“You can stroke me here, but not there”

Scientific study investigating where and by whom cats like to be stroked reveals interesting findings…

How true are cartoons like the one below? Do they actually reflect a cat’s preferences?

cat body
Image modified from: www.pet-happy.com

While most owners will agree that cats like to be stroked around the face area, there’s less agreement over other areas. For instance some owners report their cat loves being stroked on their back just in front of the base of the tail while others report it as a ‘danger zone’.

To try and get some scientific evidence behind this great debate, a group of scientists led by International Cat Care’s very own behaviour expert ‘Dr Sarah Ellis’ conducted a study which was recently published in a Special Issue on cats in the ‘Applied Animal Behaviour Science’ Journal.

What were the aims of the study?

In the study they investigated the behavioural responses of cats, when they were stroked on different parts of their body and by different people. They aimed to find out where cats enjoyed being stroked (or not) and whether the person doing the stroking had any influence on the cats’ response (study 1). They were also interested in investigating whether the base of tail area is a “yes stroke me” or a “no way” zone and if the answer depended on what areas were stroked before it. For instance do cats need to be stroked on the head and down the back before touching the base of tail, in order to find it pleasurable? (study 2)

Study 1: Influence of handler familiarity and body region stroked

Thirty-four cats were stroked on eight different areas on their body, both by their owners and by someone unfamiliar to them (an experimenter). Some of these areas contain specialised scent glands that cats use in communication with one another:

  • Peri-oral gland site (area around the lips, chin and cheeks)
  • Temporal gland site (areas between the eyes and ears)Cat Handling.docx
  • Caudal gland site (area around the base of the tail)Cat Handling.docx

The remaining five areas did not contain any specialised gland sites:

  • Top of the head
  • Back of the neck
  • Chest and throat
  • Top of the back
  • Middle of the back

Study 2: Influence of order of body areas stroked

Twenty cats had three different body areas stroked in two different orders; one involved stroking the head, then the neck to the middle of the back and finishing with the base of tail. The other order was the reverse.

What did the studies measure?

A coding system was used to identify behaviours and body language that would be considered indicative of whether a cat disliked the stroking (negative behaviours; such as biting, flattening ears and tail swishing) or a cat enjoyed the stroking (positive behaviours; such as facial rubbing the handler, kneading with paws and slow blinking).

The cats were videoed while being stroked and any negative or positive behaviours were identified and recorded. Each cat was given a positive response score and a negative response score.

What were the results?

  • The greatest negative responses occurred when cats were stroked at the base of their tails.
  • Being stroked by the owner (when considering all the scores for all the body regions together) led to more negative responses than being stroked by an unfamiliar person
  • The order of areas being stroked (from head to base of tail or from base of tail to head) had no influence over the negative responses shown.

So the jury is out! Stroking cats at the base of the tail appears to not be warmly received by all cats.

What do the results mean?

It was a big surprise that cats in the study actually seemed to prefer being stroked by a stranger rather than their own owners, as cats tend to reserve close physical interactions for those they view as friendly and familiar.

Before jumping to any big conclusions however, here are some possible explanations for why the cats in the study seem to have preferred being stroked by a stranger:

  • Cats may have expectations of how stroking is normally performed by their owners. In this standardised set-up, those expectations may not have been met – this could have led to cats feeling frustrated and thus exhibiting negative behaviours.
  • Cats may have previous negative associations about touch from their owners. For example, previously, it may have involved not-so-nice interactions, such as giving medication.
  • The variability in negative scores was also much greater when cats were stroked by their owner, suggesting that owners are likely to interact with their cats in very different ways, some leading to negative results and some leading to positive results.

Moral of the story: learn what kind of stroking your cat likes (if any) and stick to it. If you are interacting with an unknown cat, best to avoid the base of its tail… just in case…

We are interested to know, how and where does your cat like to be stroked?

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Reference for the study:

Ellis SLH, Thompson H, Guijaro C, Zulch HE. (2015) 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, 173, 60-67.

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68 thoughts on ““You can stroke me here, but not there”

  1. Ritu says:

    Our Birthday kitty definitely loves to be scritched around the face, and if he’s calm, and sat down, then all along the Back, from head to base of tail!!!

  2. susieshy45 says:

    I know my cat does not like to be stroked by me-by my husband and daughter, yes.
    He loves being stroked between the ears, around his mush, and on his neck area( he enjoys this the most) – like dogs, he loves being stroked on his tummy, when he goes into a position of belly rub and rolls around, with what looks like a smile, on his face.
    If you could please include a post on cats trying to go outside.
    Thank you,

  3. crystaleagle24 says:

    Interesting. Both my girls liked head scratches, and just above the tail. Kara would allow tummy rubs but her tail was a no go area. MM loved to have her tail touched but the tummy was a no go area, she adored scratches between her shoulders.

