Can Cats Actually Laugh? The Surprising Truth About Tickling Kitties


Tickling and laughing in cats refers to the reaction cats have when stimulated in a light, repetitive manner on sensitive areas of their body. While cats do not laugh in the same vocalized manner as humans, they do exhibit behavioral and physiological responses indicative of a positive experience similar to laughing.

Tickling involves provoking a pleasurable sensation by gently touching or stroking areas of a cat’s body in a way that stimulates nerves and triggers reflexes. Laughter in humans is associated with positive emotions and amusement, though the mechanisms are complex and not fully understood. In cats, laughing sensations seem to be processed through different neural pathways, but can similarly produce reactions suggesting happiness and enjoyment.

Anatomy of Cat Laughter

Cats make a variety of vocalizations to express different emotions and meanings. Purring is one of the most common cat vocalizations, and is often interpreted as an expression of contentment, pleasure, or happiness. Purring is produced by rapid vibrations of the cat’s vocal cords and diaphragm during inhalation and exhalation (1). The exact purpose and cause of purring is still debated, but many experts believe it signals a positive emotional state.

Cats also produce other vocalizations during play that may seem similar to human laughter. These include:

  • Chirps or chattering noises made during excitement or when observing prey
  • Growling mixed with purring during roughhousing or play
  • Snorts and puffing sounds when amused

These vocalizations are not exactly the same as human laughter, but do seem to communicate enjoyment, amusement, and playfulness in cats. The capacity for positive emotional vocalizations points to a level of emotional complexity and communication ability in cats.


Sensory Receptors in Cat Skin

Cats have an abundance of nerve endings and sensory receptors in their skin that allow them to detect touch and pressure (Animal Dermatology Clinic). In the epidermis, or outer layer of skin, cats have sensory nerve endings called mechanoreceptors that register pressure and touch. The two main types are Meissner’s corpuscles, which detect light touch, and Pacinian corpuscles, which sense deeper pressure and vibration.

In the dermis, or middle layer of skin, cats have sensory receptors called Merkel cells that detect touch. Ruffini endings in the dermis also contribute to the perception of stretch and pressure on the skin. With all of these nerve endings and touch receptors, a cat’s skin is highly sensitive to tactile stimulation like tickling or petting (Merck Veterinary Manual).

Brain Processing of Tickling

When cats are tickled, this sensory input activates certain parts of their brains. According to a study by researchers at MIT, gentle tickling of cats’ paws and bellies causes increased activity in the somatosensory cortex, which processes touch sensations 1. Increased blood flow was also noted in the cerebral cortex, suggesting cats experience enjoyment when tickled 2. The somatosensory cortex integrates tactile input from the skin and joints while the cerebral cortex is involved in processing emotions and behavior. Overall, the brain regions activated during tickling indicate that cats perceive the sensations and it induces positive emotions.

Positive Emotions in Cats

Cats are capable of experiencing positive emotions like joy, love and amusement. While they may not outwardly express it like humans do, research shows cats have similar neurochemistry that allows them to feel these emotions.

One study from Purina found that when cats are engaged in play with their owners, their brains release neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin which are associated with happiness, pleasure and affection in humans. The same neurochemicals involved in human laughter and joy are present in cats as well.

So when cats are gently tickled in a way they find stimulating, it’s likely they do feel some level of amusement, even if it is exhibited through subtle body language like eye dilation or tail movements rather than overt laughter. The own enthusiasm and joy we project while playing with cats can further elevate their positive emotional state.

Understanding that cats have their own unique way of expressing positive emotions allows us to better bond with them through play.

Cat Behavioral Response

Cats can exhibit a range of behavioral reactions to being tickled. While some cats may enjoy gentle tickling, others can find it overwhelming or stressful. Typical reactions can include:

– Vocalizations like meowing, purring, chirping or growling. Some cats may “laugh” when tickled by emitting a rapid panting vocalization. However, growling could signal overstimulation or displeasure (

– Playful responses like batting at hands, nibbling fingers, and rolling around. Cats who enjoy tickling will often act silly and energetic (

– Agitated reactions like biting, scratching, fleeing, or attacking hands. Some cats find tickling unpleasant and overstimulating (

While every cat has unique sensitivities, reading their body language can help determine if they welcome tickling or want it to stop.

Differences Between Cats

Individual ticklishness varies greatly between cats. Some cats are extremely ticklish, while others show little reaction to being tickled. According to the ASPCA, a cat’s individual personality plays a large role in determining its sensitivity to tickling [1]. Shy, nervous cats tend to be more ticklish than bold, confident cats. The location where a cat likes to be petted or scratched also differs based on personality. One key difference is whether a cat enjoys belly rubs or avoids them. Cats that dislike belly rubs are more likely to be ticklish in that area.

A cat’s breed can also influence ticklishness. For example, Rex cats and Sphinx cats, with little fur, may be more sensitive to light touches than fluffier breeds. Kittens tend to be quite ticklish as they explore new sensations and interactions. With age, cats often become less reactive to physical play and touching. Gender and physical fitness may also contribute to differences in ticklishness between cats. Ultimately, the best gauge is how an individual cat responds to being tickled by its trusted human companion.

Safety Considerations

While some cats may enjoy being tickled, it’s important to be mindful of signs that tickling may be causing stress or discomfort. According to, cats may exhibit the following behaviors when tickling causes negative emotions:

  • Aggression like biting, scratching, or swatting
  • Vocalizations like growling or hissing
  • Trying to run away or escape
  • Flattened ears
  • Dilated pupils
  • Lashing or swishing tail

It’s important to respect these signs and stop tickling immediately if the cat seems bothered. Prolonged tickling against a cat’s wishes can damage the human-feline bond. While some cats enjoy gentle tickling, others may become overstimulated. Knowing your individual cat’s personality can help determine if tickling will be a positive experience. When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid tickling cats who show any hesitation or unease.

Bonding Through Play

One of the best ways to bond with your cat is through playtime and positive interactions like tickling. Tickling is a fun way to simulate the pouncing and hunting behaviors cats naturally enjoy. It provides mental stimulation and allows cats to positively channel their energy. Light tickling and gentle pokes to a cat’s belly, paws, ears, and neck can elicit happy responses.

According to some sources, when cats are tickled, they may exhibit behaviors reminiscent of laughter and joy in humans: For example, they may start kicking or move their legs as if running in place out of excitement. Cats may also gently grab the hand that is tickling them or even start licking it affectionately. These can be signs that the cat is enjoying the interaction and bonding through play.

It’s important to pay attention to your cat’s body language and stop if they show signs of overstimulation or aggression. But tickling in short bursts can strengthen the human-feline bond. It provides positive reinforcement and a safe outlet for feline prey drive and energy. With patience and care, tickling can become an enriching part of your daily cat routine.


In summary, research indicates that cats do not laugh or vocalize in the same way humans do when tickled. While cats have sensory receptors that detect touch and movement, tickling does not produce involuntary laughter that is controlled by a specific area of the cat brain (called the cerebellum). Cats may exhibit reactions like purring, ear twitching, tail swishing or playful movements when tickled, but these are likely signs that the cat is experiencing positive emotions and sensations. The available evidence suggests cats lack the complex neural wiring humans have that triggers uncontrollable laughter from tickling. However, tickling and playing with cats can strengthen social bonding. Moderate gentle tickling, especially under the chin or on the cheeks, may be an enjoyable experience for some cats when done safely.

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