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Are Cats Ticklish?

By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz January 28, 2021

If you are a cat parent, you may have noticed your cat reacting to some forms of touch as if they are ticklish. In humans, gentle touches on the bottoms of our feet can send a shiver up our spine. When we gently tickle our cat’s paws, we may notice them twitch as if they are feeling something similar. This article will explore whether cats are ticklish and provide some recommendations to pet parents on how to touch your cat and how to read if they are enjoying it or not.

Can Cats Be Ticklish?

Scientists have described two main types of tickling sensation: knismesis and gargalesis.

  • Knismesis – This feeling is brought on by something lightly brushing the surface of the skin. It can be described as a slightly annoying feeling and can sometimes induce a shiver response. This tickle is thought to be advantageous for humans and animals because it alerts us to insects on our body and gives us the chance to brush them off (Hall and Alliń, 1897). This response helps protect against bites or parasitic infections.
  • Gargalesis – This form of tickling is produced by heavier touch and often results in laughter in humans. Children often enjoy eliciting this response during play. It is believed that this type of tickling aids in social bonding and may also help teach defense of vulnerable areas of the body that could come in handy during life threatening situations later on (Harris, 2012).

Gargalesis tickles have been observed in primates and humans and are thought to have evolved in the great apes. This makes it unlikely that cats experience this tickling sensation. However, knismesis tickling is thought to be widespread across many mammals (Harris, 2012). The underlying neural mechanisms responsible for the tickle sensation are not well understood, but touch and pain fibers are possible candidates. Zotterman (1939) explored the underlying mechanism behind the knismesis sensation in cats by brushing them lightly on their skin with cotton wool. The researcher concluded that the tickle sensation, at least partially, relies on pain fibers. This could explain why some tickling makes us feel uncomfortable and can cause us to rub the tickled area in an attempt to sooth it. Further, it has been shown that the ‘tickle’ sensation and the ‘itch’ sensation are closely linked and subjectively indistinguishable (Graham et al., 1950).

How Can You Tell If Your Cat Is Ticklish?

The best way to tell if your cat is ticklish is to observe their body language while they are being touched. If they experience the knismesis sensation, they may show signs of annoyance. They may jerk their paw away, twitch their skin, or flick their ears in response to the slightly uncomfortable sensation. In many cases though, our tickling attempts may simple be perceived as pleasurable, and cats will show signs of enjoyment. Cats that are enjoying the petting they are receiving may (Gourkow et al., 2014):

  • Purr or knead with their front paws
  • Make gentle movements with their tails
  • Show a relaxed posture and have soft eyes
  • Nudge your hand when you stop petting them to ask for more

It is a good idea to get to know what areas are ticklish on your cat and where they enjoy being pet the most.

What Areas Of A Cat’s Body Are Most Sensitive?

In the process of getting to know where your cat likes to be tickled, you are likely to come across areas that your cat dislikes being touched. In some cats, even gentle petting may induce aggression (Rodan, 2010). Cats are individuals and have different preferences for how and where they want to be pet, and there appears to be an underlying genetic component to their tolerance of human contact (Reisner et al., 1994). Some cats are aversive to having their belly touched as this is a vulnerable area on their body. They may roll over on their back, exposing their belly in a friendly or submissive greeting, but this should not be interpreted as an invitation to touch their belly (Feldman, 1994). Other cats seem to love having their belly rubbed. Once you have established a trusting relationship with a cat, you can slowly explore their touch preferences. Another common sensitive area on cats is their paws or the backs of their legs. Cat’s paws contain an especially high density of touch receptors, making them extra sensitive (Ebara et al., 2008). Proceed with caution when petting a cat in any of these areas as they may find it uncomfortable.

Where Are The Best Places To Tickle Your Cat?

The best places to tickle your cat are on their chin, cheeks, or base of their tail. These are all of the areas that cats have scent glands to deposit pheromones and most cats find touch in these areas to be pleasurable. While cats use scent marking as a way to communicate their reproductive status or to mark their territory, it is also used to mark familiar areas to give a sense of security (Fox, 1975). Cats will rub faces with another cat, particularly the area between the eye and ear, as a way to facilitate social bonding (Verberne and de Boer 1976; Crowell-Davis et al., 2004). When we tickle cats in these areas we are mimicking this friendly social interaction. One study examined where cats preferred to be stroked by humans and found that most preferred the temporal region (cheek area) and least preferred stroking in the caudal region (base of tail), with preferences for touch around the mouth or on non-gland areas in-between (Soennichsen and Chamove, 2002).

