Dogs love a friendly round of petting, and are often seen involuntarily kicking their leg when we playfully scratch certain parts of their belly. You may be wondering: are dogs ticklish? It turns out that—just like humans—dogs have spots on their bodies that make them feel a similar sensation when being tickled.
Keep reading to learn if dogs are, scientifically, ticklish, and if they laugh or express themselves in the same way we do. More importantly, find out their tickle spots, how to gently tickle them, and when to stop petting and tickling them.
Are Dogs Ticklish? What the Science Says
While dogs may not giggle and squirm when being tickled, it doesn’t mean they aren’t ticklish. Dogs have the same nerve endings in their skin that humans do, says Dr. Mark Stickney, a veterinarian at Fuzzy Pet Health. “Just like people, some dogs are more ticklish than others.”
But you may be wondering what the science is behind the tickle response. Stickney explains that when humans are tickled, it stimulates both pain and touch receptors in our skin. Animals, too, have these receptors, as part of their survival mechanism.
In people, Stickney says that tickling stimulates the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls emotional responses such as the “fight or flight” response, and is the reason why we often tend to get away or thrash around when someone is tickling us.
Similarly, in dogs, this response is key for survival. “In order to survive as a dog, you have to know when something is touching you and you definitely have to know when something is injuring you.”
Stickney explains that there are two different types of tickle responses. Let’s break them down:
- Knismesis: This is a light touch across the skin that feels a bit itchy. Dogs experience this type of ticklishness. Other animals—such as horses, sharks, owls, meerkats, dolphins, and penguins—also feel this type of tickling.
- Gargalesis: This is a full-blown tickle response that results in spastic motion and laughter. Along with humans, chimpanzees, gorialls, orangutans, and even rats are some of the animals that have been proven to display this reaction.
When dogs are being tickled, they do not laugh like we do, says Carley Faughn, animal behaviorist with Best Friends Animal Society in Utah. Instead, “they might change their body language, move that body part away, or might have an involuntary leg kicking response.”
If they do like tickling, dogs may “smile” by lifting the corners of their mouth when being tickled, says Stickney. You know you’ve found a tickle spot when the dog kicks their leg when that area is scratched. The dog will also express a positive response to tickling by stretching, smiling, nudging you to keep doing it, and panting deeply, says Stickney. Dogs might pant while being tickled due to the excitement, but this is not considered laughing.
Where Are Dogs Ticklish? Common Tickle Spots
According to Faughn, dogs are ticklish in the following areas:
- Between their front legs or armpits
- Back above their tail
How to Tickle a Dog
Tickling is a common fun activity with pets, especially when they are puppies, as it’s joyful to see them get into it during playtime. However, it is important to be gentle and aware of the dog’s body language when petting or tickling, says Faughn.
Additionally, keep in mind that the pressure applied needs to vary depending on the location of the body where the pet is being tickled.
According to Faughn, you will know when the dog is enjoying the activity if he is not expressing signs of stress or actively trying to move away. Furthermore, just like humans don’t like being tickled for a long time, dogs do not either, so it’s best to not overdo it, Faughn recommends.
To find out your dog’s tickle spots, Stickney suggests starting with gently scratching or rubbing parts of their body (listed above), and starting with the belly. “If it doesn’t feel good on your skin, it will not feel good to your dog, so don’t be too rough.”
When Not to Tickle a Dog
Not all dogs like being tickled, especially in certain areas. Dogs are ticklish on their paws, but you may notice your pet slowly pulling away when you touch the underside of their paw. Stickney says some dogs “may not like having their nails trimmed because holding their paws creates a tickle sensation that they do not like.” Faughn agrees, “this is often a body part that dogs are not comfortable with humans touching.”
If a dog really does not like being tickled, Stickney says they may try to “get away, snarl, growl, raise one lip, or their hair may stand up.” In this instance, it’s best to stick with petting and scratching instead, or simply leave the dog alone.
Stickney recommends against tickling a stranger’s dog, or when the dog is already engaged in another activity, like eating or enjoying a bone or toy. “If the dog tries to move away from you, or looks at you with concern or bares its teeth, stop.”
When petting and tickling your dog, pay close attention to see if they are enjoying it. Because each dog is different, it is important to be aware of their body language, and also teach children to do the same.