Are Dogs Ticklish?
By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley April 21, 2020
Dogs love a good scratching from their beloved owners. Scratching behind the ears, by the tail, on the chest, and on the stomach seem to be great spots for our canine companions. Have you ever been scratching your dog’s belly or between their chest and they start kicking their leg? Have you ever wondered what this response means? Are dogs ticklish? If so, do they enjoy being tickled? In this article, we will discuss this behavior we see in our dogs in response to a good scratch.
Before we discuss whether or not dogs are ticklish, we should define exactly what it means to be ticklish.
What Does It Mean To Be Ticklish?
According to Wattendorf and colleagues (2013), “tickling involves the unpredictable stimulation of vulnerable parts of the body by a familiar person. It is an ambivalent stimulus, evoking a mixture of pleasurable and unpleasurable feelings.”
One proposed theory behind being ticklish is that it is a body’s response to protect the sensitive areas of the body. Animals, including people, tend to be the most ticklish in sensitive areas of the body such as the stomach and throat. In humans, this also includes armpits and soles of the feet (Wattendorf et al., 2013). It is thought that tickling is an involuntary response to sensations on the skin and functions to protect these areas. Even the laughing in response to tickling is involuntary. Laughing is a primitive vocalization and ticklish laughter occurs independently of other forms of laughter, indicating the tickle response is unique and not necessarily tied to pleasure. The tickling response is linked to the hypothalamus, which controls involuntary responses, such as the fight or flight response further indicating it may be a protective mechanism (Wattendorf et al., 2013).
Everyone responds to tickling differently. Some people enjoy being tickled while others find it uncomfortable, and almost painful. Sometimes tickling is enjoyable for a little bit and then becomes painful if someone is tickled too long. The differences in response to being tickled may be due to the sensitivity of your nerves. The nerves are responsible for detecting the sensation on the skin and triggering the tickle response through the brain. The tickle response is connected to mood, meaning people can be ticklish sometimes and not others. People that are happy and playful may feel more ticklish than when they are sad or upset. Additionally, one of the key components of tickling is the element of surprise. Sometimes if you know a tickle is coming, you do not have the same tickle response as when it comes as a surprise. This is why people cannot tickle themselves.
Are Dogs Ticklish?
The response we see in dogs seems to be part of the same mechanism we just described as the tickling response. When dogs are scratched on their belly, for example, they exhibit a kicking behavior. This kicking response you see dogs perform in response to a good scratch is referred to as the scratch reflex. It is similar to a tickle response in that the scratch reflex is an involuntary response to stimulation to the skin. The tickle response, or scratch reflex, in a dog has a specific purpose of deterring external parasites from biting the skin (Sherrington, 1906).
The first scientific study on this response was conducted by C.S. Sherrington in 1906. The researcher applied electrical stimulation to different areas of the body to identify the receptive areas that elicit the behavioral response. Sherrington concluded that the kicking response is meant to deter external parasites, such as fleas and ticks, from biting the skin. The stimulation in certain areas of the body causes activation of the nerves, which communicate with the brain, causing an involuntary kicking response. The kicking functions to either eliminate the parasite from the fur and/or to alleviate the irritation from the bites (Sherrington, 1906).
How Do Dogs Respond When They Get Tickled?
The most common response to being “tickled” is the hind leg kicking as the dog is being scratched. Furthermore, if the dog is an upright position, they may lie on the ground. Some may make groaning noises as well.
Which Areas Of Your Dog Are Most Sensitive To Being Tickled?The areas of the body that elicit the scratch reflex include:
- Base of the tail
A scratch reflex elicited by ear scratches is known specifically as the pinnal-pedal scratch reflex. This response to ear scratches could be an indicator of canine scabies or other allergies or irritants (Mueller et al., 2001; Dodds, 2020).
How Do I Know If My Dog Is Ticklish?
If you are giving your dog a good scratch and they begin to kick one of their back legs, your dog is showing the scratch reflex! While the scratch reflex commonly occurs when the dog is receiving scratches to the belly, chest, and ears, it can also occur when they are scratched in other areas of their body.
