Ticklish cats!

Cats can be ticklish. Discuss. We see this quite a lot in videos. Cat owners think that their cat is “broken” because the reaction is strange. I’m talking about scratching along the spine of a cat normally towards the tail and sometimes on a flat spot where the tail begins. There may be other areas.

When you do this a domestic cat sometimes makes weird sounds as you see in the video on this page. I liken this to a cat being ticklish. Some people react to being tickled in a certain part of their body. Other people react less strongly, and some don’t bother at all.

Ticklish cat

I think my cat is broken! No, he is just ticklish!

It’s a personal characteristic. I believe that this is a feline version of human ticklishness. And I believe that that is quite a nice analogy. I also believe that nobody has made that analogy before in this context although people do ask if cats can be ticklish. The answer will be guesswork.

For humans, we know what being ticklish means. It is an involuntary twitching movement and/or laughter when a person touches a part of the body in a certain way. Right away you can see the similarity between tickling a human and – as shown in the video – tickling a cat. However, I am not saying that they are exactly the same thing.

I’m just saying that cats give the appearance that they are ticklish when you touch them in a certain way and in certain places. The key place, in my view, is towards the end of the spine and particularly at the base of the spine.

The Healthline website says that ticklishness in humans has evolved as a defence mechanism to protect vulnerable areas of the body and to show submission. That’s a theory. Another theory is that tickling is part of social bonding. We don’t really know do we? You know? Please comment.

If that’s true for humans, I can only think that the first theory is more likely to apply to cats. I would like to propose a third theory which is less prosaic. It is simply that there is a conglomeration of nerves in the spine and when you tickle the area next to these nerves it simply stimulates them and creates an involuntary response by sending an electrical signal to the brain. There might not be a social meaning behind it. There is simply a direct, physical response between tickling an area of the cat’s body and what you see in the video.

And of course, cats vary in their response in respect of the sounds and movements that they make which is why some cat caregivers will be mystified when they see this odd response. Their cat does not respond like this. No response at all, I’d expect.

But that is what I’d expect because people respond in a wide range of ways too.


I will quote a scientific study: “The burst of laughter that is invoked by tickling is a primitive form of vocalisation. It evolves during the early phase of postnatal life and appears to be independent of higher cortical circuits”. Make of that what you wish. Some believe that the hypothalamus is directly involved in the production of laughter.

An enigma is that tickling invokes laughter but people dislike being tickled. And why must tickling involve somebody else doing the tickling? It doesn’t work if a person does it to themselves. The latter observation would support the idea that it is a part of social bonding.

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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.

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