Understanding the low petting threshold in cats. What can we do?

Two common issues I come across in my cat behaviour and grooming practice, is low petting aggression and cats that do not like being picked up. Both issues rely on a change of expectations from owners when it comes to how a ‘pet’ should be. It’s a difficult area, especially when it comes to grooming these types of cats, because, of course A: cat owners want and expect something back from the animals they care for and B: grooming is a necessity for cats with long fur.

It was, therefore, interesting to read an article in the March issue of Your Cat , by Sue Parslow, about this very subject. Entitled Handle With Care (pages 14,15,16), Sue discusses a more hands off approach with cats and highlights the fact that many cats do not like the barrage of attention and holding that humans like to lavish on them.

Low Petting Aggression.

This cat stays in the comfort of her box but is enjoying smelling me and getting comfortable in my presence. She is a very nervous cat. I would not attempt to stroke her at this stage.



First of all, lets look at Low Petting Aggression. It’s actually becoming a common feature of my visits, leaving owners feeling rejected and scared of their cats. Low petting aggression happens when a cat is conflicted by the need for closeness, to the owners and the dislike of being stroked for too long.  This causes inner conflict which erupts with an aggressive response in an attempt to stop the physical touching. This type of aggression can also be due to over stimulation and arousal but still leaving the cat with conflicted emotions. Some cats have a very low threshold which can be seconds, whilst others can go for much longer before lashing out.








Usual signs that a cat is becoming irritated are:

  • Swishing of the tail
  • Rippling of back (over stimulation)
  • Ears back or flatter
  • Hissing

Sometimes the cat will show no signs of irritation but will simply lash out, seemingly without reason and leaving the owner feeling shaken and with a bad scratch or bite wound.


The biggest challenge when living with cats that don’t like too much stroking is to recognise that not all cats like to be touched the way we think they do. And this is where respect and lower expectations come into play. First of all a cat may like to come and inspect their human and to place their scent on them as a way of greeting them or certain guests that visit the home. This is not a green light to reach out to stroke the cat with a low petting threshold. This is a greeting that the cat likes and can ‘handle’. It is best to get on the level of the cat and to relax the arm downwards so that the hand is there for the cat to rub against. A cat may like to do this several times, purring away to show contentment. Some cats may hiss and attack straight away should that relaxed hand then reach above them to stroke their head! So, first things first. Watch and listen to your cat.

  • What makes them relaxed?
  • What are their likes and dislikes?
  • How long do they enjoy a stroke before you see signs of discontent?
  • Do they actually look like they enjoy being picked up?

Understanding a cat’s body language and respecting what your cat wants and feels is the way to achieving a balanced relationship without the human caretaker getting harmed.

As Sarah Fisher, a Teddington Touch practitioner, righty states “When your cat sits on your lap, it’s likely he just wants your body warmth and to be close to you. He doesn’t necessarily want a lot of fuss while he’s there’.

Which leads us to the question:

How much touching and attention do our cats really like?

In the Your Cat article mentioned above, Vikki Halls, author of many books on cats speaks about the need for reflection and a change of approach when it comes to cat owner expectations and this us an approach I have spoken about at length on many of my feline behaviour consultations in the past. I quote:

Imagine, whenever you walk into a room, you’re immediately greeted with over the top enthusiasm . After high pitched greetings and baby talk, you were scooped up, smothered in kisses and squeezed. If that happens every single time you encounter that person, you are going to stop going into the room where they are. You would probably start to avoid them altogether.  We should be slowing down and tuning into the signals our cats are struggling to communicate to us, in terms of how they like to be handled. A less demanding or imposing approach will mean you may see more of your cat. Cats prefer low intensity, less intrusive interactions, in short bursts. They prefer to be in control; when they say it ends it should end. Full on body and eye contact, and constant touch, are alien to most cats. We should be more sophisticated in how we read our cats. It’s a hard truth that cats learn to tolerate certain interactions that they feel uncomfortable about, as a means to an end.

But my cat loves me and wants me to touch them?

I hear this many times but again it is down to reading signals from your cat and not assuming that just because it head butts your leg that it wishes to be rubbed frantically on the head and scooped up like carrying a baby. Some cats will flop over and show their belly to you. This is a sign that a cat is feeling very comfortable within its territory and within your presence but is not a green light for a human hand to suddenly start doing the jazz hands rub over its most vunerable area!

help with timid cat
Nelly enjoying closeness on a lap


The best thing we can do for our cats is be mindful of their body language and understand touching and handling from their perspective. With all of the above in mind my top 5 tips would be:

  1. Be aware of body language and stop touching if your cat is getting twitchy or too aroused. A nip or scratch will be forthcoming if you continue to ignore the signs.
  2. Don’t be disappointed if your cat isn’t a lap cat. Many of the long haired breeds of cat overheat when sitting on our laps, so prefer to sit beside us. As Sarah Fisher (Tellington TTouch Instructor) rightly points out ‘accept that sharing the sofa with your cat is a compliment from that individual’
  3. Some cats do not want to be stroked whilst sitting on our laps but merely want to enjoy the warmth our laps bring (S Fisher – Your Cat) or to be close to us, so again, accept the compliment. One cat I know called Mish Mish has a very low tolerance level. I found out very early on, when she first sat on my lap, that stroking her resulted in a nasty bite with no prior warning!
  4. Get on a cats level and loosely hang the hand down for a cat to rub against it with no attempt to stroke the cat. Cats with low level handling tolerance love this approach and feel comfortable with it. Remember that some cats from rescue centres view the hand approaching them or reaching above their heads with trepidation. Perhaps the movement is connected to a negative association from experiences in the past?

Teddington Touch has an excellent approach to cats that do not do well with high concentrated handling and touching. Among the techniques offered are light strokes with a feather or an artist watercolour brush, lightly stroking the head and cheeks. An area most cats love (S Fisher – Your Cat)


Abu is keeping her distance but enjoying being in the same room as a human

Help should be sought by an accredited cat behaviourist should any cat owner be struggling with a cat that is excessively timid or phobic of strangers. Many things can be addressed including changing the territory to help these cats alongside gently challenging exercises to help a cat gain confidence.

Every cat and case is different but understanding natural basic feline behaviour is a good starting point.


I hope you have enjoyed my article on low petting threshold in cats.

Good luck.

Cat books

She is the author of two cat books ‘Claws. Confessions Of A Professional Cat Groomer‘, published by John Blake and Let’s Talk About Cats. Conversations On Feline Behaviour