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Where Your Cat Wants to Be Petted, According to Science

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Felines can be fickle, but a group of scientists from the UK’s University of Lincoln is trying to figure out exactly how to please them best. A study in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science examines exactly where cats prefer to be stroked, and where they would rather you keep your paws off. 

Do cats even like being petted at all? Science isn’t sure. “While we have come to expect cats to not only tolerate, but also enjoy being touched, there is little empirical research investigating whether this is actually the case,” the paper notes. 

To find out, one experiment analyzed the behavior of 34 cats between 6 months and 12 years old in their own homes while being stroked. Either the cat’s owner or the experimenter, a stranger, petted the cat in different regions of the body, including the area around the chin and cheeks, the area around the base of the tail, the top of the head, the back, and the chest. A subsequent trial tested 20 cats between one and 12 years old, this time with only their primary caregivers doing the petting, with stroking limited to the cat’s head, back, or tail. 

Base of the tail? Puh-lease. Image Credit: Shaunacy Ferro

All the interactions were filmed, and the researchers kept a long list of cat behaviors, with each kind of movement assigned a positive or negative score. A friendly head butt, a sniff, or a slow blink, for instance, garnered positive points, while any kind of bitting, tail swishing, or ear flicking indicated a negative reaction. At the end of the petting session, all the positive behavior scores and all the negative behavior scores were added up for each of the zones of the body to gauge the cats' overall reaction.

Cats were more likely to exhibit negative reactions to being handled by their owner compared to a stranger—an unusual behavior for a domestic animal. (Familiarity breeds cattiness, apparently.) The researchers suggest that cats can feel antagonized by their owners scolding them or petting them too long, so they may not always associate their owner with positive vibes. Or, the cats may have been annoyed that the strict experimental setup—dictating how they were handled and for how long—didn’t follow the normal pattern of how their owner usually interacts with them, causing kitty frustration. (Wouldn’t you get fed up if you expected casual playtime, but became the subject of a science experiment?) 

The cats preferred their petting to come in the form of strokes along the cheeks and chin or between the eyes and ears. They liked having the base of their tails touched least. The researchers hypothesize that cats don’t groom each other in this area, and the only time they would touch each other’s tails would be in the form of wrapping their tails around each other, which only happens between the best of cat friends. It’s likely that “the handler is not considered a close enough affiliate for interaction to occur at such a place on the body,” the researchers write. Rejected!

There it is, in plain scientific language: Your cat doesn't love you as much as you thought. Granted, one study with just over 50 cats isn't significant enough to be the final word on feline behavior. But just to be safe, best to stick to the tried-and-true chin scratches, or risk getting swatted. 

[h/t: Washington Post]

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
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Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
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Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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