Do cats have petting preferences? Yes!

voxWho would have guessed that the big research questions of 2014 would be all about cats (okay, I’m biased)? Do cats really love us? Do they recognize our voices? Do they hate petting? Why do they love boxes? Does anyone understand them (even our vets?)? Why are cats so mysterious???

the cutI wrote about several cat studies that came out in the last year or so: on whether cats ignore us when they hear our voices, whether cat bites are related to depression, whether play can prevent behavior problems, how people feel about stray cats, how little veterinarians know about cat behavior, and of course the yet-unpublished study claiming that cats aren’t attached to us.

petting2My very first blog post was about a study that came out at the end of 2013, suggesting that cats might find petting stressful (Turns out, the study was pretty well misrepresented by the media. My critique of the study here). Then in October of 2014, we were warned by Cats Protection (who did a non-peer reviewed survey) that most people don’t know what stressed their cat out (I mostly agree), and that petting could be stressful (key word is COULD).

Now for my last blog post of 2014, let’s turn to a recent study about cats and petting – this time trying to get at the heart of the elusive needs of our fuzzy feline companions. In a study titled “The influence of body region, handler familiarity and order of region handled on the domestic cat's response to being stroked,” Dr. Sarah Ellis and colleagues at the University of Lincoln looked at three key questions about petting cats:

  1. Do cats have preferred areas of the body for petting (or conversely, disliked areas)?
  2. Does a cat’s response to petting depend on whether the petter is familiar or not?
  3. Does it matter if you pet a cat head-to-bottom or bottom-to-top?

The sociality of the domestic cat is a rather recent feature (Cat 2.0 ®); but we know that some cats easily share close quarters with others and engage in affiliative behaviors such as allo-(or mutual) grooming and rubbing against each other. They especially like those “stinky” pheromone-filled areas, like the cheeks and forehead, where they have scent glands that communicate important social information.

Other species, such as cows and horses, prefer human handling that simulates handling they would experience during positive experiences with other cows and horses. The authors of the current study hypothesized that cats might have similar preferences, and like cheek and forehead pets best. A previous small study (only nine cats) suggested that cats like petting near the tail least of all, so the authors thought they might find a similar result this time around.

Courtesy of the public domain.

Courtesy of the public domain.

In experiment one, 34 cats who had been with their owners at least two months were tested. They were handled in eight areas (cheeks/lips, base of the tail, the forehead, the top of the head, the back of the neck, the upper back, the mid-back, and the chest), each area receiving 15 1-second strokes of the fingers. Each cat was handled in two separate sessions: one where they were petted by the owner, and one where the cat was petted by one of the experimenters (whether the owner or experimenter petted the cat first was randomized). The sessions happened on different days. All sessions were videotaped for behavior coding, which included both positive behaviors (such as self-grooming, blinking, closed eyes, rubbing into the hand, and kneading) and negative behaviors (including ears flattened, biting, quick head turns, swatting, and a swishing tail).

Results found no statistical differences for the number of positive behaviors recorded between owner petting (median score: 5 behaviors) or being petted by the stranger (2.5 behaviors). However, results suggested statistically MORE negative behaviors when petting was performed by the owner (median: 8.5 behaviors) than the stranger (5.0 behaviors). More negative than positive behaviors were recorded in general. Cats also showed the greatest number of negative behaviors for handling near the tail.

Experiment two was similar to the first, with 20 cats. The main question was whether petting should start at the head, and move to the back, and then tail, or the reverse. Half the interactions with the owner and cat were tip to tail, and the other half the reverse (in randomized order). Owners were allowed to pet their cats as they usual do.

Results showed no effect of start or end point for petting. In other words, cats don’t care if you start with the head or the tail, in general, they just dislike petting near the tail area! Now, many folks think their cat may actually like petting in that area. Many cats have an extreme reaction of head-turning and licking (see these videos):

There may be a few reasons cats get so worked up about being handled in this area. Especially for obese cats, it’s a tough area to reach. So it might be like having your back scratched in that one spot you can’t quite get to. It could be a bit of a “sensory overload” for some cats – and often petting here will lead to biting. Keep in mind that this area of the cat’s body gets a lot of “action” during mating, so some of these responses may be part of the reproductive process, which for cats has lots of biting, growling, hissing, and other feline pleasantries.

Okay, so on to the other findings. The authors were surprised to find that cats showed more negative behaviors toward their owners than strangers, thinking that familiarity would breed happiness, not contempt. Was it that the experimental situation was stressful? Were owners somehow inconsistent in how they handled their cats in the past?

A few things to keep in mind: one is that the difference in the number of behaviors, while statistically significant, was still pretty small (3.5 behaviors). The behaviors selected for coding may not have captured every detail that would really tell us how cats feel about the petting. I would love to know how the owners normally interact with their cats (Have they encouraged rough play? Do they like to tease or otherwise overhandle their cats?). Another possibility not entertained is that perhaps cats inhibit behaviors in the presence of strangers (fodder for a future study perhaps?).

Stick to cheek and forehead pets for maximum kitty happiness. Photo by Jacqueline Munera.

Stick to cheek and forehead pets for maximum kitty happiness. Photo by Jacqueline Munera.

So, from the study, I have a few concerns about humans and cats. One is that regardless of the petter, cats showed more negative than positive behaviors during petting. This effect was driven largely by the petting near the base of the tail. Two studies have now confirmed that this is (in general) the cat’s least favorite place to be petted. Moral of the story – try NOT petting your cat near the tail area (even if you think she might like it). You might find that your kitty is more relaxed and enjoys other petting even more than she did before.

Second concern: the cats showed a great deal of variability in how they responded to petting in generaI. To me, this points out the important need for cat owners to learn and understand those positive and negative body language indicators, so that they can read their own cat’s preferences. The best way to be sure your cat will enjoy petting? Be gentle, avoid the tail, and let your cat tell you what she likes (and respect her wishes).

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5 thoughts on “Do cats have petting preferences? Yes!

  1. Deb Veach

    My cat loves being held in front of the mirror while I comb her. She purrs and chirps during the process. We do this 3 or 4 times a day :) Her name is Gizzie <3

  2. Blanche

    Wow! Thank you very much for sharing!!! I always thought most cats enjoy being petted near the tail end. My own cat does not, but still your own cat is always easiest to read ofcourse. So again, thank you for this insight!

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