In the animal welfare world, we talk a lot about consent for touch with dogs, but this theory applies as much to cats as to dogs. You’ll often hear a cat parent say something like, “He likes attention, but only on his terms,” and to some, that is thought of as a bad thing, making cats less desirable as pets. The truth is that all of our pets at home deserve the same respect, the choice to move away when they want to, and to seek attention on their terms, without labeling them as “difficult,” which is often how we refer to cats who need space from their people at times.
In reality, you’ll see even the most confident, social cat seek a break in interaction or need some time to say hello properly before being petted. The best way to ask consent from your cat, or a cat you’ve just met, is to offer just a pointer finger, not your whole hand. Cats often greet one another nose to nose and the tip of your pointer finger is the closest we can come to recreating that greeting. The cat might approach and rub on your finger; that’s an invitation for pets! Stick to her face and cheeks, and only pet her for a moment, allowing her to move back in to seek more attention or give her the space she might need to move away and come back another time. If the cat doesn’t move forward for pets when you offer your finger, you can try to offer some great treats or wet food to make friends, but give him the distance he’s asking for. He’ll come to you when he’s ready, especially if you have really tasty treats for him!
As you get to know your cat better, or as you’re reexamining your relationship with your cat, you’ll get to know his body language, and will know when he’s done being petted just by how he’s holding his head, tail and body. Try this rule of thumb: offer a finger, move into an interaction based on the response you get and then offer five seconds of attention. Stop petting at that point and only resume if your cat actively seeks you to do so. Let him seek attention, let him walk away, let him turn the interaction into some playtime… you have to be ready to respond in any way that he wants in order for him to trust you; and when he trusts you, he has a lot less need to communicate through biting or scratching!