Where Do Cats Like to Be Petted?

Cats can be mysterious creatures—one will purr with delight when petted, while another might hiss. What gives? Find out the best way to pet a cat, according to the vets.

Cats drop a lot of intel with their cat body language. Purring, rubbing up against your body and “making biscuits” on a plush blanket are all signs your cat is happy. And what makes us happy is doling out treats and mindlessly petting them while they’re cozied up in our lap. But do cats actually like us stroking their fur? And if so, where do cats like to be petted?

Sometimes, cats flip a switch, scamper off or give us an angry cat vibe. “The saying ‘It’s a cat’s world, and we’re just living in it” is a great reminder that physical interaction with a cat should be done on their terms,” says Casey Locklear, a veterinarian with Zoetis Pet Care. To learn more about the specifics of our cats’ terms and to ensure our cats are content, we invited cat behavior experts to help us understand our furry friends. (And heads up, dog lovers: While we’re on the topic of affection, discover the surprising answer to why do dogs like to be petted.)

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Do cats like to be petted?

The short answer is yes, with some caveats. “By far, the most important factor to think about is that every animal is an individual,” says Patrik Holmboe, lead veterinarian at Cooper Pet Care. “Just like people prefer different levels and types of physical touch, cats are the same.” While some affectionate cat breeds, like the Maine coon and Siamese, have a reputation for coveting pets, the smartest thing you can do is pay attention to how each cat responds, as they have their own preferences, boundaries and time limits.

Aside from feeling good, petting is a form of communication between a human and cat. “There’s no question it helps form and strengthen the human-animal bond. Most cats want some form of physical interaction with their owners, and petting certainly is a common form,” says Dr. Holmboe. When you pet your cat in their sweet spots, you’re letting them know you’re available to provide comfort and relaxation.

Where To Pet A Cat InfographicRD.com, Getty Images

Where do cats like to be petted?

If you could ask orange cat breeds, black cat breeds, small cat breeds or even the friendliest cat breeds, “Where do cats like to be petted?” you would probably get a lot of answers. But even with their subtle differences, some areas are the cat’s meow for most felines. “Many cats enjoy being pet under the chin, on the cheeks (in the direction of the whiskers) and behind the ears and on the neck,” says Dr. Holmboe. Petting under the chin might be a cat’s preference because the hand is coming from below, which is much less threatening, he says.

Here’s another interesting nugget of intel: Many cats appreciate short interactions. “Once a cat is done with petting, allow it to freely move away from you or remove yourself from the area if it gives cues suggesting agitation or discomfort,” says Dr. Locklear.

Is there a spot on cats that calms them?

When our little lions aren’t feeling so brave and are stressed or anxious, we want to comfort and reassure them. And while holding them close and petting them seems like the natural thing to do, that might not be the best plan. “Petting can calm an anxious cat, but it isn’t always the best way to help a cat who is feeling stressed,” says veterinarian Kimberly DiMaio, owner of mainstreetvet.net. Removing the stressor is probably going to be more effective at calming your kitty. “Allowing cats to have a quiet and stress-free place to retreat to is usually preferable to most cats over being petted when anxious,” says Dr. DiMaio.

Of course, there are exceptions, as every cat has their own likes and dislikes. “If a cat is enjoying the petting, it should be getting calmer and more relaxed. This is a critical situation where reading the mood and body language of the cat is extremely important,” says Dr. Holmboe.

Where do cats not like to be petted?

Even the smartest cat breeds can’t tell us about the things we do that cats actually hate. But pet experts have a pretty good idea.

“Avoid petting a cat’s belly, even if they seem to be offering it by rolling over, as instinctively, they will feel the need to guard their abdomen,” says Dr. Locklear. Other hiss-worthy spots are their legs, paws and tail. Speaking of tails, an essential cat fact you should know about is the lower back area at the base of the tail. “Some cats love being petted in this area and will work their kitty-magic to get you to pet and scratch that area,” says Dr. Locklear. “However, other kitties are very sensitive and may find this spot painful, likely due to osteoarthritis.”

Things to consider before petting a cat

There are some hard-and-fast rules when considering where do cats like to be petted. First, are you familiar with the cat? Unknown outdoor kitties should be approached with caution. “Avoid physical interaction due to the risk of injury and infectious disease transmission,” Dr. Locklear says. If you’re visiting a cat, ask the pet parent if their cat is comfortable with strangers.

If you are familiar with the feline, “remember to watch the cat’s body language,” says Dr. Locklear. “Let [the cat] close the gap between you, sniff and likely ‘bunt’ its head against your outreached hand. If this happens, gently pet the cat’s head and neck, being mindful of body language.”

Something else to keep an eye on is their tail. If you notice that it suddenly freezes or there is a twitch at the tip of the tail, that’s a tail signal they’re just not into it—at least for now. “Other signs to watch for are the sideways lowering of ears, rippling back, crouching and swiping or nipping. “If the cat displays any of these signs, it is time to disengage interaction,” advises Dr. Locklear.

How to pet a cat properly

Whether you’re hanging out with one of the adorable fluffy cat breeds that loves to snuggle or a gorgeous rare cat breed, you should ask yourself where cats like to be petted and do they even want to be touched? “It’s best to let a cat initiate physical interaction by approaching it slowly, being at the cat’s height level and slowly offering a hand,” says Dr. Locklear. “This gives the cat an opportunity to close the gap and engage.” Here are some keys to successful approaches:

  • Slow movements
  • Use a soft voice
  • Don’t chase or follow a cat to pet them
  • Allow the cat to remain in control of the situation
  • Be patient, as it may take multiple short sessions to gain the cat’s trust
  • Gently offer a small number of treats, tossed between you and the cat, to encourage exploration


Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, Family Handyman and Taste of Home, among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center.