Felines can be fickle, but a group of scientists from the UK’s University of Lincoln is trying to figure out exactly how to please them best. A study in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science examines exactly where cats prefer to be stroked, and where they would rather you keep your paws off. 

Do cats even like being petted at all? Science isn’t sure. “While we have come to expect cats to not only tolerate, but also enjoy being touched, there is little empirical research investigating whether this is actually the case,” the paper notes. 

To find out, one experiment analyzed the behavior of 34 cats between 6 months and 12 years old in their own homes while being stroked. Either the cat’s owner or the experimenter, a stranger, petted the cat in different regions of the body, including the area around the chin and cheeks, the area around the base of the tail, the top of the head, the back, and the chest. A subsequent trial tested 20 cats between one and 12 years old, this time with only their primary caregivers doing the petting, with stroking limited to the cat’s head, back, or tail. 

Base of the tail? Puh-lease. Image Credit: Shaunacy Ferro

All the interactions were filmed, and the researchers kept a long list of cat behaviors, with each kind of movement assigned a positive or negative score. A friendly head butt, a sniff, or a slow blink, for instance, garnered positive points, while any kind of biting, tail swishing, or ear flicking indicated a negative reaction. At the end of the petting session, all the positive behavior scores and all the negative behavior scores were added up for each of the zones of the body to gauge the cats' overall reaction.

Cats were more likely to exhibit negative reactions to being handled by their owner compared to a stranger—an unusual behavior for a domestic animal. (Familiarity breeds cattiness, apparently.) The researchers suggest that cats can feel antagonized by their owners scolding them or petting them too long, so they may not always associate their owner with positive vibes. Or, the cats may have been annoyed that the strict experimental setup—dictating how they were handled and for how long—didn’t follow the normal pattern of how their owner usually interacts with them, causing kitty frustration. (Wouldn’t you get fed up if you expected casual playtime, but became the subject of a science experiment?) 

The cats preferred their petting to come in the form of strokes along the cheeks and chin or between the eyes and ears. They liked having the base of their tails touched least. The researchers hypothesize that cats don’t groom each other in this area, and the only time they would touch each other’s tails would be in the form of wrapping their tails around each other, which only happens between the best of cat friends. It’s likely that “the handler is not considered a close enough affiliate for interaction to occur at such a place on the body,” the researchers write. Rejected!

There it is, in plain scientific language: Your cat doesn't love you as much as you thought. Granted, one study with just over 50 cats isn't significant enough to be the final word on feline behavior. But just to be safe, best to stick to the tried-and-true chin scratches, or risk getting swatted. 

[h/t: Washington Post]