Sometimes, your kitty maintains the cliche cat personality — nuzzled cozily under the bed and catching up on some sleep. Other times, your cat can’t seem to get enough of those rare one-on-one petting sessions with you on the sofa. When the species known for being aloof and lonesome does a sudden about-face, you can’t help but wonder: why do cats like to be pet?
Cats like to be pet because it reminds them of how their mothers groomed them as kittens, provides an enormous sense of comfort, and helps a kitty get those hard-to-reach spots. Cats generally prefer soothing pets near their scent glands (i.e., the base of the ears, cheek, and under the chin).
Felines may not always be receptive to long strokes on their back or quick scratches on their neck, but domestic cats indeed crave petting from their favorite human now and then. To learn about why cats like to be pet, read on.
It Mimics a Grooming Sensation
Of the 8-12 hours your cat spends awake during the average day, she’ll dedicate up to five of them grooming herself and keeping her coat looking pristine. Most of the time, your cat takes the reins on these lengthy grooming sessions — licking her fur, detangling her coat, and wetting her paw before cleaning her face.
The first reason your cat likes to be pet: it mimics a grooming sensation.
Rather than wasting up to 50% of her waking hours obsessively licking her fur, your cat may appreciate you taking over on this task (even if only temporarily). Your cat can take a paws-off approach to grooming as you smooth her coat, and she spends time with her favorite human.
It Brings Back Pleasant Memories From Kittenhood
A newborn kitten is practically entirely dependent on her mother for the first month or two of her life. Young kitties rely on mom to do this, like:
- Help them pee or poop: Mother cats will “stimulate” their young by licking near their butts and stomachs to trigger bodily movements until a litter box is a viable option.
- Stay warm: A kitten cannot stay warm on her own (thermoregulation) until the four-week mark, meaning she relies on mom to keep cozy and secure.
- Maintain nourishment: It could take 8-10 weeks for a kitten to be fully-weaned, and young cats depend on mom for nutrient-dense milk that strengthens the immune system, muscles, bones, and heart.
- Grooming: Mother cats have the immediate instinct to lick their young clean shortly after birth and keep them tidy for weeks afterward until they can do it themselves.
Though your cat’s been under your care for months or years, she still maintains fond memories of kittenhood with her mother and littermates. Most importantly, these petting sessions remind your kitten of the warmth, security, and comfort her mother provided her with through gentle head licks and full-body grooming sessions.
You’re merely assuming the temporary role of her mother. This desire to relive kittenhood also drives your cat to cuddle up to you as you sleep (warmth) and bring you dead animals the way her mom did with her (assuming the matriarchal role).
It Helps Them Get Those Hard-to-Reach Places
Cats may have wildly flexible spines that enable them to rotate up to 180°, but cats notably have trouble scratching certain parts of their bodies:
- The base of the tail
- In between the shoulder blades
- The back of the neck
- The top of the head
Not surprisingly, reaching these areas becomes even more complicated for a cat who’s senior, arthritic, or overweight and experiences trouble bending and moving like the average cat.
When you scratch your cat in the areas listed above, your cat may very well be appreciative that you’re lending a helping hand in grooming and petting rarely-touched and normally understimulated locations.
It Gives Them a Sense of Comfort
The primary reason that your cat enjoys these petting sessions (aside from spending time with her favorite person, of course) is that petting gives her an overwhelming sense of comfort. Since cats prefer pets and scratches in areas where they have scent glands (like the chin, cheeks, and forehead), every scratch transfers your kitty’s scent onto your hand.
Cats view their unique scent as a source of comfort. For example, a cat may knead on a bed or rub her cheek on a chair to not only claim the objects as “hers” but also to make her feel like she’s surrounded by things she deems as “safe.” The longer you pet your cat on the cheek or chin, the more scent transfers and the more comfortable and welcome she feels.
A Cat’s Favorite Places to Be Pet
The thing about cats is that they’re very particular about where you pet them. Unlike dogs, who often will take any attention they get, cats seem to get the most enjoyment out of pets on the:
- Between the eyes
- Between the ears
- At the base of the tail (in moderation and gently)
- Side of the neck
However, this depends on the cat and the relationship you have with them. Research shows that cats might tolerate petting from strangers more than their owners, and some cats prefer physical affection and touching far more than others. In other words, your mileage may vary.
Do you want to learn more about the areas a cat loves to be pet? The video below will explain where to pet a cat to earn a few extra points:
Places Cats Hate to Be Pet
While some cats enjoy neck scratches far more than chin scratches, there are certain areas of your cat’s body that you’ll want to avoid at all costs when petting her. No matter how enticing it seems, never pet your cat on her:
- Tail: The tail seems to have a large number of nerves that are highly-sensitive to touch, so too much tail petting can be overstimulating or stressful for a kitty.
- Stomach: Some cats love to roll over and expose their bare bellies, but a cat’s stomach region has very sensitive hairs and tons of nerves. Additionally, a cat lying on its back would be in a very vulnerable position if a predator were near, which is why you’ll likely be on the receiving end of bunny kicks if you make this dire mistake.
Remember that cats will have petting preferences based on their past experiences and personalities. Don’t assume that a cat wants a belly rub when she rests on her back during a cuddle session, but approach the area slowly to see how she reacts. Some cats do like pets on their tails and bellies in moderation.
Dos and Don’ts When Petting a Cat
Cats generally like to be pet, but only if it’s on their terms. If you want to use a petting session to build your bond with a kitty and help her relax, here’s a step-by-step guide on how to pet a cat the right way:
- Let the cat initiate the petting session (research shows that the session will last longer if a cat initiates rather than the human).
- Allow the kitty to smell your hand and rub her scent glands against you.
- Begin with gentle scratches on the forehead, base of the ears, and chin (the “safe places” when petting a cat).
- Stick to short scratches and strokes to avoid overstimulation.
- Watch for signs of discomfort or overstimulation that may lead to petting-induced aggression (dilated pupils, a flicking tail, and a sudden stoppage of purring).
If a cat seems bothered by the petting, stop immediately and allow her to leave the area to recuperate. The cat may need a few minutes to herself to work through the stress and anxiety that may come along with petting.
As much as you enjoy petting your cat, remember that kitties are picky about when these sessions take place, how long they last, and who’s touching them. Forcing a petting session could lead to petting-induced aggression that results in biting, scratching, and hissing.
Take the time to learn what your cat enjoys in the petting department. Nothing will build a positive bond with your cat, quite like understanding her idiosyncrasies and petting her in the areas she likes best. You might even find she joins you on the couch more when she knows a chin rub is on the horizon.
- Live Science: Why Do Cats and Dogs Love a Good Head Scratch?
- Shelter Medicine: Guide to Raising Underage Kittens
- SPCA of Texas: Cat Grooming
- Companion Animal Psychology: Where Do Cats Like To Be Stroked?
- Europe PMC: The ethology of the human-cat relationship.
- Humane Society of Huron Valley: Petting-induced or Overstimulation Aggression in Cats