Charles Dickens may have said there is no greater gift than the love of a cat – but, as many pet owners will attest, they can be extremely fickle in their affections.
Scientists now say the secret to winning cats over is to put them in charge during human interactions and let them choose when they want to be petted.
Allowing the animals to "call the shots" also reduces aggressive behaviour and encourages them to be more affectionate, according to a new study.
Researchers at Nottingham Trent University, alongside feline behaviour experts at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, advised owners to adopt a "hands-off approach" when it comes to petting.
Instead, they should allow the cat to move away if it chooses, and not be tempted to pick it up or follow it because this takes away a cat's sense of control.
The team developed a set of interaction guidelines – which follow a simple Cat acronym – and tested their hypotheses in a series of trials involving 100 cats and a group of randomly selected participants.
The advice encourages people to provide the cat with choice and control (C), pay attention (A) to the cat's behaviour and body language and think about where they are touching (T) the cat.
To offer choice and control, owners should gently offer their hand to the cat and allow it to decide if it wants to interact or not, usually indicated by it rubbing against the person's hand.
Signals that a cat wants a break from petting include turning its head, rotating its ears or letting them become flattened and if the fur along its back appears to ripple.
When it comes to stroking, the team found most cats prefer being touched on the base of their ears, around their cheeks and under their chins.
To test their findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science, researchers monitored participants' brief interactions with 100 cats housed at Battersea.
Each participant interacted with six cats, three before they received training on the Cat guidelines and three after.
Researchers found cats were much less likely to exhibit signs of discomfort or behave aggressively when people followed the guidelines.
The same cats were also more likely to show friendly behaviours towards the participants and to appear more comfortable during interactions that occurred post-training.
Dr Lauren Finka, the lead author on the study, said: "The results demonstrate a clear preference amongst cats for a more 'hands-off' approach to petting, which ultimately lets them call most of the shots.
"Cats are not necessarily known for being overly expressive when it comes to communicating how they are feeling. This can often cause issues during petting because many cats may feel a little uncomfortable at times, but this isn't something that is always easy for us to pick up on."
JoAnna Puzzo, Battersea's feline welfare manager, said: "While every cat has a wonderfully unique personality, they do often share fundamental similarities, as this new study shows.
"Cats can be incredibly subtle when expressing their likes and dislikes, and as a result their behaviour can be misunderstood or ignored completely."