You're Probably Petting Your Cat All Wrong, Study Suggests

By: Dave Roos  | 
cat getting belly rub
Most cats do not enjoy a belly rub, according to the experts. But, of course, some do. Daniel Lozano Gonzalez/Getty Images

Owning a cat is a lot like living with a teenager. Most of the time, neither the cat nor the moody 15-year-old wants your attention. Every so often, though, they will give you a subtle sign that it's OK to initiate contact. But be warned, they still might hiss and try to bite your hand (the teen, too).

Confusing? Yes. And even seasoned cat owners might not know the "best practices" for human-cat interactions, say British researchers. In a study published in Scientific Reports, a team from Nottingham Trent University in England asked 120 people to interact with three cats whom they had never met. Oddly, the self-reported "cat people" — those with the most knowledge and experience with cats — were the most likely to mishandle the felines. They gave the cats less choice about being touched and they were more likely to rub the "danger zones" of the belly and base of the tail.


Why Experienced Cat Owners Got It Wrong

In the paper, published in July 2022, the researchers theorized that "higher knowledge/experience self-ratings amongst humans might simply reflect a greater tendency to touch cats across more diverse areas of their body" and not a true understanding of where cats actually prefer to be touched. Older cat owners were the most likely to pick up and hold the cats, for example, another no-no because it robs the cat of its freedom of movement, the scientists found.

A color-coded guide to petting your cat.
A color-coded guide to petting your cat. The best areas are green (the base of ears, cheeks and/or under the bottom jaw). The worst are red (the stomach and base of the tail). Yellow is neutral.
Nottingham Trent University/CC BY 4.0

Most cats hate to be touched on their bellies or near the base of their tails. Whether a cat likes to be touched on the rest of its body — its back, sides, tail, legs, etc. — is a matter of personal preference. (In other words, when they scratch you, you'll know.)


Previous research by the same British scientists identified the three areas of the body where almost all cats liked to be touched: the base of the ears, the cheeks and under the chin. That's about it.

"Of course, every cat is an individual and many will have specific preferences for how they prefer to be interacted with," said Dr. Lauren Finka, the lead researcher of this new study, in a press release.

The scientists also developed handy "C-A-T guidelines" for knowing when a cat wants to be petted and when you should keep your hands to yourself.

  • "C" is for choice and control: Bend down and offer a hand, and let the cat decide if it wants to approach for snuggling.
  • "A" is for paying attention to the cat's behavior and body language. Purring and sitting near you means "gimme more." Flattening their ears or licking their nose means "that's enough."
  • "T" is for touch, as in think about where you're touching the cat. Again, the ears, cheeks and chin are generally good, but approach other areas with caution.

"Applying [the C-A-T guidelines] with some cats might mean not touching them at all, because the cat chooses not to engage," said Finka, "whereas for others it might involve a full on cuddling session because the cat keeps asking for more."

petting cat cheeks
If a cat is enjoying your petting, it'll likely close its eyes, purr, knead or give other signs of pleasure. Cheeks are a spot cats usually like, according to the experts.
Cyndi Monaghan/Getty Images

Another take-home message from the research is that animal shelters shouldn't discriminate against potential adopters who've never owned a cat before. "[W]ith the right support, they may make fantastic cat guardians," said Finka.