Mr. Davis is quite popular with the neighbors when we go out on our walks, and when people come to pet him I can always tell right away if that person is experienced or not in dealing with cats.
For my friends who are inexperienced with cats but still would like to pet them, here are some tips for cat-petting to make a better experience when meeting and greeting a new cat for the first time.
1. When you meet a new cat, let him sniff your hand before you pet him. Stick your finger out towards his nose, stopping a few inches away, or offer your hand palm-up for him to investigate (coming in palm-down can seem threatening to some cats. Dogs, too, for that matter)
2. Let him finish sniffing! This is often where I see people mess up. I feel like the “let a new animal sniff you” rule is pretty commonly understood, but lots of times a person will offer their hand, then after one sniff immediately go in for the pet. Usually the cat is still trying to sniff, and cranes and arcs his head accordingly so the person can’t reach to pet. It can be very awkward.
Just be patient. The sniffy investigation can take several seconds, even longer for wary cats. Keep holding your hand still and wait for the signal.
Cat has initiated sniffing. Let him finish! Be patient!
3. After a thorough sniff, the cat will generally give a clear signal on how to proceed. If the cat backs away or does not move towards you, he doesn’t want to be petted. Don’t press the issue, maybe next time.
Cat is not interested, do not proceed with pet.
Other times he will initiate the pet, which is very easy to follow up. He may rub his face against your outstretched hand or finger, which which case, just scratch that cheek or under the chin. Just make scratching motions with your hand and hold it in place, and the cat will apply the appropriate pressure that he wants by how forcefully he pushes his face into your hand.
He also may move towards you and turn his side towards you, in which case this is a good signal to stroke his back. It may be helpful for inexperienced cat petters to keep the strokes short across the shoulders or at the base of the back near the tail. Like the cheek rub, most of the time the cat will lean into your hand at the part that he wants to be petted, just pay attention.
4. On petting the head: I find that most inexperienced cat-petters want to pat the cat on the top of the head, like you do with dogs. This can be fine, but I recommend avoiding going in to pet the head straight in front of the cat. Having your arm looming right over the cat’s face and obscuring his vision can put him on the defensive. Instead, go in from the side of the cat’s head, or from behind, over the back.
5. Look for the signal to stop petting. Mostly this is just when the cat moves away from you, but sometimes a cat can be mischievous and get riled up by prolonged affection, leading him to view your hand as a play toy. Watch for a vigorously swishing tail, or for the cat to start sharply turning his head towards your hand, or for his eyes to get really big. Those are generally signs to stop petting.
That’s all for now! I hope this guide is helpful. I feel like a lot of these can apply to meeting new dogs as well, but I am most familiar with cats so I’ll stick to that. Good luck!