Last night, as I watched TV, my little dog Pepper was next to me on the settee, lying with his back legs pressed up against my thigh. I reached out a hand to pet him on his back, and he rolled over sideways, exposing his tummy and chest. So I petted his tummy for a moment and then paused. He kicked at me with his back legs and rolled a bit from side to side, chest pressed up into the air as if to say, “More, please!” So I petted him some more.
Source: Samson Katt/Pexels
When we are petting a dog or cat (or another animal), and we take a pause to see what they do, then respond accordingly, it’s called a consent test. The idea is that if the pet would like more petting, they will make that known. And if they were simply tolerating it and are happy that it stopped, that will be obvious too.
Maybe they will even take the opportunity to walk away, which makes it very clear that they’re saying, “That’s enough now.”
The more obvious signs that they would like you to pet them more include leaning on you, moving to make body parts clearly available for more petting, or in the case of cats, rubbing their head against you. Some pets may also paw at your hand or arm.
The Benefits of Consent Tests
A consent test like this has benefits for you and your pet.
Sometimes cats can become aggressive when petted, and a consent test is one way to help prevent that because it allows the cat to move away before they find the petting too intense. Of course, you still want to keep an eye on their body language because that’s an important sign too. (For example, is their tail swishing? Time to pause and do a consent test and see what happens).
Many people assume that all dogs like to be petted, but they don’t necessarily. Some don’t like to be petted much at all, or not by certain people or in certain places, or maybe just not at that moment in time. Doing a consent test prevents you from assuming that the dog wants you to pet them and means you actually find out if they do or not.
Whether we’re talking about a dog or a cat, using consent tests can improve your relationship with them because it means you’re giving them choices about when and for how long you pet them.
Another benefit of consent tests is that over time you should get better at reading canine or feline body language. That’s because, at that moment, when you take a pause, you have to watch their body language and see what happens next. It’s possible that when you first start doing this, you might have moments when you are unsure what your pet wants. In that case, it’s probably best to assume it’s a no (“No more right now; thank you for asking.”).
When you’re waiting, make sure you’re paying attention to all of your pet’s body language. Often when people are still learning how to read their pet’s signals, they pay attention to particular body parts rather than the full picture. You need the full picture to really know what’s going on.
The Human Side of Consent Tests
It’s a lovely feeling when you do a consent test, and it’s clear that your pet is saying, “More, please!”. You can take pleasure in knowing that your pet is enjoying the moment just like you are.
It can feel mortifying to notice that while you were petting your cat, her tail was swishing, and her skin was rippling (both signs of arousal), and she was finding it too much. But the beauty of a consent test is that you take a pause, note those signs, and don’t resume petting. Your cat will be happier.
Similarly, you may feel bad if you notice that actually, your dog’s body language shows they are not so happy. For example, when reaching out to pet your dog on the top of the head, they are ducking their head down as if to get away or maybe licking their snout and moving away from you. But again, if you take a pause and notice a sign like this, you know not to resume.
In those cases, don’t feel bad—you’re respecting their choice, and it’s an opportunity for you to learn.
Most of the time, you will find that your pet is leaning into you and making it obvious that they want more petting. We all know how lovely that feels! A consent test doesn’t ruin those moments; instead, it shows you how much your pet enjoys those affectionate times with you.
Guidelines on Petting Cats
Here are some new guidelines on petting cats that were tested at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home (Haywood et al., 2021). The guidelines use the acronym CAT:
- C stands for choice and control—give these to your cat
- A stands for attention—pay attention to the cat’s body language and behavior
- T stands for touch—think about where you are touching the cat
A consent test is one of the ways in which you can give your pet choice and control.
Paying Attention When Petting Dogs and Cats
Whether your pet is a dog or a cat, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of a consent test in which you pause and pay attention to their reaction to determine whether or not they want more. Of course, this also applies when it’s someone else’s pet that you are interacting with.
As you do this more often, the benefits will include a happier pet, a better relationship with them, and improved skills at reading canine or feline body language.