How to Pet Your Cat
Apart from the first rule that one should never hit a cat with ones hand (its the thing you will pet them with ) the first thing about petting your cat is to realize that the verbalizations and gestures that will comprise a response to your touch are meant to let you know where you stand as well as acknlowedge your companionship. Cats rarely meow when they are hunting or playing with a ball of string. Thats the way they would want to be always.
A cat is looking for a type of companionship that will not compromise its hunting ground - they are by and large solitary animals. When there are too many in a particular area, they will go somewhere else. They will let you know if they love you, but you have to keep your position in their scheme of things. They can be the most wonderful companions in the world, but they deserve to be honored for what they truly are - and I grant you that some can be artificially domesticated into complete submission. I feed my cats by feeding the birds next to a statue of St. Francis on the west side of my place. It is my way of being playful, there are others..
Verbalizations, from a cat, are usually echoes of a kitten-state. When they are not territorial (the hiss, or the warning meow, or the mating call). The short meow, is used by the mother cat to call her kittens and show them that she has killed a bird for them. The purr, interestingly enough - is a signal to you that the cat needs help. A cat, if hit by a car or bitten mortally by a coyote - will in some instances purr to you as it dies. The comfortable purr, of course, is that signal a kitten gives to its mother that says 'I need you always'. And finally, a low, simple meow which is a territorial signal more than anything. Whether to go out, or in, it is a sort of warning and acknowledgement. To draw that meow out, low and long is to flip it to the inverse - and actually call males to an area.
When my cat comes in from the woods, after a long stay away - I always first pet the cat stroking the side of its head - and then , really because I like to - I clean his eyes. If the cat is unresponsive, I grab the cat by the scruff, not hard - but gently until the cat blinks its eyes and then I pick him up and repeat. I want to make it clear to the cat that I love her.
The fact that cleaning a cats eyes, is a special thing that mother cats do to their kittens - is an aside. Cats all remember that they were born unable to see. The symbolic nature of the gentle rub from the bridge of the nose back, clearing away eye-boogers , is just something that adds a little kick - you know, kind of like those nasty ammonia derivatives in cigarettes that help the burn to shoot more nico into your lungs. I really do want to clean their eyes. =)
Another thing you can do is to be fastidious about your touch to them - if you see a burr, pull it out. They will remember that. They enjoy being groomed and being clean.
Finally, a cat will come to you. When he or she does, if they press the side of their cheek and head to you - they are telling you something special - it is a scent mark (you may notice cats do this also to furniture and trees) and it is a mark that says "you are part of my family". Playing with you is also a nice sign, a gentle nip - sometimes an echo of the mating ritual (the male cat bites the female on the scruff), more often a kittenish gesture meant to stay sharp. This is a way they will acknowledge your touch as a form of collegiality, a bit like telling you that they're your littermate.
The correct touch is a combination of gesture and manner to your cat. Being held is not always comfortable to them. Sometimes, from across the room, all you have to do is close your eyes slowly. And watch them be satisfied with you. In any case, the combination of touch, gesture and simple dialog can be the difference between buying endless kitty litter and having fat, relaxed cats on your front porch and no chipmunks anywhere in sight.
A cat will love you always. But if you die and there is no food left. And you're still kind of fresh (most cats have good taste, after all). He will eat you.