Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Where Do Cats Like To Be Stroked?

People expect cats to enjoy affection, but what’s the cat’s opinion?

Two ginger cats cuddle together

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.

Two sweet cats rub their bodies together and intertwine their tails

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?

If you would like to support Companion Animal Psychology, you can purchase via our Amazon affiliate links. I receive commission on your purchase. 

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
Photos: Wongwean (top) and ClementKANJ (both
More cat stories:


  1. My cat like to be rubbed under the chin. Everything I rub him there I can tell he is purring.

  2. Very interesting. I'm curious if you know more about allo-grooming. For example my older cat is always grooming the younger cat. But the young cat has never groomed the older cat. I'm wondering what does this mean?

  3. my kitty loves to be pet everywere. he loves to be held like a baby. he loves getting his belly rubbed. he loves getting his tail stroked. the only thim he might gently bite me is if i touch his nipple. i guess he's ticklish... :P

  4. Interesting. I wonder whether there was an issue here about who initiated the contact, and in what context? I own several cats and each has his or her own special time of day, situation etc in which he or she likes to initiate a session of stroking, cuddling etc. For instance one cat knows that I go upstairs to wake up my son each morning, so will 'doorstep' me as I come out of my son's room, where she knows I will stroke her. Another jumps up on the sofa as my son is having his shower - I will be sitting there anyway so she has a captive audience. Another is used to jumping into my lap when my son eats breakfast. Etc, etc. But if I were to approach the cats in an unfamiliar space, at an unusual time, I doubt they would be as receptive! (I do initiate cuddles with them, too, but they are especially keen on their own, traditional timing.)

  5. My cat loves getting stroked in between it's eyes and occasionally along it's back. How do you know what breed a cat?

  6. That's strange because my cat loves butt rubs! She loves getting pet at the base of her tail and will pick her butt up to ensure optimal pettage. She also would never prefer an experimenter petting her over me. Strangers aren't her thing. I guess cats can all have unique preferences the way we do as well.

  7. Ironically my cat is very fussy. She does not like to be touched in the face. But loves to have her tummy rubbed. When i pet her back i keep going to the tail then lightly pull the tail in a petting motion and that makes her come to me.
    Petting her tail is an initiation for her to come closer then she shows me where she wants to be petted. The tummy and her neck is her favorite.
    I find that unusual because most cats i pet on the abdomen will scratch me.

  8. This study might have found the complete opposite for my cat. My cat loves her butt rubs. Anyone new that pets her always assumes she's in heat because she always raises her butt in the air for optimal butt rubs. She's been spayed for most of her life, so it's just that she loves to have near the base of her tail rubbed. She also likes neck to tail strokes but isn't overly fond of being scratched or pet near her face. After a few scratches she always moves her face away. She's a little wary of strangers but that might be because she's from a shelter and was returned twice before we adopted her.


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