Are Some Dogs More Ticklish Than Others?
The scratch reflex is an innate response to skin irritation, historically caused by external parasites. Veterinarians do believe that certain dogs may be more prone to display this scratch response than others. Certain medical conditions may provoke the scratch response, such as (Mueller et al., 2001; Dodds, 2020):
- Food sensitivity
- Irritation from collars or harnesses
The most common skin conditions to cause a scratch reflex in dogs are eczema, flea bite hypersensitivity, and food intolerance (Mueller et al., 2001).
It is possible that some dogs may show a seasonal scratch response. If a dog has seasonal allergies, certain times of the year may cause your dog to be more sensitive to scratching than others. In the winter for example, dogs may have drier skin, causing an exaggerated scratch response. Dogs may also show a stronger scratch reflex if they have bug bites or rashes. If your dog is particularly sensitive around the areas of the body where their collar or harness lay, observe them for signs of irritation. Collars or harnesses that are not properly fitted can cause irritation to the skin.
If you think your dog has a particularly strong scratch reflex, it may be time to take them to the veterinarian for a check-up. Your veterinarian may be able to help your dog deal with the allergies or skin conditions that are making them sensitive to scratches. In severe cases, a severely heightened scratch reflex or lack of a scratch reflex could be an indicator of neurological issues.
Should I Tickle My Dog?
Many dogs absolutely love getting scratches from their favorite humans. Even though the scratch reflex is an involuntary response, typically dogs do enjoy getting scratches just like some people enjoy being tickled. If your dog approaches you and voluntarily participates in scratches or tickles, there is nothing wrong with continuing to do it. However, dogs should always have the option to participate in an interaction or not. They should not be forced into interactions or physically restrained for tickles. Observe your dog for signs of stress during interactions, such as yawning, lip licking, or looking away. Their body language should be loose and relaxed during pets and scratches. If your dog seems tense and uncomfortable, give them the opportunity to leave and re-engage in the interaction if they want to.
Some dogs can get overstimulated during intense interactions. It is important to remember that petting and scratching are activating nerves that are causing an involuntary response. This may feel good at first but can become intense and uncomfortable if it is occurring for too long. When dogs become overstimulated, they may become mouthy or hyper, and become extremely sensitive to touch. If your dog becomes overstimulated easily, try to keep scratching and petting to short sessions and stop before your dog becomes overstimulated. If your dog becomes overstimulated, stop your petting session and give them a chance to calm down. Keep interactions and the environment calm and quiet until their arousal level is lowered.
Yes, dogs are ticklish! The response we observe when a dog is being scratched is known as the scratch reflex. This is an evolutionary response to external parasites that bite the skin. When a dog is scratched, it triggers the nerves to signal the brain to respond to the presence of a parasite. The kicking is meant to deter the parasite from biting and/or to alleviate the irritation caused by the bite. Regardless of the innate response caused by scratching and the evolutionary history behind the response, many dogs still enjoy being scratched by their humans and seek out these interactions with us. However, dogs should always be given the choice to interact with us. They should not be forced into or physically restrained for these types of interactions. It is also important to keep in mind that the scratch reflex could be an indicator of skin irritation due to external parasites or allergies. Dogs with particularly sensitive scratch reflexes should be monitored by a veterinarian and offered skin relief if needed.
Mueller, R.S., Bettenay, S.V., and M. Shipstone. 2001. Value of the pinnal-pedal reflex in the diagnosis of canine scabies. Veterinary Record 148:621-623.
Sherrington, C.S. 1906. Observations on the scratch-reflex in the spinal dog. The Journal of Physiology 34(1-2):1-50.
Wattendorf, E., Westermann, B., Fiedler, K., Kaza, E., Lotze, M., and M.R. Celio. 2013. Exploration of the neural correlates of ticklish laughter by functional magnetic resonance imaging. Cerebral Cortex 23:1280-1289.
Dodds, W.J. 2020. Is that the spot? Why does my dog kick when I scratch him? Hemopet.org. Retrieved on April 21, 2020