Where Cats Prefer to be Petted

Through personal experience, I know where cats like to be petted (stroked, rubbed, caressed). In general, cats prefer to be petted around the head and shoulders and of course down the body but the focus is generally at the front of the cat. There are five skin glands secreting pheromones on the head. This is a reason why cats like this area to be petted – scent exchange.

In general, the domestic cat does not like to be handled around the hind legs and the backside. An intermediate area is the tummy where cats will ask to be rubbed sometimes but it should be done to a limited extent because the cat is in a vulnerable position and it may elicit a defensive response if overdone.

Petting a domestic cat

Photo (modified by Michael slightly) by Stephen Jones.

These are my general experiences but we are fortunate enough to be able to refer to a study which is referred to in The Welfare of Cats, an excellent reference work on the domestic, stray and feral cat.

In 2000, Bernstein, in a preliminary study on responses of cat owners to questions about petting, discovered patterns of interaction which suggested that there are what, is called, “shared rules for social interaction including shared routines” (Alger & Alger 1997).

In other words, the observant cat caretaker, based on experience, discovers what sort of petting her cat enjoys. You can work it out because of the way your cat responds.

In the study cat owners identified certain areas of a cat’s body where they appear to prefer to be petted. The way a cat indicates this is by:

  • staying still
  • closing their eyes
  • slowly blinking
  • moving their head and body in such a way which encourages the caretaker to do more of what they are already doing
  • looking at you in a relaxed and contented way (this subtle signal is probably for observant and experienced cat caretakers only)

Do you know of any other ways a cat tells you he likes what you are doing? These forms of communication from the cat to their human caretaker indicate that specific sites on their body are preferred for petting, namely:

  • along the cheeks
  • between the ears and eyes
  • the top of the head
  • the stomach
  • I would add to this list: the top of the head running down to the shoulders
  • I would also add (a) under the chin and (b) down the back of the cat

Cat owners describe sequences of petting which their cat appears to prefer e.g. head to back to tail to stomach.

The domestic cat was also involved in behaviour patterns that were interpreted by the owner as seeking to initiate petting. For example: leaping onto the person’s lap, rubbing a person’s leg, flopping down in front of a person and looking up.

In my case, when I call my cat at a certain time of the day and under certain circumstances he knows that I am going to pet him and he comes (sometimes) to me to receive it.

The study discovered that some domestic cats preferred certain specific petting areas within the house. The cat would lead their caretaker to a particular spot whereupon they stood still or flopped down for a session of petting. Other cats would only allow petting in certain areas such as in the bathroom. Have you experienced this?

In a further study, which took place in 2002 and which concerned nine cats, it was concluded that:

  • The temporal area had the greatest number of positive responses from the cats while the caudal area had the least number of positive responses. The temporal area it at the front of the cat while the caudal area is at the rear of the cat. This supports my personal experiences.

In Bernstein’s study:

  • 40% of 90 cats preferred petting in the area around their head
  • 27% preferred being petted on their cheeks, nose and eye area or under the chin
  • 21% preferred the ears, in front of the ears (temporal area) or behind the ears
  • 8% of the cats preferred to be petted on the stomach or tail (at the base of the tail or the tail itself)

I am not sure what the remaining 4% enjoyed best!

I hope you find this information useful. Perhaps your won’t because, as stated, the observant, thinking cat caretaker will automatically recognise where their cat prefers to be stroked, touched and generally petted.

To be honest it is about common sense, really. Cats feel safer if you stroke them at the front because they can see what is going on. Also, there are five scent producing glands on in the head which deposit scent when rubbed against an object. Cats like to deposit scent when being petted.

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Where Cats Prefer to be Petted — 12 Comments

  1. I think each individual cat lets us know what he likes best, our boyz do anyway. Jozef flops down to be petted and kissed all over, but Walter prefers to stay upright and be petted and tickled around his head and under his chin.
    If a cat doesn’t like to head butt a person’s face it’s usually because he isn’t a very confident cat, he prefers to butt the person’s hand or foot because they are nearer to the size of his own head.
    Cats are fascinating!