How Can You Tell When Your Cat Has Had Enough Tickling?

Cats will communicate if they do not like a certain area of their body touched or when they are tired of being pet. Cats have special skin receptors that make them ultra-sensitive to touch (Overall, 1997). Repetitive touch can quickly lead to irritation. Some behavioral signs that may suggest your cat has had enough include (Gourkow et al., 2014; Hunthausen, 2006):

  • Pulling away from you
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Continually shifting or changing positions
  • Excessive blinking
  • Licking, head shaking, or vigorous grooming
  • Flattening their ears
  • Batting at you with their paw
  • Biting
  • Hissing
  • Purring

While we often associate purring with happiness and enjoying human company, research has shown that cats may purr in other situations too, such as when seeking help or as a self-soothing mechanism (Fogle, 1995). It is important when tickling your cat to read their body language as a whole to determine whether or not they are enjoying your company. Respect any signs of discomfort that your cat displays and give them a break from being tickled to avoid potentially getting bit or scratched.

Conclusion

In summary, cats are ticklish in some capacity. They are sensitive to light touches across their skin, just as humans are. However, they do not experience the laughter inducing gargalesis tickles that humans and great apes have evolved to feel. When tickling your cat, pay special attention to their body language to gauge where they enjoy being touched and when they have had enough. When we tickle our cats under their chins and on their cheeks, we are mimicking a social bonding behavior that cats do amongst themselves to show affection. By improving our understanding of our cat’s ticklishness, we can avoid causing them discomfort or annoyance, and instead use ticking to improve our bond with our furry friend.

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Works Cited

Crowell-Davis, S. L., Curtis, T. M., & Knowles, R. J. (2004). Social organization in the cat: a modern understanding. Journal of feline medicine and surgery6(1), 19-28.

Ebara, S., Kumamoto, K., Baumann, K. I., & Halata, Z. (2008). Three-dimensional analyses of touch domes in the hairy skin of the cat paw reveal morphological substrates for complex sensory processing. Neuroscience research61(2), 159-171.

Feldman, H. N. (1994). Domestic cats and passive submission. Animal behaviour.

Fogle, B. (1995). The cat's mind: understanding your cat's behavior. * Howell Book House.

Fox, M. W. (1975). The behaviour of cats. The behaviour of domestic animals, 410-436.

Gourkow, N., Hamon, S. C., & Phillips, C. J. (2014). Effect of gentle stroking and vocalization on behaviour, mucosal immunity and upper respiratory disease in anxious shelter cats. Preventive Veterinary Medicine117(1), 266-275.

Graham, D. T., Goodell, H., & Wolff, H. G. (1951). Neural mechanisms involved in itch,“itchy skin,” and tickle sensations. The Journal of clinical investigation30(1), 37-49.

Hall, G. Stanley, and Arthur Alliń. "The psychology of tickling, laughing, and the comic." The American Journal of Psychology 9.1 (1897): 1-41.

Harris, C. R. (2012). Two Forms of Tickle: Knismesis and Gargalesis. The Encyclopedia of Human Behaviour.

Hunthausen, W. L. (2006). Helping owners handle aggressive cats. Veterinary medicine.

Overall, K. L. (1997). Clinical behavioral medicine for small animals. Mosby-Year Book, Inc.

Reisner, I. R., Houpt, K. A., Erb, H. N., & Quimby, F. W. (1994). Friendliness to humans and defensive aggression in cats: the influence of handling and paternity. Physiology & behavior55(6), 1119-1124.

Rodan, I. (2010). Understanding feline behavior and application for appropriate handling and management. Topics in companion animal medicine25(4), 178-188.

Soennichsen, S., & Chamove, A. S. (2002). Responses of cats to petting by humans. Anthrozoös15(3), 258-265.

Verberne, G., & de Boer, J. (1976). Chemocommunication among Domestic Cats, Mediated by the Olfactory and Vomeronasal Senses: I. Chemocommunication. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie42(1), 86-109.

Zotterman, Y. (1939). Touch, pain and tickling: an electro‐physiological investigation on cutaneous sensory nerves. The Journal of physiology95(1), 1-28.