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When Petting Your Kitty, Think Like a Cat

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

places to pet your cat

Story at-a-glance -

  • Cats can be quite picky about where and how they like to be petted and stroked by humans
  • In thinking about where your cat likes to be petted, it’s helpful to understand how kitty friends show affection to one another and which areas of the body they focus on
  • A U.K. study concluded that most cats don’t enjoy being stroked near the base of the tail; however, opinions on this differ, since some kitties do seem to enjoy it
  • The tummy is one area of the body that most experts agree should be avoided when petting your cat

If you share your home with one or multiple kitties, you're probably aware that figuring out the best way to interact with a cat — especially physically — can be quite a challenge. And since each kitty is an individual, finding your groove with one doesn't mean you can use the same approach with another.

For example, some cats are quite extroverted and will seek out humans for attention, while others are aloof. There are cats who love to be held and stroked; others seem to enjoy the attention only to change their mind (vehemently) within seconds. The bottom line is that petting a cat, especially one you don't know very well, can be risky because the handling one kitty enjoys can bring out the claws in another.

Fortunately, in 2015, researchers at the University of Lincoln in the U.K. decided to try to unravel the mystery of feline petting preferences.1 More about that study shortly.

To Pet a Cat the Right Way, Think Like a Cat

Because we're humans, we tend to assume our animal companions appreciate the same kind of touching we do. But research indicates animals prefer human touch that is similar to the touch of members of their own species. For example, friendly felines often lick each other — an activity known as allo-grooming — so it's possible your cat would really prefer you lick rather than pet her (not recommended!).

Cat friends also tend to lick one another in spots rich with scent glands, including around the lips, chin and cheek; between the eyes and ears; and around the base of the tail. When cats rub against one another in these areas, they are swapping scents, with the result that they wind up smelling similar.

Also, cat experts recommend swapping scents between two strange felines before introducing them. This can be accomplished by gently wiping one cat's head with a clean cloth and then gently stroking the other cat's head with the same cloth.

Given the above, it would seem to make sense that the face, head, and base of the tail would be where cats would prefer their humans pet them.

There might also be an order in which cats prefer to be stroked. For example, kitty friends tend to start interactions by rubbing their heads against one another. Interestingly, when they allo-groom, there doesn't seem to be a particular order they follow.

Study Shows Petting Around the Base of the Tail Is Not a Big Hit

In the 2015 U.K. study I mentioned earlier, researchers decided to look at two aspects of cat petting: how kitties respond to being stroked by a familiar vs. an unfamiliar person, and which parts of the body are the best petting spots. To accomplish this, they videotaped 34 cats aged six months to one year in their own homes. The kitties were given time to adjust to the presence of the researcher and the video recorder before the experiment started.

Each cat was evaluated on two different days. On one of the days, the owner stroked the cat, and on the other day, the researcher did the petting. The team tested not only the three scent gland areas (around the lips, chin and cheek; between the eyes and ears; and around the base of the tail), but also five additional areas: top of the head, back of the neck, top of the back, middle of the back, and chest and throat.

The order in which the cats' various body parts were petted was deliberately random. Stroking was done with two fingers for 15 seconds at each location.

The cats were free to walk away at any point during the petting sessions, and several did. Of the 34 kitties observed, only 16 allowed themselves to be stroked in all 8 areas by both their owner and a researcher.

At the end of the experiment, the research team analyzed the videos. First, they looked for the number of times the cats responded positively with slow blinks, licking the person or rubbing their head against them, grooming, kneading, and holding their tail up.

Next the researchers counted the number of times the cats displayed negative behavior, including swishing/flicking the tail, moving their head away from the person, licking their lips, biting, or taking a swipe at the person with their paw.

The results of the experiment showed that the cats displayed more negative behaviors when stroked near the tail. Interestingly, they also seemed to prefer being petted by the experimenter rather than their owner. The researchers offered a few theories to explain this surprising result:

  • The experimenters were simply new and novel, and therefore more interesting to the cats
  • The owners' two-fingered stroke was not what the cats were used to or expecting
  • The cats were accustomed to initiating interactions with their owners instead of the other way around
  • Some of the cats may have been wary of their owners for unknown reasons
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Second Group of Cats Validates the No-Tail-Petting Theme

The researchers performed a second experiment with a different group of 20 cats. Owners stroked their cat in a prescribed order, either from the top of the head and down the back to the tail, or the reverse. They used their normal method of petting rather than a prescribed (two-finger) method.

During this experiment, only 3 of the 20 cats walked away, however, the researchers observed that these cats also did not enjoy being stroked near the base of the tail, regardless of when in the petting sequence it occurred.

A Third Opinion: Yes to the Tail, No to the Tummy

For another opinion on base-of-the-tail petting, I consulted an article written by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker (no relation!) in VetStreet. According to him, there are four good places to pet your cat, including the base of the tail.2 Pet here:

1. Base of the chin — Kitties seem to really enjoy being gently rubbed beneath the chin, especially right in the spot where the jawbone connects to the skull, which is rich with scent glands.

2. Cheeks, behind the whiskers — This is another area loaded with scent glands. It seems kitties really like it when you rub areas of their body that contain scent glands, because those little glands release their scent onto you. They have "scent marked" you without even trying!

3. Base of the ears — Guess what's at the base of your cat's ears? That's right - more scent glands. Apparently, the goal of scent-marking is to make kitty's territory (including you) smell familiar, and therefore comfortable and safe. That's why head butting or bunting is a favorite feline pastime.

4. Base of the tail — Many cats seem to enjoy it when their human runs a hand down their back and applies gentle pressure at the base of the tail. If your kitty amplifies his purring and lifts his backend up toward your hand, he's a base-of-the-tail guy. I've known cats who do exactly as described here, and I've known others who are clearly uncomfortable being touched near their tails.

Not here:

1. Tummy — It's safe to say most (not all, but most) cats don't enjoy belly scratches. One explanation is that if your kitty lived in the wild, predators would be a constant threat. The most vulnerable spot on a cat's body is her belly. Just beneath the surface of that silky skin lie all her vital organs.

Another reason could be that the hair follicles on a cat's belly and tail area are hypersensitive to touch, so petting there can be overstimulating.3 In any event, most cats instinctively shield their tummies, though some do learn to enjoy a gentle belly rub. Your best bet is to assume your cat doesn't and limit your petting to safe areas of her body.