Petting etiquette for cats and dogs - know the dos & don'ts! - BC SPCA
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Petting etiquette for cats and dogs – know the dos & don’ts!

April 23, 2024

Can I pet your dog? It’s a question dog guardians often get from friends or when out walking with their pet. But not all dogs are comfortable being touched, especially by strangers. Here are some tips you can share with others to make these interactions safer and happier for your pet.

How to pet a dog:

1. Always ask permission before petting. Dog guardians will tell you whether or not their pet is comfortable being touched. If the guardian says no, please respect that.

2. Don’t stare. While eye contact is considered friendly for humans, it can be seen as threatening or aggressive by dogs. Never stare directly or hold the gaze of the dog you are approaching.

3. Move slowly and let the dog come to you. Sudden movements can startle a dog, who may react by barking or growling. Hold out a closed fist for the dog and talk softly, in an upbeat voice to him. If he approaches, sniffs and then stays, it’s a yes for the pet. If he sniffs and walks away or doesn’t approach, it’s a no. Never force the interaction.

4. Never lean over a dog or put your face next to theirs. Some dogs become very nervous when a human leans over or crowds them. Turn your body slightly away from the dog as you pet him. Avoid petting a dog directly on the head.

5. Sweeten the deal. After getting the guardian’s permission, offer a dog treat as part of your “meet and greet” to make the experience even more positive.

6. Observe the signals. After a few strokes check the dog’s body language. Is he trying to pull away or moving closer? Is he tensing up or relaxed? Take your signals from the dog – if they’re not happy, stop what you’re doing.

7. No hugs please! While humans love hugs, it is not a natural behaviour among canines and many dogs experience high levels of stress when embraced or kissed because they feel trapped and unable to escape.
Note: If your dog is normally friendly but suddenly begins growling or biting when being petted, check with your veterinarian to make sure your pet isn’t sick or experiencing pain.

How to pet a cat:

Like their canine counterparts, most cats enjoy interactions with humans – as long as we respect their boundaries.

Grey cat being petting at home wearing id

1. Let the cat come to you. Don’t pick up or force your attentions on a strange cat – let them make the first move. Cats often greet each other nose to nose – you can simulate this by offering an extended finger at nose level, a few feet away from her. Let the cat decide if she wants to come closer. If she approaches and sniffs or rubs up against your hand, gently begin stroking her.

2. No belly rubs please. Most cats prefer to be softly stroked (not patted!) on their foreheads, cheeks, behind their ears or under their chin. Use the pads of your fingers rather than your nails. A gentle long stroke from the forehead to the base of the tail can also be enjoyable (never from the tail upwards), but most cats don’t like you scratching their belly or playing with their feet or tails.

3. Watch for signals. If a cat jumps on your lap, pet her one or twice and wait to see her reaction. Sometimes cats just want the warmth of a lap, but if she leans into you or gives you a head bump, you can offer more light strokes.

4. Purr of approval. Purring is a cat’s way of expressing happiness. A soft purr can signal content, while a louder purr means she is very happy. But excessively loud purring can be a sign that she is becoming over-stimulated and may need a break from your attention. Some cats will even purr if they’re scared or sick, so it is important to know your cat’s behaviour and signals.

5. Know when to quit. A cat will let you know when she has had enough. Even if she has enjoyed the petting, it can turn irritating or even painful, if she begins to get a small static electricity shock from the friction on her fur. She may give you a scratch or a bite to signal the end of your petting time, but often she will give you more subtle signs first. Watch for tail switching, a low growl or hiss, fidgeting or her ears twitching or flattening against her head.

Related articles

Why doesn’t my dog like people petting him?

Dealing with petting aggression in cats (PDF)

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If you need help teaching your puppy or kitten to be okay with receiving pets, reach out to a BC SPCA Accredited AnimalKind trainer today.

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