Respecting A Pet's Boundaries: The Importance of Consent Testing for Cats and Dogs
You want to cuddle every good boy and curious cat, but are they giving you permission to pet?
Not every cat or dog we meet is begging for our affection. I know, it’s hard to hear but it’s a truth we pet lovers must face. Just like we wouldn’t run up to a person on the street and hug them without consent, experts say we should respect a pet’s boundaries and always ask for their consent.
As much as some cats — or dogs — may be little chatterboxes, they can’t literally say yes or no to something, says Joey Lusvardi, a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and owner of Class Act Cats. Rather than spoken language, Lusvardi says to ask and receive consent through body language and behavior.
So, what’s the proper way to ask a cat or dog for consent whether you’ve known them for years or bumped into them at the dog park? Read on to find out.
Giving pets choice
We all love the right to choose — cat person or dog person, fries with that or nah? From little things to big decisions, choices make us happier. And this can be true for our pets in their own ways, too.
“It’s always struck me as a bit odd that people get upset when their cat doesn’t like a particular toy or flavor of treat. Yet when another human expresses a preference, it’s totally normal,” Lusvardi says.
It's such a more harmonious life when we recognize a pet's autonomy and respect their boundaries, adds Ali Smith, CEO & Founder at Rebarkable. “If we respect our pets and their needs, they respect us more — and that's true respect, not forced respect like some older training methods might be,” she says.
The consent test and pets
A consent test typically refers to a person asking for another person's explicit consent before engaging in a particular activity, whether it be a medical procedure or intimate touch. For pets, Smith and Lusvardi say a consent test starts with offering our hand or just a finger to a pet we want to touch. Allow the animal to approach and interact with you before reaching for a pet.
“If they move towards it, that's acceptance. If they don't move, it's a maybe. And if they turn away, then it's a no. A maybe should be considered a no,” Smith says. The experts add that consent isn’t unlimited and just like a human, consent can always be withdrawn. So always take a break from petting, re-offer your hand, and ensure you still have consent to pet.
Dogs and consent
Smith describes a dog's consent as a "yes" if they:
Approach and engage with your offered hand
Make soft eye contact
Have loose body language
Paws at you
Leans into you
Smith describes a dog's consent as a "no" if they:
Don’t interact with or turn away from your hand
Have pinned back ears
“Whale eyes”, or showing the whites of their eyes
Stiff body posture and/or facial muscles
Low or tucked tail
Fast or shallow breathing
“Not all dogs will display all these signs and they can happen very quickly, within seconds,” Smith says. If you miss the signs, an interaction can quickly escalate to a verbal warning like a growl or snarl with a snap.
Cats and consent
Many people misinterpret a cat sitting on or near as a cat who wants to be petted (guilty). Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, and using the consent test can save you from upsetting the cat, or from getting scratched and bitten.
Lusvardi describes a cat's consent as a "yes" if they:
Approach and engage with your offered hand
Rub against you
Push a body part against your hand
Have forward facing ears that are perked up
A still or only slightly moving tail
Lusvardi describes a cat's consent as a "no" if they:
Don’t interact with or turn away from your hand or finger
Hiss, growl, or snarl
Pinned back ears
Trash their tail
Quickly lick their nose
While purring might seem like a yes for cats, Luscardi says purring with any of these signs indicates non-consent and that you shouldn’t engage in touch.
Using consent for everyday care
Luscardi says he uses consent testing when brushing cats. This approach can also be applied to dogs and to various activities, like nail trimming or putting on a harness.
1. Choose a mat or towel and place it in a specific spot. Begin creating positive associations by giving your cat treats or praise while on the mat. Keep the brush nearby.
2. Once your cat is comfortable on the mat, lightly touch their shoulder with the brush and reward them with a treat.
3. If they show no signs of discomfort or leave, proceed with brushing. Only brush your cat while they’re on the mat and allow them to leave if they wish. It's crucial to respect your cat's choice to leave as they always have the option to do so, Luscardi says.
4. Gradually increase brushing time and respect your cat's signals. If they stay on the mat, they consent to brushing.
5. “You can also make it more pleasant for your cat by adding a predictor cue,” Luscardi says. Adding a cue word like "brush" before touching them with the brush lets them know what to expect and opt out if they want.
At Figo, we believe all pets everywhere deserve to be protected and respected, and that includes the way we interact with them. Part of being good pet parents is ensuring our dogs and cats have the autonomy and space to say no, even to something as simple as being pet. It sets the precedent for authentic trust and will strengthen the bond between you two.
Janelle is a cat mum to two resident adventure kitties, Lyra and Atlas, and numerous cat and kitten fosters. Janelle and her furry family enjoy filling their days with hiking, kayaking, and seeking out the best cat-friendly destinations around the Pacific Northwest. You can follow Janelle, her adventure kitties, and adoptable fosters at @paws_pdx.