Updated: Sep 27
Our pets have their own way of communicating their preferences and training us. We just have to pay close attention. By being aware of their body language and letting them initiate physical contact, we can show our pets that we respect their space and their right to say no.
Just as consent is crucial for safe, healthy, and respectful human-to-human relationships, it is vital for human-pet relationships, too. Gaining consent from our pets may seem like a silly concept, but it’s actually a very important part of being a responsible pet owner. Pets may still be considered property in some places, but awareness of a pet's agency, individuality, and, when appropriate, their right to choose, is growing, and is very important when you have a new pet in the family.
What Does “Consent” Mean in Our Relationships With Pets?
One of the most common things we do with our pets is touch them. After all, they’re cute, soft, and kissable, and they provide a lot of comfort in our lives. But consent with petting matters.
If a dog is feeling under the weather, tired, or just wants some distance and time to decompress, we need to respect that.
It’s OK for our pets not to want to be touched or cuddled, and responsible pet parents will accept a pet’s choice.
If you try to engage with your pet, but your best furry friend moves away or cowers, that likely means they just need a little personal space.
Initiation can help you gauge your pet’s consent. This means waiting for them to come to you for strokes and pets, rather than going to them. Even if your pet initiates interaction, keep in mind that consent isn’t ongoing.
Stopping every five seconds or so while petting to ensure your dog or cat is still enjoying the attention is helpful to know they're enjoying the interaction. If they want more, they will make it obvious by nudging your hand or leaning into your touch.
Learning Your Pet’s Consent Cues
Every pet will be a little different, but there are a few common signs your pet is not into being touched.
Your pet is saying no when.....
Puffing their fur
Opening their eyes wide
Stiffening their whiskers
Flattening their ears
Arching their back
Baring their teeth
Swiping their paws at you
Swatting your hand away
stiffening their tail at its base
Turning their head away
Flattening their ears
Licking their lips
Shifting their weight away from you
Giving a whale eye
Always let your dog move away if they’re feeling overwhelmed. Forcing them to stay in a situation they’re not comfortable with can lead to anxiety and stress, neither of which is good for your relationship.
But your pet may not react with a “no” behavior. Just like humans, some pets will freeze when they’re in a situation they’re uncomfortable with. Remember, just because they don’t say no, doesn’t mean they’re saying yes.
You’ll likely be able to notice some common signs your pet wants some affection.
Your pet is saying yes when......
hopping up gently
bunting you by pushing their face against your hand
purring at you
placing their paw on your hand
leaning into you
turning their body to get more pets
nudging you with their nose
relaxing their ears and wagging their tail
resting their chin on you
Pet Consent for Strangers, Visitors, and Kids
As our pets’ trusted caretakers, we have the responsibility to ensure that other people respect our pets’ boundaries. A stranger or visitor should never assume your dog can be pet. They should ask you and then ‘ask’ the dog. Teaching kids about consent can prevent bites, scratches, or other injuries from a surprised or scared dog or cat.
You may even wish to demonstrate to a child how to invite your pet to interact and then how to respond if the invitation is accepted. For example, maybe your cat hates belly rubs and their paws touched, but generally likes gentle strokes on their back or behind-the-ear scratches.
It’s important to be an advocate for your pet and to set boundaries with people who want to touch them. Remember, just because someone asks to pet your pet doesn’t mean you have to let them interact with them.
For vet visits, pet owners and vets hope for the same thing, which is for a pet to be comfortable during their visit.Ultimately, your pet may need an examination, even if they aren’t totally onboard with it.
You can use positive reinforcement techniques to help your pet get accustomed to the vet, . For example, if you live near your veterinary clinic, stop in occasionally while on dog walks to get a treat from the front desk. Your vet might also spend a little time trying to earn your pet’s consent at the start of an appointment.
Exceptions to Consent
Our pets are curious individuals who can be oblivious to the dangers we navigate everyday. Making choices for our pets may be required in the best interest of the pet. A sharp tug on the leash to keep your dog from wandering into traffic, or lunging to greet a small child may be what is needed in certain situations.
And though they can be less-than-fun for our pets, regular vet visits and for several breeds, trips to the groomer, can help our pets live longer, healthier lives.
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