Are Dogs Ticklish? Here's What To Know About Scratching That Good Spot

Uncontrollable legs kicks are the cutest, but what do they mean?

We’re all guilty of overindulging our four-legged friends here and there. From belly rubs to extra treats, we shower our pups with affection every day. Believe it or not, studies have shown they use gestures to show their love in return; that back scratch or never-ending game of fetch doesn’t go unnoticed.

But if you’ve ever scratched that oh-so-good spot that makes your dog’s leg go wild while giving him extra love, you may be wondering if that scratching gives your dog a happy tickle. Is it just a reflex, or are dogs ticklish? And, most importantly, do they like it? We've got all the answers on why dogs kick when you give them a good scratch.

Close-Up Of Dog Lying On Grass
Silvia Vellozo / EyeEm

Can You Tickle A Dog?

The answer is in how you define a tickle. In humans, there are two types of tickle sensations. The first, knismesis, is a very light tickle that doesn’t make you laugh but may give you goosebumps, like when a bug is crawling on you. The second is gargalesis, a heavy tickling that can send you into a fit of laughter.

Scientists have found that knismesis is common in mammals, including dogs, as a natural reflex. This involuntary response results from neurological stimulation from the light touch of a feather or from something crawling on your skin. It’s easy to consider the importance of this automatic reflex as a form of protection and survival. If a dog has fleas or other irritants on him, for instance, he needs an alert to scratch it away.

While gargalesis hasn’t been officially found in dogs, some dog owners believe their dogs laugh in response to tickles or play. Instead of human-sounding laughter, a dog might pant or sigh while being tickled, according to the American Kennel Club.

Why Dogs Kick When You Scratch Them

We all know that one spot that’s sure to make your dog’s leg start kicking uncontrollably. As adorable as it is to watch, this “sweet spot” reaction is simply a reflex. The rhythmic jerking of a hind leg is known as the scratch reflex.

“In dogs, tickling causes involuntary twitching movements where nerve receptors are triggered,” says Mary Burch, PhD, an animal behaviorist and director of the family dog program at the AKC. “When I was scratching my dog’s sides, I knew the spot was ticklish when I saw it start to kick a foot. The kicking happens automatically as the dog does not think about this.”

Your scratch activates collections of neural pathways under particular areas of your dog’s skin that send a message to the spinal cord, which forces your dog’s hind leg to kick. The harder your scratch, the bigger the kick. Some vets might even include this “tickle” in an exam to show that the neural pathways and reflexes in your dog are healthy.

This scratch reflex evolved as a way for animals to protect themselves against irritants on their bodies, like bugs that could carry diseases. The knismesis tickle of the bug on their skin activates the reflex, allowing them to kick away the source of the itch.

Where Is My Dog Ticklish?

Dogs have different areas that tickle their scratch reflex. The most common areas include the belly, ears, neck, back, base of the tail, and paws. But other than a good leg kick, how can you tell if your dog is enjoying the attention?

“Staying in place to accept more tickling is a sign the dog finds tickling enjoyable," Dr. Burch says. "Otherwise, the pup would get up and leave."

Is Tickling A Dog Ever Bad?

A dog can't tell you if it likes tickling, so how do you know when to stop? More sensitive dogs can become irritated by tickling and will let you know with body language.

“If you are tickling your dog and they seem tense or [it] tries to leave the area, don’t make your dog come back for more scratching or tickling,” Dr. Burch says.

An extreme sensitivity to touch can sometimes be an indication of a health problem, she added. If your dog seems especially bothered or upset by touch on the abdomen, ears, or paws, it could be time to make an appointment with the veterinarian.

While you shouldn’t expect uncontrollable laughter from your pup anytime soon, if you define a tickle as an involuntary movement in response to your touch, you may have more in common with your dog than you thought.

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