  4. kamoorephoto says:

    I have one cat that LOVES her tummy being rubbed and will gladly have me brush her pretty vigorously (she’s long haired) after she gets into it, when I’m grooming her. She actually even came to me as a rescue at the age of 5, a former feral, so she’s come a long way; she’s the kind of cat that will poke me to get me to pet her more and will lick my arm for attention. So I can basically touch her anywhere…
    But my other one, my boy, who’s also a rescue (at age 2), he’s alright with the tummy rub at certain times, when he’s been sleeping on my bed with me and all mush, but other times? Forget about it. I’ll be scratched. And he’s fast if I touch him in the wrong place anywhere at the wrong time. It’s all a big game.
    Since I do photography at a rescue though, I’ve come to learn that cats are all so very different in this area though. I’ve definitely experienced the accidental touch of certain areas and kitty let me know they weren’t happy with it. But I’ve definitely had a few cats that have loved the base of the tail touched but you better know that kitty if you’re going for it!

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  6. Heather says:

    How do I get to be a tester in a study like that? 😉 My Murphy loooooooves getting skritched at the base of the tail — definitely a “hell yes”. Jonesy likes anything, but especially between his shoulder blades and really hard rubbing on his chest.

  7. Patricia says:

    Yodi likes massages. He will but my hand with his head so that I will massage his neck and as I proceed down his back and sides, he will put his backside up in the air for the final ahhh, the base of his tail.?

  8. Holly'sMom says:

    My cat Elsa is a “Hell Yes” cat! She goes nuts when she is scratched back there! Smokey is not trilled by it at all, and Teeger also enjoys it, though not quite to the degree as Elsa. In other words, our cats just keep fascinating us as to their varying personalities, likes and dislikes, which is their “group plan” to keep us humans on our toes! 😉

  9. syl65 says:

    I always go for top of the head, back of neck and chin. Seems to always produce the purring or “now you’re my slave sound”. Great post!

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  11. thehappymeerkat says:

    Using that top diagram to describe it my cat actually liked very much being stroked across the ‘nope’ area towards the back, she liked being stroked across her whole body. Only the back legs were a no -no! As for the base of the tail. I never knew whether she liked it or was about to launch a claw attack at me!, lol

  12. Dean says:

    I agree with the top diagram being very innacurate. My Tiggey loves getting her stomach rubbed. The only no-no really is her front and back legs/paws. Otherwise she rolls on her back exposing herself for a belly-rub haha

  13. Poppet says:

    My cats love most regions of the head, back, and sides. If they are on their backs, a belly rub is quite acceptable. The tail region will cause what I call the “butt elevator” motion if they are standing or sitting. My younger cat will roll onto his back and splay his hind legs if I vigorously scritch the tail region while he is lying on his side. Light brushing causing excessing purring and kneading.

  14. Delila says:

    I like this article! Thank-you! I have 3 cats, and they are like teddy bears now for cuddling and petting. They were not always liked this, the youngest two were both adopted, one from the Spca, and the other from another family. With both I found it took time to earn their trust, before I was allowed to pet everywhere. I think if I were to take any of them to an unfamiliar environment and pet them with a stranger, they would think it unusual, and wouldn’t act in their normal way. I’ll have to do my own independent study when visitors come over :p

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  16. Nicola Siddons says:

    My semi ferral moggie tolerates limited stroking around her head at her invitation only! Anywhere else is strictly off limits – especially the belly! You’d be in for a mauling.

    My Maine Coon is like no other cat I have ever owned (I’ve had cats all my life). He allows pretty much anyone license to stoke him anywhere – and loves his stomach being given a good old massage along with in-between his toes. These cats are definitely very different in terms of temperament – more like a dog – I wonder why?

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  18. terrepruitt says:

    Ha, ha, ha, ha. I was stating the “moral” to myself the whole time I was reading it. So . . . exactly! Cats (eyes rolling). I’ve learned by having two . . . no two are alike! 🙂

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  25. David Kerr says:

    It is great to have these scientific findings, at least we know how to deal with our cats in the house. My cat is somewhat moody at times, he just stay in one corner and seemingly pretend he is lazy or something 🙂 Oh well.. adorable cats.

  26. Glynis Jolly says:

    My oldest cat lived to be touched and stroked everywhere but on both front and back legs/paws. Never ever touch the paws. My second oldest loves attention, period. You can stroke him everywhere. The third likes the head and back, that’s it.

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  29. Lynn says:

    My cat Ginny loves it when I cup a whole side of her face and chin in one hand and stroke, but she also loves the base of the tale scratched and sticks her bum up in the air. The only area I get a negative response for is the tummy, and that’s only when it’s at the wrong time, when I get swipe of the paw for it.

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  31. Catherine Lingg says:

    My Rosie is a cheeks, head butting kind of girl, she LOVE’S tummy rubs, her eyes roll back, she goes limp and drools, I believe that’s a happy cat. Princess is odd, she’s cautious of approaching to pet, but cuddle time she loves cheeks, chin and neck. Top of the head, she pulls back, however during brushing, that butt is raised in the air “presenting” she loves it. Rosie doesn’t mind base of tail either. My Calli, who’s in heaven, anyone touched any part of her tail, barely lived to tell the “tail” tale lol

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  33. Carole says:

    That’s really interesting but cats being cats, you know some are going to be different. My Frodo loves being stroked in one movement from the tip of his nose and over the top of his head. If I move my hand, he’ll nudge me to do his head again. He’s also fine with being fussed all around his head and neck and down his back to his tail.
    Rosie will roll straight over for a tummy rub as soon as I start fussing her and also loves being stroked at the base of the tail. Frodo and Sammie would get very indignant if I gave them tummy rubs though LOL

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