    • Agreed. Head to head contact means the cat has to put his head near ours and that is a bit scary for a cat. Of all the places where they prefer most I think the cheek is the favourite. We are normally safe with the cheek or the side of the head. The top of the head is a close second – between the ears. Cats don’t like their ears being messed up normally.

  2. Gigi is very particular about petting but the very good news is that she is now more into it. Before she was depressed – or so it looked on the outside – but now after all the playing and insisting on doing things with her, she loves to be petted but in a certain way. Very gently, all around her neck, lower than the chin. Bear in mind there a few places they cant reach but one of them is right around the area where a collar would be. They can scratch their chins with their back legs and even the top of their heads but not the lower neck area, not much and not easily. They always love to have the hair in the lower neck area tugged on. Alot of it comes out because it’s dead hair but they can’t groom there so it stays.

    Lilly loves when I do this, and Molly too. They all like tummy rubs at certain times too. I think the one thing that cats really love is when you pull their hair. It’s like they are being groomed by another cat. When I pet a cat I usually gently pinch the fur between all my fingers and tug gently. They usually want you to pull really hard. Infact if you just hold the hair and let them pull they will really yank their own hair out. Clearly this is very satisfying for them and it gets rid of dead hair. It’s like you use your fingers like a comb but then half way through a pet pinch them together and it’s like cat grooming a little. When a cat groom they tug on the fur essentially because their tongue is like a fine tooth comb I think.

    Gigi is probably the only cat who isn’t yet ready for that – so for now I let a few of my nails grow long so I can give her decent scratches, also in the lower neck are is her favourite. Lilly lets me pull the tiny hairs on her chin, she loves it. She looks straight up, exposing her chin, and then I grab the fur and she yanks her head away once I’m holding on. Funny that. When people see that they probably think it’s a little strange 🙂

  3. The head and all around the neck are the most popular areas here.
    Damon and Restart are DIY cats. All they want me to do is hold my hand out in an open claw position and they move all around under it. It’s never wrong doing it that way.

    • That’s neat Dee. You let Damon and Restart decide for themselves. I like that. Very egalitarian 😉 I am a bit like that with Charlie. I put my hand down and he rubs his cheeks against it for a long time. He’ll go on and on and then when he stops he shakes his head because his left ear has been messed up!

  4. I guess all cats are different just like people. My Barney absolutely LOVES his tummy rubbed. He actually rolls over like a dog so that I will rub it and kiss it and starts to purr. Both of my cats also love under the chin and will put there heads back to encourage me to continue. Also when I scratch and rub inside their ears they enjoy it because I guess inside the ears are hard for a cat to scratch.

    • Good point. People tend to forget that cats are individuals. In general the areas mentioned are preferred. I think as well that we can condition our cat to like certain areas being petted. It is a mutual agreement so what we like to do is in the negotiation so to speak 😉

  5. Well, mine is different, they love lots of head bumps, and touching on the sides, some of them can handle on the tummy but again have to be in the right mood. They love, under the chin and around the ears. Only thing, that some of them hate is under the tummy unless or someone special. Ozzie will only allow Rob to touch him under there as I’m not that wonderful or not daddy so he says. I noticed they all different individuals, each of them have different things they like. Some of them can’t cope a long time having close up cuddles, but again depending on the mood. Tiger does this thing when he comes in he loves for you to put ur hand up half way and he jumps up, and I pat him on the head while making this excited purr.

  6. I read in one of those books you find at the register in a pet supply store that cats don’t like belly rubs. I was dumbfounded. All I have to do is say “belly rub” to Lightning and he flops over with his paws in the air. I can show this “expert” author a video I took of Fargo literally falling asleep during a belly rub. This is the same book that claimed cats are not pack animals, to which I can respond by taking a photo of my bed on any given night when I TRY to find a spot for myself!

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