Cat Attention: Pet a Cat That Plays Kitty Keep Away

Understanding Kitty Keep Away

Photo of Woman Petting Happy Tabby Cat
Woman Petting Happy Tabby Cat. © Getty / Credit: Westend6

Do you try to give your cat attention, and think you know how to pet a cat? Or does your cat ask to be petted and then walk away and wait just out of reach, playing keep away for you to come to her? Seren does this, and I know other readers also experience "kitty keep away" behavior. She'll move enough that I need to take a step, bend over and reach to pet again-whereupon she again tippy-toe dances a finger's width away.

I've seen cats (including Seren) do this over and over and over.

Understanding Kitty Keep Away

With some cat behaviors, I truly wish there was a cat crystal ball to ask, what's up with that? There likely are several things going on with this behavior, and the reason may vary between cats or circumstances. For instance, if kittens aren't properly socialized, they may not appreciate being touched. Or maybe you've changed your aftershave or hand lotion and the cat wants a petting, but can't stand the scent of the perfume. Let's put ourselves in the cat's furry paws and take a look from the kitty eye view.

When and How Does It Happen?

Seren most often plays "kitty keep away" when I'm standing up. For some cats, a human standing or "looming" over top of them can be overwhelming. Have you ever met somebody who insisted on standing too close, and invaded your personal space? As a child, I remember feeling very uncomfortable around relatives who wanted to hug all the time.

The cat may love you and want to be near, but then feel uncomfortable with touching and so move away. Other cats might use the leave-me-alone bite when too much petting prompts petting aggression.

Perhaps your cat approaches for petting while you sit or even recline. Seren likes to hop up onto the hassock in front of me, wait until I lean forward to touch her, and then move just enough out of reach that I must shift in the chair (and so on).

She eventually hops back off after only a couple of strokes.

What Happens Next?

After you've been frustrated with the petting and followed your cat around the room, what do you do? And what does the cat ultimately do?

Look at where the cat leads you. Is it perhaps in the direction of the food bowl, or some other cat-pleasing resource like where you hide the catnip? Or have you been watching television, or working for hours on the laptop, like I do?

For a behavior to be repeated, the cat receives some sort of reinforcement or reward. Therefore, cats may learn that if they stand still, they'll get one or two strokes and then the human turns back to the TV program. But if they practice their kitty keep away routine, they prolong the attention. They also get to control the interaction, which is very important to many cats.

Kitty Fair Play

Finally, let's take a reality check. How often do you go to your cat to give unsolicited attention? Do you routinely approach your cat to pet, or invite Kitty to play a game of chase-the-feather toy?

How often does Kitty approach you? How often does he get the brush off when you're busy doing something else like checking email or talking on the phone? In human terms, if you called up a friend and got ignored or hung up on repeatedly, how willing would you be to feel friendly the next time that friend approached you?

Cats are much more likely to both welcome and accept our petting when we return the favor and give attention when they ask. Cats that request attention and are ignored a few times become less likely to ask for petting, or willing to receive it when the human is in a petting mood.

Of course, that's not YOU! and it's not ME! Well, not all the time, anyway. Honestly, I'm getting better about that, right after I check this email.