Are dogs ticklish?

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Written by Dr Andrew Miller MRCVSDr Andrew Miller MRCVS is an expert veterinary working in the field for over 10 years after graduating from Bristol University. Andy fact checks and writes for Pure Pet Food while also working as a full time veterinarian. Pure Pet FoodPure Pet Food are the experts in healthy dog food and healthy dogs featured in media outlets such as BBC, Good Housekeeping and The Telegraph. Working with high profile veterinary professionals and nutritionists, Pure Pet Food are changing dog food for the better. - Our editorial process

We all know dogs love a good scritch and a belly rub, but sometimes you might pet a spot that makes your dog act a little different. Whether you stroke their ear and they start twitching it, or you scratch their back and they arch up into your hand, there are definitely spots where petting hits different. Sometimes, it can look a lot like they’re acting ticklish.

If you’ve ever wondered if dogs can be ticklish, or why rubbing that one spot on their belly gets their leg going, you’re not alone. So let’s explore if it’s possible for a dog to be ticklish!

Are dogs ticklish?

Yes, dogs can definitely be ticklish. The tickle response, also called gargalesis, is recorded in humans and other animals like primates and rats and it seems that dogs might also have this reaction to light touches and tickling.

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Where are dogs ticklish?

You might have wondered are dogs ticklish anywhere in particular, like how some people only seem to have ticklish feet. If you want to know where a dog’s ticklish spot is, there are a few places to try that are almost certainly going to be sensitive and ticklish. In fact, the spots where your dog is ticklish are similar to common human ticklish spots.

Possible places where your dog is ticklish are:

  • Ears

  • Paws

  • Neck

  • Armpits

  • Their back (Especially above their tail!)

My dog kicks their leg when I scratch them, are they ticklish?

Not necessarily! Some dogs do have certain spots on their body that when you scratch them, makes them tense up a little and start kicking their hind leg. Some people call these tickle spots, but it’s just a sensitive area that is linked to a slightly similar response, and not a sign that they are ticklish.

If you’ve ever found a spot like this on your dog, you’ve probably noticed they kick their leg and thump their foot like they’re scratching in mid-air, and that’s basically what they’re doing. It’s called a scratch reflex and your dog can’t control it. (There’s a similar reaction for humans called knismesis.) This reflex is a completely involuntary reaction and actually works in a similar way to when you hit your knee and jerk your leg.

The scratching sensation stimulates the nerves under the skin which sends signals to their spinal cord, which is basically an alert that something is making their skin itch. The dog’s central nervous system then sends an impulse back to tell their leg to scratch the itch and kick off whatever’s causing the problem, activating their muscles and making them start scratching. The problem is, you’re already scratching the itch, so they just end up kicking the air a bit.

When your dog kicks their leg when you scratch them, it isn’t a million miles away from being ticklish, but it isn’t quite the same thing. You’re basically tricking their nerves into thinking something’s making them itchy.

Do tickled dogs laugh?

Humans usually laugh when they’re tickled, (Often alongside shouts of “stop it!”) It turns out that other animals like apes and rats also make a noise that’s similar to laughter whenever they are tickled. But do tickled dogs laugh?

Well, it doesn’t sound like giggling and we don’t know for sure if it is laughter in the same way that we humans think of it, but dogs can make a sound similar to laughter, especially when playing. This sound is like panting, but under analysis, the “laughter” is a different frequency to regular doggy panting.

It is possible that if you tickle your dog and they open their mouth in a broad doggy grin and start panting, they’re actually laughing. But we might never know for sure!

By the way, that doggy “smile” is as good as a human grin. If your dog’s eyes are squinting or they’ve got a soft gaze, their jaws are open with no tension, and their tongue is lolling, and lips pulled up a little at the corners like a smile, that’s the canine equivalent of a grin and it’s a sign your pup is pretty happy and relaxed.

Why are dogs ticklish?

It’s all to do with their nerves, the same as with people. It can be helpful to try and think about why you’re ticklish and draw a comparison there.

If someone tickled the bottom of your foot, you would usually laugh and twitch it away. This reaction is similar to if you touched something that causes you pain, like touching something hot or pricking your finger on a thorn. Touching something that could hurt you causes your muscles to contract and you quickly and instinctively jerk your hand or foot away.

Because of the similarity between this defensive response and the response to tickling, there is one theory that being ticklish is a defence mechanism. This is because most ticklish areas of the body are soft, vulnerable spots like the soles of your feet. So if you or your pooch feels anything on these sensitive areas, they react, and so seem ticklish.

We can’t know for sure, but it’s an educated guess that the reaction from hounds is similar to how we humans react. Especially because their usual ticklish spots are also vulnerable areas like their paws and ears. But we might never if dogs are truly ticklish, and why they are.

How do you know if a dog is ticklish?

You probably know your dog is ticklish but without actually realising! If your dog doesn’t like you touching their ears or feet, or grooming these areas makes them shake their head or feet, it’s possible that they are ticklish.

If you’re curious as to whether your pup has tickly feet, lightly tickle the pads on their feet. Chances are, they’ll twitch their foot away. You could also gently blow air onto their ears, which will probably make them start twitching their ear around or start scratching it. You could also lightly run your fingers up and down their back as you would to a person, and sometimes it might make your dog shiver.

However, whether this is because your pooch is ticklish or because you’ve triggered the scratch response is pretty tricky to define.

Is tickling a dog bad?

It depends on how your dog reacts really. You’re probably well aware of how annoying and even painful tickling can be, and sometimes you’re just not in the mood. It’s the same for dogs! Sometimes your fur-iend might love a little tickle, while other pups might not want to be bothered, and sometimes it could go on too long for their liking and pup-set them.

If your dog is showing clear signs of happiness, like a soft, relaxed expression, a doggy smile, and a high and waggy tail, then they obviously don’t mind whatever you’re doing. If your dog leans into your hand, that’s a sign that they’re actually enjoying that tickly scratch you’re giving them.

However if your dog shows any signs of unhappiness, don’t try to tickle them. Walking away from you is a pretty clear indication they’re not interested. Meanwhile, if their ears are pinned back or their tail is low, wagging stiffly, or between their legs, they’re uncomfortable. And it should go without saying, if your dog growls or snarls when you tickle them, stop it.

Not every dog likes being tickled, and some might bear with it while others will clearly try to tell you to stop. Watch your pooch’s body language and try to understand what your dog is trying to tell you.

A ticklish dog isn’t always a good thing either. If your dog has suddenly developed tickly or sensitive skin, it could be a sign of something less amusing. If your dog becomes ticklish or itchy all of a sudden they could have fleas, dry skin, dermatitis, or something else that’s just irritating their skin. Have a look for any signs of illness, parasites or rashes, and consider taking them to the vet for a check-up.