t they just darling!” exclamation will find you walking out the door with a mewing bundle under your arm before you know what hit you.

You could do worse for fun, companionship, and love.


God Bless America© 2003 Timshel Literature