We’ve gathered helpful information from our feline veterinarians on how to approach, handle, and pet cats as well as how best to deal with difficult cats. These tips will help you to be more caring and respectful when it comes to handling cats.

Showing cat affection

Behavior Basics

How your cat interacts with you and other people depends on his disposition, past experiences, and the current circumstances. Shy cats will adapt to unfamiliar people and environments with greater difficulty and are more likely to react fearfully in new situations. Kittens go through a critical learning phase between the ages of 2 to 7 weeks, called the sensitive period of socialization. During this time, kittens learn to accept contact with other species, such as dogs and humans, as well as unrelated cats. By the time you adopt a kitten and bring it home, this period is usually finished. Kittens that have not received regular friendly handling by humans during 2-7 weeks of age may remain uneasy with human contact all their lives.

How to Approach a Cat

When approaching your cat, it is best to let him make the first move and approach you. Imagine yourself faced with a 50-foot-tall giant and then you can start to understand a cat’s perspective.

There are small things you can do to appear less intimidating:

  • Avoid loud noises and abrupt movements that might startle your cat.
  • Refrain from looming over him, since it makes you appear larger and potentially threatening. Instead sit down on the floor to put yourself at his level.
  • Try inviting your cat into your space instead of moving into his space.
  • Avoid chasing after your cat because this can cause him to become fearful, an experience that can negatively color future interactions with you.

Approaching an unfamiliar cat is always a potentially risky proposition since he is not familiar to you. Although this cat might act friendly, a sudden noise or movement could trigger an aggressive response towards you. When visiting someone’s home, it’s always good to ask about their cat’s behavior towards strangers. If this cat is friendly towards strangers, put your fingers out for him to smell and approach you before attempting to pet him. Do not approach an outdoor cat if you are not familiar with him. This will protect you from potential bites, scratches, and infectious diseases such as rabies and cat scratch disease.

If this unknown cat is allowed outdoors, there’s the added risk of transmission of infectious diseases to consider before having physical contact. Rabies is a deadly viral disease that can be transmitted through a bite. Upper respiratory viruses and feline distemper (feline panleukopenia virus) are not contagious to people, but can be carried on hands and clothes to potentially vulnerable cats at home. Fleas and flea eggs can also hitch a ride on someone’s clothes or shoes.

Picking Up Cats

When you pick up your cat, he experiences a sudden loss of control and his entire sense of security is altered. Some cats – especially if fearful in a new environment or more anxious cats – should not be picked up if at all possible, to avoid further stress to him and potential injury to you. Signs that your cat is stressed include: a tense body, dilated pupils, ears back, and hissing or crying out.

When you want or need to pick up your cat, you should always do your best to provide him with a sense of security while you’re handling him. If your cat is feeling anxious or stressed, then he might struggle, potentially harming himself or you. Different cats have varying levels of tolerance to being held by people. Unless necessary, try to limit handling to your cat’s tolerance level.

Instead of picking him up, entice your cat with treats or toys to get him where you want or need him to be. If it is necessary to pick up your cat to put into a carrier or to remove from danger, have the carrier close by and calmly move towards your cat from behind or the side because coming from the front is often threatening. Carrier training prevents or greatly reduces the need to pick up your cat to put him into the carrier.

As a general rule, you should use both hands to pick up your cat. One hand should scoop up his behind while the other hand supports his front chest. Limit the amount of time your cat is dangling mid-air and provide your cat with as much body contact as possible to hold him securely. Avoid holding your cat in a death grip since this will cause anxiety. Lifting your cat by the scruff is never recommended. Females only carry kittens by their scruff in the first few weeks of life. Although some cats don’t mind being scruffed, many find it stressful even if they do not struggle. Heavier cats might even find being lifted by the scruff painful. The better you know your cat, the better you will be able to read his subtle body language and predict the right time to set him down again. Your cat may respond negatively to odors, such as menthol or strong perfumes and will attempt to get away from these odors.


Petting Cats

Despite evolving as solitary hunters, cats are very social and will form colonies, or social groups, when resources (food, water, shelter) are abundant. Within a colony, cats rub against one another and groom each other to strengthen their bonds and to maintain a group odor for easier recognition. You engage in this behavior when you pet your cat. When your cat rubs against you, this can sometimes be misinterpreted as a request for food. In some cases, overconsumption of food and weight gain may result from this miscommunication.

Most cats prefer to be touched on the head and neck. Your cat may become upset and even aggressive when people attempt to pet him in other areas. Certain cats will become aroused when you pet them for extended periods of time. They will often nip or catch your hand with their claws in warning when they have reached their limit. The best remedy is to avoid reaching that tipping point by reading the subtle cues in your cat’s body language. Your cat will go very still with only the tip of the tail twitching. His ears might be slightly lowered and to the sides and sometimes his back will ripple a bit. If your cat is on someone’s lap and he is already upset, rather than attempting to pick up your cat it is best to simply get up and walk away.

What If My Cat Becomes Difficult to Handle?

As a species, cats are not well equipped to handle conflict. Your cat will attempt to avoid an upsetting situation by running away and hiding. If this is not possible, your cat may become aggressive, even with you! If your cat becomes upset, he can remain so for hours and possibly days before calming down. Therefore, it is imperative to avoid triggering such stress whenever possible.

Do not insist on interacting with your upset cat as this may simply escalate his reactions. Instead, simply remove yourself from the situation by going into another room and closing the door. A fairly common cause of your cat becoming very upset is seeing an unfamiliar cat outdoors. It is important not to touch your cat in this situation, but rather try to distract him with loud noises or throwing a large blanket over your cat to distract him from the stressful situation. Remove yourself and any other animals from the room. When your cat is calmer, reward the calmer behavior with treats or toys, and calm praise.

If your cat is already upset and the situation is not urgent, it is best to wait until your cat has completely calmed down before trying to handle him. If it is not possible to wait, such as a medical emergency, you should stack two thick bathroom towels on top of one another and use them to gently catch and wrap your upset cat up. Make sure to cover his head as well as the rest of his body. The towels provide you with protection and some cats will even calm down somewhat because the towels provide them with some cover.

Before you attempt to catch your upset cat, be sure to close the doors to rooms and block all potential hiding places. Your cat may try to avoid being handled and may even become aggressive towards you for a number of reasons, including fear, pain, and illness. For example, most senior cats suffer from some degree of arthritis which can make regular handling and petting potentially painful. Please discuss this with your veterinarian and ask for any additional assistance you might need to ensure you are handling your cat respectfully and, in a cat-friendly manner.

Contributed by Dr. Isabelle Farly, DVM and Dr. Ilona Rodan, DVM, DABVP (Feline)