Cats To Us: Pet Me Here, Not There

Scientific study seeks to determine why cats like chin scratches and back strokes and why some cats will bite the hell out of your hand if you try to pet them in the no-go zones.

Cats like to be petted, but where? Via gigijin/Flickr
Cats like to be petted, but where? Via gigijin/Flickr

Have you lost some superficial skin layers while trying to pet a cat’s belly? Science has investigated why.

Recently, magazine Katzenworld published the results of a report titled “The influence of body region, handler familiarity and order of region handled on the domestic cat’s response to being stroked.” Or: Why cats like being petted in some places by you and not by others.

Does the “Petter” Matter?

Researchers took 34 cats and had two different people — the cat’s person and a stranger — pet eight distinct areas of the cat’s body. The aim was to determine whether the person doing the petting influenced the cat’s response (study 1).

Cats’ reactions were filmed and measured according to a coding system. Positive responses included facial rubbing, paw kneading and the classic slow blinking. Negative ones were biting, ear-flattening and tail-swishing. Dead giveaways.

cat-body-petting-zones
Via Katzenworld

Does the Order of Petting Matter?

In addition, scientists sought to find out whether the base of the tail was a “yes please” or “f#$% you” petting zone (study 2). They wondered if the areas that were stroked prior to petting the tail base influenced the cat’s response. Would petting the head and back first make the cats like petting on the base of the tail?

The answer to that one is kind of a big “No.” Here are quotes from the magazine on the results of study 2. “The greatest negative responses occurred when cats were stroked at the base of their tails. “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.”

Yikes. So, don’t pet the base of your cat’s tail, basically.

Pet for Success

As for Study 1, the investigation started around the obvi zones: above the eyes below the ears and right around the chin. That’s where the temporal glands and peri-oral glands live, and cats want to spread their scent.

The caudal gland, interestingly enough, is right there at the base of the tail. That could explain why some cats like it. But the most surprising finding seems to be one result.

“Why Doesn’t Kitty Want Me to Pet Her??”

“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.”

Before you think this is a huge betrayal, consider these explanations provided by researchers. Katzenworld explained:

“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.”

So that time you gave your cat a pill and wondered whether she resented you, well, she might have (sorry). Or maybe the way a scientist told you to pet your cat is just not how you guys do it. 

The study was recently published in the ‘Applied Animal Behaviour Science’ Journal as part of a special issue on cats. International Cat Care’s behavior expert Dr Sarah Ellis led group of scientists to these interesting conclusions.

Do you agree with the findings?

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