Do cats dislike having their tails petted? Learn the opinion of a research team

I recently ran across an article published on Healthy featuring a study done several months ago by a research team at the University of Lincoln in the U.K. The study was designed to find out more about how cats react to being petted. The team was interested in examining two aspects of cat petting to ascertain whether there was a difference in how cats react to being stroked by someone they know in contrast to how they react to strangers. They also examined which part of the body cats greatly enjoyed being petted.

Cat Tail

Photo by flickr user: chinwel

The researchers’ plan was to observe and videotape 34 cats between the ages of six months to one year in their own homes. The team allowed the cats to grow accustomed to their presence and the video recording equipment prior to starting the experiment. All the cats were evaluated on two different days. On one of these two days the kitty guardians did the petting and on the other day the cats were petted by the researchers.

In addition to the three scent gland areas, the team also tested five other areas; the top of the head, back and neck, the top and middle of the back and the chest and throat, and the petting was done randomly. The stroking was done using two fingers for precisely 15 seconds at each of the locations on the cats’ bodies.

During the experimental petting sessions, all of the cats were permitted to walk away if they so desired. In fact, many of them did. Only 16 of the 34 cats being observed accepted petting in all of the 8 areas from both their guardian and a researcher.

The team analyzed the videos at the conclusion of the experiment. They first examined how many times the cats responded positively to petting, licking the person petting them, giving slow eye blinks, started grooming, kneading, holding up their tail and rubbing their head against the person.

They next focused on the number of times the cats behaved negatively, swishing or flicking their tails, turning their head away from the person, biting, licking their lips or swiping the person with their paw. The researchers then concluded that kitties do not like being stroked by the tail since the cats displayed more negative behaviors when they were stroked by the tail.

What greatly interested the researchers was how the cats seemed to enjoy the experimenter petting them more than their guardians. The researchers’ theory concerning this unexpected behavior was the experimenter was new to the cats making them more interesting than their guardians. Additionally, the cats were not familiar with or expecting to be stroked with two fingers. They surmised that the cats were more accustomed to initiating interactions with their guardians than having the guardians initiate interactions with them, or that for some reason at the time, the cats may have felt distrustful of the guardian.

A second experiment was done with another group of 20 cats. The guardians stroked the cats in a specific order, from the top of the head, down the back to the tail or the reverse. They petted the cats as usual, not the two-finger method. In this experiment only 3 of the 20 cats walked away. The researchers observed that these cats appeared not to derive pleasure from being stroked near the base of the tail, no matter when it occurred in the petting sequence.

The reason that some kitty guardians stroke their cats near the tail is mysterious. It may be because running their hands over the cat from the kitty’s head down its back to the tail is natural. Cats often arch their back or their rear quarters when stroked around the base of the tail displaying enjoyment. Based on what the researchers’ study however indicates the cat is “telling” the guardian to cease and desist.

I am still puzzled by the researchers’ results, so I performed the same experiments on our kitties. All three enjoyed being stroked on the tail area. Aki, our 6-month-old kitten licked my hand, purred loudly, and kneaded on my leg. Edgar Allen Poe, our 10-month-old kitten rubbed against my legs and head butted me. Sir Hubble Pinkerton, our 15 1/2-year-old OSH rubbed his body against me. When I stopped, he made it clear that he wanted me to continue.

I think it premature to arrive at any results concerning feline petting preferences in only two days with a relatively small study sample; working with cats that are strangers to the researchers. From my miniscule study sample however, I found that there are cats who enjoy having their tail area stroked.

How do your cats react to be stroked around the tail area? Tell us in a comment.

Note: this post was first published in 2016. I think it deserves to be refreshed ?. My thanks to Jo Singer. I touch and pet my cat’s tail every day but fleetingly and it is done gently. Cats don’t really like it in my experience.

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Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.

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8 Responses

  1. Dee (Florida) says:

    I’ve rarely found any cat that welcomed having their tail petted or caressed. And, I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of cats in my lifetime.
    Their tail is a very sensitive and well guarded appendage. In my experience, if it is petted, they may be tolerant but not pleased.

  2. Albert Schepis says:

    I appreciate that some research is being done about cats when the alternative is none at all, but I’ve had a problem with almost every study. I’ll come back to explain that further.

    • Albert Schepis says:

      I happened upon my half-baked answer here so I’ll try to finish it.
      When I first thought of this, I thought they meant the tail, and not the upper part of the butt area, which I distinguish. What they’re talking about is more the back than the tail. I do take it further to the tail whereby I apply a little squeeze of it between my fingers and them travel, bump by bump, to the end. I’ve found that cats “like” a gentle touch anywhere and everywhere on their body. The more familiar they are with how YOU pet them, the more they can like it, because they know what’s coming. I’m very tactile with them and they really do respond to it, in measured doses. I always look and feel for a point where their body is saying, “okay, that’s just enough for now.” and “Okay, do that again.” I let them tell me what they like. They do like a bit of pressure pressing on their upper behind in the direction of their feet. The do not appreciate being pushed or knocked off balance (to the sides). I used to be a ballroom dancer so I appreciate that dynamic, and they (either a dance partner or a cat) remember who a good partner is. This seemed to be a fair “test” of their theories, but again too clinical.

  3. Michael Broad says:

    My cat does not mind me petting him anywhere because he’s used to me handling him so much.

    I do play with his tail sometimes and he has no problem with it. As I said, I can do practically anything with him within reason and he won’t mind although he may think it is play and therefore play with me in response which means soft biting et cetera which I try and avoid sometimes.

    There seems to be two factors as to why a cat likes or dislikes his tail being petted. The first is his character or personality. All cats have their own personality. The second is socialisation/handling and how these have been developed.

    I don’t think the location of glands is a factor.

  4. jmuhj says:

    In my lifelong experience, one of cats’ greatest pleasures is being “scritched” at the base of the tail. My cats also enjoy having their tails brushed, gently petted, and generally admired.

  5. Iniki says:

    Sometimes I wonder about these so called research projects. I would love them to come to our apartment and meet our cats. They are very diverse. All our cats are rescues and I honestly believe that their backgrounds have a lot to do with their preferences. Chipper was abandoned in a house for three moths after her owner died. It affected her ability to interact with people and other cats. Now 15 years later she is still jumpy and has trouble settling.
    Compare her to the kittens, all over 10 years of age now. We raised hem from 5 days old. They are very lovable and all have their own diverse personalities. Some loved to be petted all over and others not so much.
    Research, to me, needs a lot of time and a lot of testing. Cats can change their preferences also. The oldest cat in the house came to us as a very crabby and abused animal. It has taken a lot of years but she finally likes sitting on laps and being petted, including at the base of her tail and her tail. A lot of work and a lot of trust on her part changed that.
    Thanks for an interesting article. If they need test subjects they can call us. >^.,.^<

  6. Elizabeth Ann Scarborough says:

    Both of mine seem to like to have their tails petted. I can’t remember one who objected unless his or her tail was injured in some way.

  7. Donna says:

    it’s always been natural for me to pet kittys head and when I get to their tail, just wrap my hand around it an continue to the end. I guess all of them are perhaps just used to it? 🙂 I did (out of habit) do it when petsitting some kitties and one in particular let me know immediately that he didn’t like THAT at all. So maybe it’s just what they get used to… 🙂

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