Cats aren’t like dogs; they can never truly be domesticated. Even so, they seem to love or at least tolerate physical contact. This brings us to today’s question: why do cats like to be pet so much?
Despite their independent nature, cats are fairly social creatures. In social settings, non-aggressive physical contact—cuddling, petting, licking, and so forth—is a big factor in reinforcing bonds. When we pet cats, it satisfies their basic behavioral instinct of marking territory and claiming you as theirs.
Read on as we delve into the psychology and nature of cats. Why do cats like to be pet? Is there a scientific reason behind it? Let’s find out!
There are multiple reasons why cats like to be pet. Some believe it’s due to their gradual domestication while others state that it’s merely social instinct. Here are some of the biggest reasons why cats like to be pet so much:
Cats break into a purr when you scratch or pet that one special little spot behind their ears or chin. Why? Because it feels good. Touch gives them comfort and pleasure.
Petting, stroking, and scratching activates a pleasurable neuron located in a cat’s orbitofrontal cortex, as backed by a study published in 2016. According to the study, the medial OFC lights up when ‘administering’ rewards (like pets) in the form of pleasure, allowing cats to associate the action as something enjoyable.
Cats who don’t get a lot of physical affection in their early lives tend to be much more aggressive towards people and others of their own species. Those that are used to human touch are shown to have calmer personalities.
A study published in Nature Neuroscience found that pet-like stroking patterns of touch—and only this pattern of touch—activate pleasure neurons in a cat’s brain, therefore promoting a soothing effect. This suggests that petting isn’t only pleasurable, but also calming.
Cats don’t only groom each other for hygienic purposes. While grooming is practical and critical to their health, most cats simply do it because it’s fun. It’s how they socialize and hang out.
A gentle caress on the cheeks, chin, or head is greatly reminiscent of their grooming routine. The concept is more or less the same. When you pet a cat, your hand comes in contact with her scent glands. These scent glands are located in a cat’s cheek, chin, forehead, and tail; areas that people often touch during cuddling sessions.
Marking is a genetically inherited trait. All cats have it. Kittens do it without being taught. When you pet your cat, it satisfies her ingrained behavioral need to mark and communicate. This action makes you “one of them” or at least one they accept in their social circle.
Although a lot of cats like being stroked and petted, some may react negatively to physical touch. Others simply tolerate your advances in exchange for the good stuff: cat treats, toys, lodgings, etc. But tolerant cats aren’t happy cats.
According to Dr. Ramon, professor of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science, cats who tolerate their owners’ advances experience higher stress levels than those who actively avoid and dislike petting.
It’s important to note that not all cats like to be touched or petted. While touch is inherently important to a cat’s mental development, some simply dislike being handled by humans. This is especially true with cats that have been previously mistreated or aren’t used to human companionship.
Therefore, you shouldn’t force cats to accept your affections. If they trust you, they’ll let you know they wish to be petted by rubbing against your leg or meowing softly.
With that said, there are certain techniques to follow when petting or stroking a cat.
Touch plays a fundamental role in a cat’s emotional state. Like humans, the relationship between you and your cat is based upon trust, love, and respect.
During your petting sessions, keep a close eye on your cat’s posture as well as her behavior. If a cat is overstimulated, she may turn aggressive and hurt you. In most cases, less is more.
Purring is almost always a good sign, but it may also indicate stress, pain, or discomfort. An unhappy or uncomfortable cat may turn away, scratch, hiss, or try to escape.
Other signs of discomfort are as follows:
- Passive behavior (sitting stiffly without purring)
- Exaggerated blinking
- Head shaking
- Back rippling upon contact
- Thumping, thrashing, or swishing tail
- Flattened ears or ears rotated backward
- Head twitching or turning
- Batting away your touch with their paw
A cat who likes to be petted may gently wave her tail from side to side (while held in the air), knead you with her front paws, or nudge your hand while you’re stroking her. She’ll appear non-threatening and relaxed, ears pricked and pointed forwards, mouth closed.
During your petting sessions, provide your cat with as much control as possible throughout the interaction. Give her the opportunity to jump away if needed. A little self-restraint goes a long way!
Where Cats Like To Be Pet
As you may have already known, cats have receptors all over their bodies. If overdone, cats may get overstimulated which then leads to restlessness and petting-induced aggression. This is why some cats like to be touched in certain areas and in specific manners.
Most cats love being touched around their facial glands, including under their chin, the base of their ears, and around their cheeks. Avoid their whiskers, paws, tails, and underbellies. Every cat is different so it’s important to learn where your cat likes to be petted.
Always respect a cat’s boundaries. If you respect her boundaries, she’ll learn to respect yours back. Cats may appear cute and docile throughout your petting session, but they may turn aggressive in the blink of an eye if you’re not careful.
This is why paying attention to your cat’s body language is crucial. If she begins exhibiting signs of discomfort, it’s time to stop. Allow her to jump off of you or give her the space she needs. Doing so helps reinforce trust and create positive associations during your sessions. This also encourages your cat to seek human contact at her own will later on.
At the first sign of any of the mentioned signals above, calmly drop your hand to your side. If your cat appears agitated, walk away. If she’s on your lap, slowly stand up and let her slide off.
Don’t take it too seriously if your cat “rejects” your affections. It doesn’t mean she hates you or she doesn’t love you. Never yell at your cat or show any outward aggression towards her.
If you still want to pet your cat, let her settle down for several minutes (sometimes hours) before trying again.
[Related Article: 5 Cute Reasons Why Cats Cover Their Face When They Sleep]
Cats like being petted for multiple reasons. For cats, petting can be a form of shared affection. When their humans pet them, they feel loved, respected, and comforted. Petting and gentle touches trigger pleasure responses in their brains and touch receptors, making them feel good and calm.
With that said, always read your cat’s body language when petting them. When it’s time to stop, stop. Keep in mind that all cats are different; some cats like being touched under their chins while others like being petted on the head. Happy petting!