Cats like, dislike or tolerate being stroked. Know your cat

Cat being stroked

Stroking your cat can be stressful for your cat if (s)he is unsure about it or dislikes it but puts up with it.

“…cats who tolerate, rather than enjoy or dislike being petted, seem to be the most stressed.” (Professor Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine at the University of Lincoln)

The above quote by Professor Mills is one of the major conclusions drawn from a recent international study by animal behaviour specialists from:

  • University of Lincoln, UK
  • University of Sao Paulo, Brazil
  • University of Veterinary Medicine, Austria

The objective of the study was to better understand how domestic cats feel about living with people. It is quite a neat study because I think it is the first time where scientists have investigated whether the cat is satisfied with domestication. The answer, by the way is a conditional YES.

Cats are OK with living with people and in groups. The domestic cat has become sociable but….just like humans they need their own space, litter, food bowl and hiding place and should be treated as individuals.

“It seems even if they are not best friends, cats may be able to organise themselves to avoid each other without getting stressed..”

Cats can get along in groups or colonies when the conditions are right (food and shelter etc.)

To be honest, I don’t think the conclusion gleaned from this study is news to cat lovers. We know how to read cat body language. A good cat caretaker understands cat behaviour and knows the likes and dislikes of their cat.

The important concept that cats are individuals – and all cat lovers are aware of this – extends to whether or not the cat likes, dislikes or tolerates being stroked and petted. We love to pet our cat. It is part of the pleasures of living with a cat.

However, some cats don’t like it or at best tolerate it. If a cat tolerates it but does not necessarily like it he or she will become stressed. The cat who is less stressed is the one who is happy to let his buddy take the petting away from him/her.

The key is to do what pleases your cat and you equally rather than assuming your cat likes petting and loving.

I have always been of the opinion that stroking should be limited in duration and strength. Cats do adapt well, though – they get used our likes and dislikes too.

Two examples of body language for me that indicate that my cat is unsure about my stroking, touching or holding him. He might (a) shake his head after the stroking or (b) lick his nose (displacement behaviour indicating uncertainty).

Note: some newspapers are saying you should not stroke your cat because it stresses your cat. This is wrong and misses the point. It is a far more subtle situation than that.

Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.
Useful links
Anxiety - reduce it
FULL Maine Coon guide - lots of pages
Children and cats - important

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

13 Responses

  1. My cat Mitzy seems to like petting mostly when I coax her up to my lap, where she will stretch out with paws overhead, and many times fall asleep. She’s more independent than other cats I’ve had, which may come from being an ex-feral.

    Yesterday she did something totally out of character. I was resting on my bed in the afternoon. I had a zippered sweatshirt on since it was a little cool. I called her up to lay on my chest, and she responded as usual. But then she started nuzzling and kneading in the crook of my arm, purring louder than I’ve ever heard. Normally her purrs are inaudible. Then she started nuzzling the back of my neck! This has never happened, and it was a memorable experience, but I do wonder what might have triggered this behavior. I wonder if she’ll do it again. Cats can be so mysterious sometimes!

  2. Nick says:

    The challenge with studies like this is that it is quite difficult to create an experiment that is both controlled but realistic. Of course most science “journalists” are not interested in the subtleties of the experiment. I guess “Study finds cats do not like being stroked by scientists” would make a less interesting headline. 🙂

    • Yes, nice point. I have read a lot studies about cats by many scientists and what I have found is that the scientists don’t really understand cats like cat lovers and good cat caretakers do so the study lacks something. An excellent cat caretaker who loves cats and who is observant can often provide a better appraisal about cat behaviour than a scientist in a study.

  3. sara jane says:

    I adopted a tabby shelter cat who was two years old about 6 years ago. When I brought him into my home he was skittish and wanted nothing to do with petting or holding. He would sit across the room and just stare at me..for hours. To be honest it kind of creeped me out but I never invaded his space. Then …one random day.. He slowly got up from his usual staring spot,made his way to me and then jumped up on my lap where he purred and eventually curled up and fell asleep. Ever since that day I can pick him up, rub his belly, tug his ears in affection, basically man-handle him and he loves it! There isn’t a night that goes by that he doesn’t share my pillow or a day that he doesn’t greet me with special face smashings of the fuzzy kind! Every cat is unique. give them the room they desire and maybe you will be surprised with the outcome.

  4. Harvey Harrison says:

    Kars my white feral (ex-feral) male has finally come round to being just a regular tame cat. It took him 2 years to make up his mind but he now jumps on my lap purring like an outboard motor and likes to be stroked.
    I couldn’t even get near him for the first 6 months and then he had no idea what stroking was all about. He seemed to think it was some kind of attack. He obviously had had no contact with people except indirectly by perhaps stealing food put out for other cats or dogs. He is really nice now and is one of those few cats that will run up to me when I go outside.

  5. Ruth aka Kattaddorra says:

    Jozef loves being stroked and tummy tickled and combed when he’s in the mood, which is quite often.
    Walter likes short spells of being stroked and combed but he doesn’t like tickles much.
    I think the thing is to respect when your cats want attention but not to force it on them if they are peacefully resting.

    • Michael says:

      I think the thing is to respect when your cats want attention but not to force it on them if they are peacefully resting.

      That quote of yours, Ruth, pretty well sums up how to go about petting (stroking and touching) one’s cat. You know exactly what your cats like and that is exactly what I would expect.

  6. Marc says:

    Gigi doesn’t generally like to be touched except is certain instances and in specific ways – she is a classic example of being not so easy to read and and generally being not touchable. But everyday she seems to open up a bit and want cuddles on her own terms so I am hoping it will change. Molly used to be very untouchable but now she has become very cuddly at times. Perhaps the most cuddly although not the most often.

  7. My female cat Matahari loves being petted and stroked but the male cat Matata doesn’t tolerate the same for a long time and sometimes gets irritated.

    • Michael says:

      Confirmation that all cats are individuals and all cat owners need to be aware of that and be sensitive their cat’s likes and dislikes. Charlie likes a bit of petting. Gentle stroking for a limited time and that sort of thing is what he prefers. He likes to be close to me for hours sometimes.

  8. Ruth (Monty's Mom) says:

    Monty likes it, but not for too long. He prefers to be stroked with you foot. His little chirps of pleasure leave no doubt. Also, the volume of his purr. He also likes when my husband pets him both ways, roughing up his fur. And he likes to be petted firmly. Very light, gentle petting bores him and he runs off. Stroke him more heavily, mussing up his fur and his purr is like a V-8 engine rumbling in his little chest.

    • Michael says:

      As I say we get to know how and what our cat likes. The study really just confirms the need to do that and remind some people that cats don’t automatically like being stroked. There is an impression amongst most people that one has to stroke a cat and that cats like it.

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