Where Do Cats Like To Be Stroked?

People expect cats to enjoy affection, but what’s the cat’s opinion? Research shows where cats prefer to be petted.

Where do cats like to be stroked? In places where cuddly cats like this show affection to each other
Photo: Wongwea/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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 (more on the importance of scent to cats). 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.

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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.

Where do cats prefer to be stroked? In places where the scent glands are. These two sweet cats rub together and intertwine their tails
Photo: ClementKANJ/Shutterstock

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.

"Owners should avoid stroking near the tail. Instead, they should stroke the face, especially in the areas where the scent glands are."

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). It is important to give cats a choice when we pet them.

But there’s also the possibility that some cats have learned negative associations to their owners (for example if the owner scolds them). This is one good reason why we should train cats with food as a reward.

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 also like five things to do for your cat today and enrichment tips for cats (that many people miss)

How does your cat like to be petted?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:
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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  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?
    Thanks! www.meowlifestyle.com

  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?

    1. You can tell the breed of a cat by looking at your cat then Googling different breeds to see which one matches your cat. A lot of cats are mixed so yours might be a mix of two or more breeds

  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.

    1. If it is a cat that doesn't know you that much that could be the reason, the tummy is a very vulnerable spot so unless the cat truly trusts you it won't allow it.

  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.

  9. Same thing with my cat. She gets excited when a pet her lower back and haunches just above the tail. She starts purring like crazy and begins fiercely rubbing her face on me. She's also fixed so I've just always found it bizarre. Maybe it's a female cat thing, because my other cat(male) hates it.

  10. All of my cats (and I've had ten to date) have loved petting all over, save one or two who are sensitive between their toes. That's the only no-no place I've found, yet other of my cats spread toes wide in invitation when I reach their feet! Maybe it's because I practice kitty-massage from a very young age and also 'speak cat' to my moggies - e.g. I will give them head-rubs with my nose -or- gently knead on them sometimes when cuddling. I don't usually initiate petting either, although I use a special whistled trill to invite petting if I'm of a mood to pet. They're such brilliant, communicative creatures and certainly are possessed of minds as are we humans. Take time to learn their 'language' and you'll be so rewarded!

    1. That’s bc they are ticklish. At least that’s how all my cats react when I tickle their toes.

  11. I’ve had my cat for almost 3 months now and I got her from a shelter . Surprisingly she likes getting her tail stroked and sometimes when she comes by my foot and lays on her back she purrs like crazy when I rub her belly and and work my way up to scratching the bottom of her chin. When she wants me to stop rubbing her though , she’ll grab my hand and nibble at it softly and then get up to rub herself on my legs lol . This whole routine goes down almost every time I come home from work or something.

    1. That's lovely. Every cat is an individual and it's great that you know what she likes. It sounds like a very nice routine!

  12. interesting!! I know cats don't like being patted near the tails, but it sill really inspiring that see the scientific evidence.

    1. Thanks, Tina! I think it's really neat there is scientific research on this too.


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