Is My Dog Ticklish?

Plus the best spots to try 🤗

Dog being tickled

Have you ever been tempted to tickle your dog’s exposed belly — but weren’t sure if dogs could even be tickled? Or would you basically end up just petting him?

It turns out, dogs can be tickled just like humans!

The Dodo spoke with Alison Gerken, a veterinarian at Florida Veterinary Behavior Service, to learn more about tickling dogs, including how to do it and how to find out if your pup likes it.

How dogs are ticklish

Like humans, dogs experience knismesis, which is the scientific word for the tickle sensation humans feel in response to feather-light movement across the skin (resulting in goosebumps or an itching sensation).

“The tickle sensation results from the activation of nerves on and beneath the skin associated with both touch and pain,” Dr. Gerken told The Dodo. “Because dogs have the same nerve endings on their skin as humans … they likely experience similar sensations in response to being touched in sensitive areas of the body.” Knismesis is different from gargalesis (aka the tickle sensation in humans that leads to laughter), which has not been recognized in dogs.

How to tickle a dog

It’s pretty simple — to tickle a dog, you would lightly brush your fingers across his ticklish spots.

“Tickling a dog is very similar to tickling a person,” Dr. Gerken said. “You can lightly touch your dog in a sensitive area and wiggle your fingers back and forth to elicit a response.”

Where are dogs ticklish?

Dogs can have ticklish spots in many different areas.

Keep in mind that every dog is unique, though — so your dog might be ticklish on one part of his body, while another dog might not be ticklish there at all.

Here are some common areas where dogs are ticklish:

  • Sides of the belly
  • Underbelly
  • Ears
  • Neck
  • Back
  • Base of the tail
  • Paws

Signs your dog is being tickled

You’ll know if you’ve hit a ticklish spot when your dog has one or more of the following reactions:

  • Kicking his hind legs
  • Kicking or flicking his ears
  • Wigging or writhing his body
  • Moving his head
  • Pulling his limbs away
  • Twitching the legs when hair between paw pads are touched

Keep in mind that certain underlying medical issues might also cause the above reactions in dogs. So if you notice any change in your dog’s usual behavior or appearance, be sure to take him to the vet.

“Abdominal pain, arthritis, an ear infection or other underlying medical issue[s] may cause a dog to react in a way that resembles being tickled,” Dr. Gerken said.

Why do dogs kick their hind legs?

The most common reaction of a dog being tickled is when he kicks his hind legs.

Dogs kick their hind legs when they’re scratched or tickled due to an involuntary reflex known as the scratch reflex.

“Dogs may exhibit an array of responses when touched in sensitive areas,” Dr. Gerken said. “The most commonly seen reaction is a rhythmic kicking of the hind limbs when a dog’s belly is scratched. This is called the scratch reflex, and is an involuntary reflex that results from the activation of neural pathways under the skin that send a message from the skin to the spinal cord and then to the hind leg to kick.”

The reason why your dog kicks his hind leg when he’s tickled is the result of evolution.

“This scratch reflex evolved in order to trigger dogs to kick parasites or other irritants away from their skin in order to protect them,” Dr. Gerken said.

Do dogs like to be tickled?

Some dogs like to be tickled, while others don’t.

“As is the case with people, some dogs may enjoy tickling while others may not,” Dr. Gerken said. “Dogs may have learned that a tickle session leads to a positive interaction with and attention from their favorite humans. However, some dogs are more sensitive than others to being touched in particular places.”

If your dog has a medical issue that causes sensitivity in certain areas, he probably won’t want to be tickled (or touched) there, so try to avoid those areas.

“One reason a dog may not enjoy being tickled is if he is [in pain],” Dr. Gerken said. “You should never touch your dog in a place that you know is sensitive, like his ears if he has an infection, or his hips if he has arthritis.”

Your dog also might not like to be tickled if he’s particular about where or how he’s touched.

“Another reason a dog may not enjoy being tickled is if he finds that interaction to be invasive of his space or fear-provoking,” Dr. Gerken said.

Also, just because your dog seemed to enjoy being tickled one day doesn’t mean he’ll feel the same way the next.

“Just like people, your dog may have bad days, so he may not always be in the mood for a tickling session even if he has enjoyed it before,” Dr. Gerken said.

Signs your dog doesn’t like to be tickled

You can tell if a dog doesn’t want to be tickled if he displays the following behaviors when you try to tickle him:

  • Tries to get away
  • Tries to bite you
  • Puts his ears back
  • Lowers his tail below his back
  • Stiffens
  • Bares his teeth
  • Growls

If you notice any of the above behaviors, “he is communicating that he does not enjoy the interaction, and you should discontinue it immediately,” Dr. Gerken said.

Also, it might sound confusing, but if it appears that your dog is smiling, don’t be fooled — he might actually be trying to communicate that he’s having a negative experience. “Be mindful that some body language signs in dogs may be mistakenly interpreted as happiness when they actually indicate fear or discomfort. For example, dogs may retract their lips into a ‘smile’ when stressed,” Dr. Gerken said.

Can dogs laugh?

Dogs are definitely ticklish, but whether or not they can laugh is up for debate.

While some argue that dogs can’t laugh, it’s possible that certain vocalizations dogs make can be classified as laughter, even though it sounds different from the human laugh that you’re familiar with.

“A hallmark sign of being ticklish in humans is uncontrollable laughter in response to being touched in a sensitive area,” Dr. Gerken said. “Laughter has not yet been identified in dogs, but dogs make breathy forced exhalations that may be akin to laughing in people.”

So if you want to see if your dog is ticklish, try the tips above and give it a go! Just make sure to keep your eyes peeled for signs your dog isn’t enjoying the tickling session so you can keep it fun and safe for both of you.