Petting a dog or cat causes a chain reaction of signals in our brains, making us feel happy.
Studies have shown that people can experience an increase in oxytocin, called the “cuddle hormone,” during interactions with companion animals. Oxytocin triggers feelings of trust and happiness.
In one such experiment, from 2009, subjects who played with their dogs and made eye contact with them for a few minutes experienced a 20% jump in oxytocin levels.
Here’s the sweet part: The increase in feel-good chemicals works both ways. That is, both you and your pet experience an increase in oxytocin.
All of which is to say, petting is a great thing! It builds bonds.
But there are lots of “wrong ways” to go about petting a dog or cat. In this article, we share our best advice on petting, picking up pets and rubbing bellies.
Best Places to Pet a Dog
Dogs’ preferences range from belly rubs to neck, shoulder and head petting to back scratches.
Here are a few “don’ts” you should know when trying to determine a dog’s favorite petting spot:
- Don’t try to pet an unfamiliar dog right after being introduced. Let the dog come to you. Greet them with a relaxed, outstretched hand (palm down). Let them smell your hand, then gently pet them around the ears.
- Don’t try to pet a dog while they are barking. You might get bitten.
- Don’t stare. Sure, fleeting eye contact with the dog is fine, but some dogs perceive prolonged staring as a threat.
- Don’t pet a dog you don’t know. Even friendly dogs will bite out of fear.
- No sudden movements. Don’t jerk your hand back every time the dog’s nose touches you. Even though you may mean this to be a playful gesture, the dog may see it as a threat.
Gently massaging a puppy’s mouth and gums will feel pleasant to them and will help get them used to having their mouth handled, which will make things easier when you begin a regular dog toothbrushing routine.
Puppies also welcome foot massages, which may help make future nail trimmings less stressful.
Best Places to Pet a Cat
First of all, do not swoop down on a cat you’ve just met. Certainly don’t just grab them.
Remember that, just like dogs, each individual cat is bound to have personal preferences. With that said, there are a few spots on their bodies where most cats seem to enjoy being petted.
See if your cat prefers one of these petting locations:
- Under the chin: Simply take your index finger and stroke the bottom of the chin.
- Between the eyes: This is a pleasant petting spot for many cats. Use one finger to lightly stroke from the top of the nose, up between the eyes to the top of the face.
- The base of the tail: It might sound weird, but this area of the back could turn out to be your cat’s most-loved place to be petted. Try petting on the back just above where the top of their tail joins the cat’s body.
- Behind the ears: Best petting spot for cats? Quite possibly. While some like a little light ear scratching, others enjoy a more vigorous scratch.
Just as with puppies, the earlier you begin handling your kitten, the better.
Pick them up, gently play with their paws and clip their nails. Check their ears and mouth.
Doing all these things will make it easier when you have to medicate or even bathe them later. More important, it will go a long way toward socializing them.
The Right Way to Pick Up and Handle Your Cat
Cats aren’t all that big on being picked up. They’ll come over for petting and sometimes even play at being lap cats, but it has to be when they want it. They like to take their time about getting up close and personal.
Here are 3 things to keep in mind:
1. Go slowly.
Don’t try to pick the cat up right away. Let them become familiar with you and your scent first. Hold out your fingers for them to smell.
2. When you pick the cat up, hold on loosely, but don’t let go.
A cat needs to feel that they’re being held securely with your hands firmly supporting both their upper body and hindquarters. It’s a fine line between “firmly supporting” and “holding hostage.”
3. Let them down when they want down.
If you feel the cat getting squirmy, ease them back down to the floor. Knowing that they can get down whenever they want will make them more likely to let you pick them up again.
Why Doesn’t My Cat Like Being Held?
Many cats simply don’t like being held. There are a few possible explanations for this.
For starters, some cats spook more easily than others. Picking them up would terrify the kitty-crap out of them. So you have to be especially gentle and understanding with them.
These scaredy-cats prefer understated gestures, such as an affectionate scratch between the ears or just sitting with them in companionable silence. These things make them feel happier and more secure than being held.
Or perhaps the resistance to being held comes down to a breed thing for your cat:
- Maine Coons, for instance, are gentle, loving giants, but these cats don’t care much for being picked up.
- The same holds true for many Abyssinians. Perhaps it has something to do with their active temperament.
- But Ragdolls? That’s another story. Ragdolls glory in hands-on treatment. They let kids pick them up, and they will go limp in your arms when you pick them up, just like the dolls they’re named for.
What About Belly Rubs?
Oh, that tempting belly.
If there’s anything people get indignant about, it’s the way those sneaky cats lay a trap for us with those enticing bellies. They lie right there, belly ready for rubbing.
Yet, when we move in, spang! The claws and teeth come out.
To us humans, it’s all just belly rubbing. Dogs have a different view. They show their belly as a sign of submission. In dog language, they are saying, “You are the boss,” “I am no threat to you” and “I am not plotting any kind of overthrow of your regime!”
Cats have another entirely different view. They show their belly as a sign of trust.
In cat language, they are saying, “I am able to show you my belly because I am not afraid of you. This is an eloquent signal of my ability to relax in your presence.”
We can’t treat it as we would the same body language when offered by a dog. Your cat never wants their bully rubbed by you as though you are polishing out a scratch on a new car.
The proper way to rub that belly is to hold out your finger several feet from the belly, zero in on the belly with it and pretend to stroke the belly with your fingers. Yes, just pretend to do it. Cats love the mind game part of this and will be delighted that you are such a scamp.
OK, sure. That is a cat-safe, friendly and fun way to interact with them, but is it really belly rubbing? If you really want to go for the belly, then do the following:
- The cat should be standing.
- Approach the cat slowly, with your fist. This lets them know you aren’t going to grab them, and a sudden move on the cat’s part won’t get them jabbed by your stray finger.
- Start petting the head, then work your way down the back. Then run your “fist of friendship” under the cat’s belly. If they’re happy you’ve advanced this far, you can open your hand and gently rub their belly while saying happy things about how great they are.
And that’s how to rub a cat’s belly — with both of you enjoying the experience.
If you haven’t discovered your dog or cat’s favorite place to be petted yet, don’t give up. Just remember that every pet is different.
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- Nagasawa, Miho, et al. “Attachment Between Humans and Dogs.” Japanese Psychological Research 51, no. 3 (September 2009): 209–221. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1468-5884.2009.00402.x.
- Handlin, Linda, PhD, et al. “Short-Term Interaction Between Dogs and Their Owners: Effects on Oxytocin, Cortisol, Insulin and Heart Rate—An Exploratory Study.” Anthrozoös 24, no. 3 (September 2011): 301–315. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2011-20317-006.
- Wanshel, Elyse. “Who Loves Their Humans More: Cats or Dogs? Here’s the Answer.” HuffPost. Feb. 1, 2016. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/cat-vs-dog-who-loves-humans-more_n_56af85a4e4b077d4fe8ed1ed.
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This article was written by a Petful team of behavioral experts and writers, including Pamela Merritt and T.J. Banks.