Thursday, December 31, 2009
By Linda Cole
To us, a hug is a natural human reaction that shows affection. We don't hesitate to throw our arms around the neck of a special friend or family member we haven't seen in a long time. Unfortunately, our pets aren't human and probably have no understanding of what a hug means. When we give our dogs and cats hugs, it won't ruin a friendship but we might have just ruined the moment for them. Hugs can be a touchy situation for most pets.
Cats and dogs use body language to interpret the intentions of other cats and dogs. Dogs understand social order in the pack and which actions signal dominance and aggression. When one dog puts a leg over the back or shoulder of another dog or mounts him with both legs on his back, this is showing that the dog on top has dominance over the other one.
There's a similar social order for cats, but it's defined more by the sex of the cat and reproductive status. A pregnant female has a higher social rank than a neutered male. It's also more complicated than the dog hierarchy because it can change depending on where the cat resides. For cats who live with humans, we are seen as the alpha if we are providing for their care. The one who cleans their cat pan and feeds them, as far as they are concerned, is the boss. However, cats and dogs view hugs in about the same way.
Cats can be more standoffish than dogs; that's just their independent nature. Like dogs, cats feel threatened by other cats and even their human standing over them, especially if eye contact is being made. In both the dog and cat world, eye contact can mean aggression and most cats become uncomfortable when we stare at them. When we wrap our arms around our pet's neck to give them hugs, most pets would prefer that we didn’t, if they had a choice. That's one area where dogs and cats do agree.
Like dogs, most cats don't like the confining feeling that comes with one of our loving embraces. A cat will react in the same way as a dog when we drop our hand down toward their head. It's seen as an aggressive move on our part. A cat will generally let you know when they want attention, and it's usually on their terms. Plus, very few cats or dogs like to be held down against their will which leaves them with a feeling of no control over the situation.
Of course we want to give dogs and cats hugs, and some pets do seem to enjoy them. The more pets trust and respect us, the more apt they are to “allow” us to wrap our arms around them in an embrace. But since there are no hugs in their world, they are confused about what it is or how they should respond to one. So they react accordingly.
Children should be taught to never hug dogs or cats they don’t know. When hugging a family pet, they need to be careful not to squeeze the pet too hard. For most dogs, the shorter the hug, the better. Like us, they need their space, and when we wrap our arms around their necks, we are violating their space. We don't like having someone standing with their face close to ours during a conversation and that's how it likely feels to a dog. You know your dog better than anyone else. It's up to us as pack leader to help our dogs understand that hugs are not threatening and that we mean them no harm. Dogs and cats who trust their owners are more likely to tolerate hugs.
There's nothing wrong with giving your dog or cat a loving embrace. I hug mine all the time. Some pets do seem to enjoy a hug now and then as long as we don't get carried away with our affection. By all means, hug your pet! Just keep it short and sweet because even though we enjoy hugging our pets, for the most part, it's not their favorite way to spend time with us.
Read more articles by Linda Cole