Some things really do get better with age. I have long joked that my hairline isn’t one of them, but I know one thing that is: My ability to understand cats better, and to build a stronger, more fulfilling bond with the felines in my life and in my practice.
Which is not to say that I haven’t always loved cats, and had them in my life. But on the Idaho dairy farm where I grew up, everyone had a job, and the cats were employed keeping mice and other vermin from taking over the place. Ours was a professional relationship, an admiration of coworkers.They did their jobs, and I did mine. Workplace romance was strictly limited to a little heavy petting now and then.
I’m no longer a farm boy, but I’m still more than a little bit country. Up here on our Almost Heaven Ranch, I still have barn cats, but they are much more than coworkers now. They’re family.
Feline Love: Breaking the Code
I’ve spent my life caring for and about animals, and I’ve always been a careful observer of what makes them happy. I know the “sweet spots” on every pet I’ve ever met, and since Almost Heaven is a horse ranch (with Quarter Horses whose personalities rival Golden Retrievers for sweetness), I know what makes equine hearts sing too.
But I also know if you hit the wrong note on many a cat, you won’t be singing a happy song for long. And while most cat owners eventually figure that out on their own, you could be one of those people whose current cat tolerates pretty much anything. Your next one, though, could be scratch-happy if you don’t know where to go.
Which is why I love sharing about caring, and in cats that means sticking to four top spots for heavy petting, and ignoring one spot that dogs love but that most cats never will.
Do Not Touch!
Are you ahead of me on the one spot most cats don’t like but most dogs do? If you guessed “belly rub,” you’re right! Why the difference? While dogs are generally pretty secure in their identity as a predator — even tiny dogs seem to imagine that they’re really big, scary wolves — cats have to be more careful when they’re on the prowl. That’s because they are very aware that they are both predator and prey. To a mouse, a cat is an effective killing machine. To a coyote, a cat is lunch.
What this means for a cat is that he’s always looking over his shoulder at what might be coming up behind him. When a cat is in a fight for his life, there’s no territory as important to protect as the belly, since that’s where all the vital organs are readily accessible. A touch there from a cat who hasn’t learned that you don’t mean any harm will trigger a defensive maneuver. Claws and teeth come out, even if they’re not fully engaged.
While some cats can learn to accept gentle belly rubs, others never will. Honestly, it’s probably better to stick to the spots cats do enjoy, even if your cat shows his belly all the time.
Scratch Here, Please
The places cats enjoy being petted are those where their scent glands are concentrated. When your cat rubs on you or the corner of your couch, it’s his chin and the head that make the contact. When a cat does that, he’s leaving his scent on the item (or person). Spreading his scent makes him happy and content, since it makes his environment smell familiar. (Synthetic versions of these pheromones — Feliway is the feline version — are great for helping cats get through stressful events such as moving or going to the veterinarian.)
When you pet a cat in these areas, you’re making him feel wonderfully content. And you’re also helping him to mark you with his special scent, which makes him even happier. So what are these hot spots?
- Base of the chin. Rub your cat gently along the underside of the chin, especially where the jawbone connects to the skull. You’ll likely get the purr-motor running hard, as your cat pushes into this pleasant caress.
- Base of the ears. Like the area underneath the chin, this spot is great for scent-marking. When your cat bumps his head against you — this is called “bunting” — he’s marking you as his own.
- Cheeks behind the whiskers. Hit this spot right and you can often get your cat to show his pleasure keenly by rotating his whiskers forward, as if to say, “More! More! Yeah, right there!”
- Base of the tail. I call this “Elevator Butt.” A gentle caress down the back with pressure at the base of the tail. Repeat, repeat, repeat!
Work your way through these kitty hot spots, and the love you share will only grow. You’ll have earned your tabby stripes as a cat whisperer, and your cat will love you for it.