Love Petting Your Cat? There's A 'Red Zone' You Need To Avoid.

"Am I Doing It Wrong?" co-host Raj Punjabi's cat, Gina. <span class="copyright">Courtesy of Raj Punjabi</span>
"Am I Doing It Wrong?" co-host Raj Punjabi's cat, Gina. Courtesy of Raj Punjabi

Is there anything better than a cat making biscuits on our bellies? Or kitties rubbing their fuzzy little chins against our shins? Or watching them zoom around the living room?

No. No there is not (and this is not up for debate).

Because these floofy goofballs bring us so much joy, we want to return the favor. But how do we know if we’re really making them happy? And when we’re loving on our cats, what should and shouldn’t we do?

That’s what we — Raj Punjabi and Noah Michelson, hosts of HuffPost’s “Am I Doing It Wrong?” podcast — asked Mikel Delgado, Ph.D., a cat behaviorist and scientist, when we recently chatted with her to learn the secrets of understanding our furry friends.

Listen to the full episode by pressing play:

It turns out we might be petting our cats all wrong.

“What I always like to start with when I’m talking about petting is an understanding of humans and what we like because this is where the conflict comes up,” Delgado said. “We are primates. We like to hug. We like to touch. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with this concept of the homunculus, but it’s a diagram of the physical human body in relationship to how the brain is organized and how much space is dedicated in our brain to different senses.”

The homunculus depicts a person with huge lips and gigantic hands, because these are two of the most sensitive parts of our bodies.

“Basically, what it means is we like to touch things — we like to touch them with our mouth, and we like to touch them with our lips,” she said. “We want to kiss our cats, we want to pet our cats, we want to hold them close. That’s the human experience — we want to touch a lot.”

Cats, on the other hand, are a “high-frequency, low-intensity species” when it comes to contact.

“They like lots of really short interactions — like not intense,” Delgado noted. “A lot of humans are, like, ‘I want to pet you, kitty, and I want to pet you for a long time,’ and then we get bitten. ‘Overstimulation’ is what we call it, or ‘petting aggression,’ when a cat has had too much petting — and too much is based on the individual preference [of the cat].”

A twitching tail, cranky meow or ears that are moving around a lot are all signals that a cat is annoyed by our touch.

“They might even bite or scratch people to say, like, ‘I’m done,’ and so at that point the petting is no longer pleasurable and has become irritating,” Delgado said.

The “Play With Your Cat” author added that some cats dislike the amount of petting they’re receiving, others dislike the part of the body we’re touching and some dislike both.

“I know for my cats, like, I could pet their cheeks and chin and forehead for hours, but you know, we call below the neck ‘the yellow zone,’” she said. “It’s like, now you’re in the danger area. And then there’s some areas that are ‘red zone.’”

Two studies have confirmed Delgado’s anecdotal findings and offered some guidance on how we can pet our cats in a way that’s more pleasurable for them.

“Both of the studies converged on similar conclusions, which is that for most cats, the neck up is a good place to pet cats,” she said. “Most cats respond positively to it. The general body is iffy — it really depends on the cat.”

The areas of the body that were found to be the most sensitive and most likely to generate a negative reaction from a cat — the so-called red zone — include the belly and the base of the tail, and for many cats, the paws.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that all cats will dislike being touched in these places.

“We’re using science to make a conclusion, but there’s always individual differences,” Delgado said. “I will say I’ve had cats who love belly rubs. So I don’t want to say every cat hates belly rubs. ... That’s not what the science says. The science says that most cats do not enjoy belly rubs.”

If you’re meeting a cat for the first time, Delgado suggested offering the cat your hand, letting them sniff and rub against your fingers and then providing gentle pets to the cheeks, chin and forehead.

“The neck up is pretty safe — that’s a good place to start,” she said. “Anything other than that, you’re venturing into the danger zone.”

Ultimately, none of this means we need to stop heaping love on our cats. It just might mean petting them for a shorter amount of time, avoiding certain areas on their bodies or just paying more attention to context clues that might message they’re just not feeling us. And, of course, your cat might love being pet in the red zone more than anywhere else and, if that’s the case, go for it!

Delgado also chatted with us about what it means when our cat greets us with its tail in the air, tips for training your cat to stop waking you up or to give you a high-five, why you might want to try “slow blinking” at your cat and much more.

Listen to the full episode above or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Need some help with something you’ve been doing wrong? Email us at, and we might investigate the topic in an upcoming episode.