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Pet Project: Researchers Explore Cats’ Reactions to Being Petted

© Cris M. Kelly

If cats could talk, they would probably tell us they are firmly against animal research. But a recent study at the Department of Psychology at New Zealand’s Massey University may be an exception—the primary objective of this scientific endeavor was to determine cats’ responses to being petted.

The foundation of the study, conducted by Susan Soennichsen and Arnold S. Chamove and published in the journal Anthrozoös (Vol. 15, No. 3, 2002), is the theory that a human’s petting of a cat serves as social communication between species. In order to observe the cats’ responses, researchers tested nine companion cats and directed their owners to pet them in four areas: near the temporal gland (near the upper cheek, between the ear and eye), the perioral gland (between the cats’ chin and lips), the caudal gland (on the back, near the base of the tail), and a selected area, such as the back, that was not near one of these glands.

The cats—all neutered domestic shorthairs—were petted during short sessions that totaled one hour overall, by a randomly chosen household member and, in some cases, a researcher as well. The cats’ owners recorded their observations on the resulting behavior, categorizing actions like purring (pleasurable), tail swishing (aversive), or yawning (neutral).

Results indicated that cats seemed to most enjoy petting near the temporal gland, and appeared to have a significant dislike for petting near the caudal gland. The authors also suggested that purring may not simply be an expression of happiness or contentment, but a signal of other kitty messages.

“Not only was purring the most frequently occurring pleasurable behavior recorded in the study;” the researchers wrote, “it was also present in some sessions in which all other responses overwhelmingly pointed to an aversive response to stimulation at that site.”


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