Research by Dr. Sarah Ellis (University of Lincoln) et al investigated how cats respond to being stroked by their owner and an unfamiliar person, and which parts of the body they prefer to be petted. The results show cats have definite preferences.
It is thought that animals prefer petting from humans to be similar to the ways animals show affection to members of their own species. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you are expected to lick your cat (affectionate cats often lick each other, something called allo-grooming). But friendly feline behaviour involves certain parts of the body where there are many scent glands: around the lips, chin and cheek (peri-oral gland); between the eyes and ears (temporal gland); and around the base of the tail (caudal gland).
When cats rub against each other in these areas, they are transferring scent from one to the other, which makes them smell more similar. Many readers will know that when introducing cats to each other, it’s a good idea to swap scent between them before they ever meet. So you might guess that these three areas are where cats would prefer their humans to touch them.
There could also be an order effect. When cats rub against each other, they start by rubbing their heads, and only sometimes progress to intertwining tails. On the other hand, when they groom each other, there isn’t a set order.
The researchers tested 34 cats (age 6 months to 12 years) in their own homes. Cats were given time to get used to the experimenter and video recorder before the experiment started. Each cat was tested on two different days, one time with the owner stroking it and another time with the experimenter doing the stroking.
As well as the three scent gland areas, they tested five other parts of the body (top of the head, back of the neck, top of the back, middle of the back, and the chest and throat). The experiment was standardized: the order of body parts to be stroked was random, stroking was done with two fingers and lasted for 15s in each area. However, cats were free to walk away at any time.
And, being cats, many did. Only 16 of the cats were stroked in all eight areas by both people.
The videos were analyzed to see how cats behaved. The researchers counted how many times friendly behaviours occurred, such as a slow blink, licking the person or rubbing their head against them, grooming, kneading, tail straight up or up with a curl on the end. And they also counted how many times negative behaviours occurred, such as swishing or flicking the tail, moving the head away from the person, licking their lips, biting, or cuffing the person with a paw.
When being stroked by the experimenter, cats showed more negative behaviours when stroked near the tail. In other words, they didn’t like this so much. The cats seemed to prefer being stroked by the experimenter more than by the owner. There were no differences in positive behaviours.
In a second experiment with 20 different cats, owners stroked their cat in a set order, either from the top of the head and along the back to the tail, or vice versa. This time they could use their whole hand or just one or two fingers, however they would normally pet the cat. And this time, only 3 cats moved away.
These videos also showed that cats did not like being stroked near the tail, regardless of the order. The lack of an order effect suggests being stroked is more like allo-grooming than allo-rubbing, though more research is needed.
So what does this mean for the human-feline relationship? The scientists say owners should avoid stroking near the tail. Instead, they should stroke the face, especially in the areas where the scent glands are.
So why did cats prefer to be petted by the experimenter rather than their owner? It could be simply that the researcher was new and interesting. The fact the owner had to use two fingers (to standardize the experiment) may have meant the interaction wasn’t what cats expected. It could also be that cats like interactions with their owner to be on their own terms (i.e. cats prefer to initiate interactions themselves). But there’s also the possibility that some cats have learned negative associations to their owners (for example if the owner scolds them).
The results are fascinating, especially the suggestion that stroking is akin to allo-grooming. It’s not clear why some people stroke cats near the tail; perhaps they are treating them the same as they would a dog, without realizing that felines have different preferences to canines.
You might be interested to read this interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis about training cats.
How does your cat like to be petted?
More cat stories:Ellis, S., Thompson, H., Guijarro, C., & Zulch, H. (2014). The influence of body region, handler familiarity and order of region handled on the domestic cat's response to being stroked Applied Animal Behaviour Science DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.11.002
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