No Hugging of Pets? I Say 'It Depends'


To hug or not to hug, that is the question.

Based on Stanley Coren’s piece “The Data Says Don’t Hug the Dog!” appearing in Psychology Todaythere’s been lots of national press about why you shouldn’t hug your dog, and how hugging creates anxiety. Some follow up stories have headlines like “Dogs hate hugs!” or “Never hug your dog.”

Pet expert Steve Dale says pet don't always enjoy being huggedThere’s truth to this, but so much depends on the pet.

It’s true, primates (other great apes; most monkey species and people around the globe irregardless of culture) are hard wired to hug. From the time we’re babies it’s comforting to be hugged. And later in life, we gain comfort to give a hug as well.

Dogs just don’t have the physical apparatus to easily hug, and they don’t have the hard-wired desire to hug to comfort one another, or to greet one another with a hug.

I will bring other common pet species into the conversation, which Coren did not. Many small animals may literally be terrified by hugs (far more than dogs), such as rabbits or gerbils. Perhaps, the fact they are prey animals might have something to do with their response, which may be panic. Also, we often pick up small animals to give hugs. Rabbits have acrophobia, and truly are terrified at being lifted off the ground.

Rabbits don't like to be picked up off the ground

Rabbits don’t like to be picked up off the ground

Cats also don’t particularly like our smothering embrace – or it seems, that’s how they perceive our hugs.

Despite what I just wrote, at least among dogs and cats, some learn to seek being hugged. And that’s where I part ways with Coren. There are many dogs and cats who learn to tolerate hugs or even seek hugs, presumably enjoying human attention above all else.

It’s clear that many dogs and cats, for example, adore little girls’ doting hugs.

Not a good idea

Not a good idea

In fact, one of our own dogs, Ethel, will jump on selected people that she knows well. She wraps her front paws around them, truly she is hugging. How or why she (or other dogs) learn to do this is a mystery. Of course, such actions are generally reinforced by family members who say, “See, she loves me!”

Having said this, I agree with Coren that many dogs and cats demonstrate subtle signs of stress when being hugged. Here are some stress signals to look for:

  • Stress yawning: In dogs yawning may simply mean the pup is tired, but also may be a sign of stress.
  • Dilated pupils: A stress indicator in dogs and cats.
  • Some cats hair literally stands on end (piloerection).
  • Some dogs and cats act like they don’t care, looking the other way, but this may be a sign of anxiety; they do care and don’t enjoy it.
  • Droopy ears, eyes to the ground, dog acting “submissive,” the dog is uncomfortable more than submissive
  • Pierced lips, a mouth tightly shut in a dog is a sign of stress.
  • Cats tail is flicking quickly back and forth quickly.  A dog’s tail may be tucked.
  • A small dog or cat wiggling like “I want to get away,” means just that.
  • Growling: Obviously means ‘back off.”
  • Purring: While purring is usually a sign of contentment, rarely it is a sign of stress. If purring occurs with other stress indicators, it’s a problem for the cat.

When stress signals add up – a dog or cat may feel no other choice other to fight back, and that’s how cats scratching, or dogs or cats biting occurs. Children are mostly often among those bitten or scratched as a result of hugging a pet. Always, when children are around any species – adult supervision needs to be a must.

Next time your child meets a young orangutan or gorilla when walking on the street, a hug is more acceptable than to hug a strange dog or cat. I can’t count the number of times that moms or dads have said, that’s sweet. I say that’s (potentially) dangerous.