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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?

older man pets cat laying on bed

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 The experts add that consent isn’t unlimited and just like a human, consent can always be withdrawn.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

  • Dilated pupils

  • Lip-licking

  • Yawning

  • Furrowed brow

  • Stiff body posture and/or facial muscles

  • Drooling

  • Raised fur

  • Low or tucked tail

  • Fast or shallow breathing

  • Excessive panting

  • Cowering

  • Trembling

“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

  • Almond-shaped pupils

  • 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

  • Dilated pupils

  • Pinned back ears

  • Trash their tail

  • Rippling skin

  • Quickly lick their nose

  • Raised fur

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.

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No one is permitted to sell, solicit or negotiate an insurance policy without a producer license in the state in which the plan is sold, and all prospects should be directed to Figo Pet Insurance. The information contained in this website is for illustrative purposes only and coverage under any pet insurance policy is expressly subject to the conditions, restrictions, limitations, exclusions (including pre-existing conditions), and terms of the policy documentation issued by the insurer. Availability of this program is subject to each state’s approval and coverage may vary by state. Coverage underwritten by Independence American Insurance Company (IAIC), a Delaware Insurance Company, 11333 North Scottsdale Road Suite 160 Scottsdale, AZ 85254. Live Vet and the Figo Pet Cloud are separate non-insurance services unaffiliated with IAIC. Figo Pet Insurance's California license number is 0K02763.

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