By Dr. Sarah Wooten
I’m going to risk going against popular opinion here, but I have something to say.
*Braces self for online trolls*
I think National Hug Your Cat Day is a terrible idea, because in general, cats do not like to be hugged. Oh sure—you’ve got the oddball cat that will tolerate just about anything (it’s actually a dog in disguise), but for most cats, a hug from a human is a foreign, uncomfortable feeling, and nine times out of 10, they will try to squirm out of it.
Perhaps it would be helpful to rewind and understand why our feline companions do not enjoy a human-cat hug in the first place.
Cats are not so removed from their wild(er) ancestors. Less than 100 years ago, most cats were outdoor creatures that had teamed up with humans for the benefit of a reliable food source in the form of rodents and a warm barn where they could sleep the winter blues away.
Then we brought cats inside, which changed everything.
Why Cats Don’t Like Hugs
Cat behavior has been evolving over the past century, and cats are now more in tune with humans than ever. But they still retain vestiges of their great, great, great, great, great grandparent’s DNA that tells them that they are both predator and prey. Feral cats hunt small rodents and bugs, but they are also hunted by larger predators that tend to swoop down on them and eat them.
A human swooping down for a cat hug is not much different than a predator swooping down in the wild, and it can actually invoke a stress response in a cat. Stress from a hug can activate the fight, flight or freeze response in a cat. When hugged, many felines will struggle to get loose, or may scratch or bite in their defense. If your cat is tolerating the hug and not trying to get away, don’t mistakenly assume that your cat loves what you are doing. Your cat may be freezing in response to fear. The bottom line is that most cats don’t like being hugged by a human—or anybody else for that matter.
If you have been going around hugging cats, there is no judgement here. If you still want to hug your cat, then I recommend making sure that your cat isn’t stressed by the act. Follow these simple steps to embrace your cat properly.
Signs Your Cat Doesn’t Like a Hug
Signs that your cat may be stressed from a hug can be obvious and can include trying to get away, swishing the tail, having dilated pupils, hissing, scratching, growling or freezing. Other signs of stress, such as urinating or defecating outside the cat litter box, diarrhea, straining to urinate in the litter box, excessive vocalization or hiding are less obvious, but are still signs of stress in cats. I cannot say this enough: if your cat doesn’t like hugs, Don’t. Hug. Your. Cat.
How to Hug Cats That Don’t Show Signs of Stress
If you want to hug your cat, and your cat doesn’t show any signs of stress from the interaction, then you want to do it right, which means hugging cats on their own terms. You never, ever want to sneak up on or swoop in on your cat—that will stress and scare your cat. Let your cat come to you and sit in your lap. Talk to your cat and gently pet your cat in her favorite spot—under the chin is a great choice. If your cat is calm and happy (purring is a bonus!), then gently put your arms loosely around her. If your cat stays calm and happy, then you are golden. Don’t hold your cat tightly, and if your cat shows any signs of stress or wants to get away, then let her go.
Now, you may be sitting there thinking, “Dr. Wooten, that isn’t true! My cat loves being hugged!” As I said, there are exceptions to the rule, but I can’t support having a whole day dedicated to a practice that stresses nine out of 10 cats out. We should be calling it “National Do Something Nice for Your Cat Day.” Instead of hugging cats (which they don’t like), we should create more vertical space, offer them some cat treats, invest in a new cat tree or some cat puzzle toys that you fill with cat food, or take them for checkups to have possible (and painful) dental disease treated. Now THOSE are certainly better ways to show your cat affection.