Stroking Cats – “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:

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?

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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5 thoughts on “Stroking Cats – “You Can Stroke me Here, but Not There”

  1. Doug Thomas says:

    My kitty boy, Andy, especially likes me to rub his face and ears. I get a positive response when I rub his head in a circular motion or scratch his chest and chin. He tolerates scratching the base of his tail and spine. Mostly, though, he determines when and where he wants some attention, and he will bite (lightly unless I ignore his initial warning…!) or place his from right paw on my hand to let me know he’s had his fill for the time being. This wasa very interesting post today!

  2. floridaborne says:

    Head scratching — especially around the ears — is loved by both my coon and black cats. Coon Kitty loves having his sides stroked. The black cat prefers stroking down his back. We learn by seeing what makes them purr. ?

  3. Katherine Horsley says:

    My cat has very specific stroking rules. The forehead, back of the head, neck and between the shoulder blades are fair game any time. The back can be stroked most of the time but sometimes not; most often when she is on the bed preparing to lie down for a stomach stroke. The stomach can only be stroked while she is lying on the bed with her back against the pillow, at which time the tip of the tail can also be gently held and under the chin gently scratched. The chest can be stroked if she is in a good mood. Touching of the paws, legs and most of the legs is forbidden but she does like to scratch her whisker pads and lip on a handy fingernail. All allowable stroking rules are subject to change with no notice and penalties can include verbal warnings or a physical correction.
    We exist to serve.

  4. Simon Banks says:

    One cat who arrived as a stray was nervous about a hand approaching her head, even though she clearly trusted me otherwise. I wondered if she’d been slapped on the head for “misbehaving”. Of my current three, the old female likes attention to the head area, the young male is mad about it and the young female sometimes likes it and sometimes doesn’t, while being very happy with back and flanks. The old one gets a prize for loving a tummy-tickle (the young female has never indicated interest in this and the young male, a misused stray, is just beginning to learn about it). The old female often comes in wet and likes a rub down with a towel, including having her tail mildly squeezed with it!

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