Individual cats will have their own response to being petted and not all domestic cats like to be petted to the same extent. I think that we have to remind ourselves that people pet their cats mainly because they want to do it as it brings them pleasure. People expect their cat to enjoy it. There is an expectation management issue because the Internet presents the argument that domestic cats like to be petted but this is not necessarily the case. It might be fair to say that domestic cats tolerate petting while some simply don’t like it and others enjoy it provided the focus is on certain area of their body which essentially is around their head and shoulders. That’s the safest area.
I think, too, we can learn from behaviour between cats. When a domestic cat is friendly with another cat, they come into close contact with each other. They might head-butt each other gently. They might rub their flanks against each other and their tails might intertwine. It is a gentle form of contact and “scent exchange”. The scent from each cat is being passed to the other and so their identity merges.
This is what cats like and what humans do to cats is not like this. There are several factors at play. One, as mentioned, is that people expect cats to like being petted. Another is that sometimes cat owners pet their cats too strongly or even aggressively. Sometimes they pet the cats in the wrong place and sometimes they relate to their cat as a baby and carry them around with their belly up while petting their stomach. That is not likely to work very well. And each individual cat has their own personal preferences although with purebred cats there will be an overarching character trait which impacts upon an individual cat’s character.
There’s lots going on. I can’t find a scientific study on the reaction of domestic cats to petting except the well-known fact that cats prefer to be touched and stroked in certain areas such as the “temporal region”. This is between the ears and eyes. And depending upon the cat they tend to be disinterested or dislike being petted in the caudal region which is around the tail.
We know that domestic cats don’t like to be touched on their hind legs and they tend to pull their forelegs away when you touch their forepaws. Once again there is variation between individual cats.
I think the default mentality of domestic cats regarding being petted is that they like it around the head and tolerate it in other areas of the body. The acceptance and liking of it is also dependent upon how they were handled during the first seven weeks of their lives. Clearly, they will accept it more if they were handled and petted more when they were very young. This is socialisation.
My cat likes to be flea combed which is a form of petting because he’s a shorthaired cat and it feels nice to him. And the flea comb passing over his skin is like his tongue passing over his skin. He comes up to me and lies on my chest asking to be flea combed. I start with the head and do the shoulders and his cheeks. I go down the spine and flea comb the base of his tail. I also flea comb his tail. He accepts it all. He enjoys it because it feels nice. It is a nice way to both combine petting and checking for fleas.
Another reason why he likes it is because we’ve done this together so often that it has become a kind of routine. Also, I am combing those areas that he can’t reach with his tongue. This must be pleasing to him.
This is probably another factor as to why cats prefer to be petted in certain areas over others. They should prefer to be petted in areas which are inaccessible to them with their tongue.
Petting should be of limited duration and a cat owner should learn what their cat likes and what they tolerate and how far they can go. You can tell when your cat has reached the limit of tolerance by their body language. There will be a slight change in facial expression, they might shift a little bit or they might swallow. Their skin might ripple and/or the tail might squish. And they may turn their head towards your hand with that very subtle expression on their face meaning that enough is enough.
Conclusion: normally all domestic cats will like to be petted between the ears and down the back of their head and on their shoulders but the petting of other areas they might tolerate and it is up to cat caregivers to understand the limits of their toleration and what they like best.
Below are some more pages on petting.