I watched my dog and cat the other way and noticed that the way they interact is much different from how I interact with other people. Animals, unlike us, do not have hands, so how do they communicate using tactile means to announce their intentions to other animals?
Animals use tactile functions to communicate with each other. These can include nuzzling, licking, head rubbing, pawing, body contact, boxing, and biting. Depending on the species, these can express affection, anger, warnings, or dominance.
The way humans interact with one another seems relatively normal compared to the many ways animals interact. Standard social culture for humans includes handshakes, hugs, or a pat on the back as acceptable forms of tactile communication. But, animals have far more methods of communication than we do.
What Is Tactile Communication?
Tactile communication is the use of body contact as a form of communication. This can involve the following:
- Head rubbing
- Body to body contact
Tactile communication has many forms and meanings, with each species having its methods of body contact to suit its needs. What may be a friendly greeting for one species could be a dominance display for another.
This form of communication is often seen in herding or pack animals such as rodents, felines, and canids. Both pet animals, such as dogs and cats, plus wild species including wolves, bobcats, and lynx, will display similar uses of tactile communication.
For instance, domestic cats and lynx will use head rubs and body-to-body contact as a form of bonding between related or familiar individuals.
Tactile Behaviors For Bonding
Most rodent species are social animals, living in family groups that can number more than 20 individuals. Physical contact helps develop and maintain bonds between related animals and those familiar with the family unit.
The degus, a large rodent physically similar to a rat, lives in small parents and offspring family groups. All degus within a family group will huddle together to rest or sleep. This offers protection, but it also helps to maintain the close bond between individuals.
They will nuzzle, lick and groom one another, swapping pheromones as they do so, and do this to identify one another. In a domestic setting, unrelated degus are often housed together. An unrelated pair will first be given time to interact with a physical barrier to prevent fights. Tactile communication at this point is vital to successful bonding. The two degus will first greet one another through the barrier, touching noses and investigating the new smells.
They will also attempt to touch one another’s paws or tails through the barrier to establish grooming. These behaviors indicate a desire between the degus to meet. If these behaviors are not observed, they should not be housed together.
Tactile communication is also used by mothers when raising young. When mammalian young are firstborn, the mother will lick the newborns to stimulate breathing and blood flow, clean the babies, and transfer her scent.
Newborns will respond to their mother’s nuzzling and licking by moving toward her. They will also rest with their bodies, touching their mother to share body heat and protection from predators.
Parenting birds will also use tactile communication to feed their young. Species such as gulls and blackbirds have a colored spot on their beak. Chicks will peck at this spot to encourage the parent to regurgitate food.
Adult birds will also nuzzle their chicks to preen their downy feathers until they have their first molt and can preen their feathers.
Mothers will also use their wings to maneuver their chicks into a better position within the nest for brooding, especially when the weather conditions are poor.
Youngsters will often play together as a bonding behavior and as practice for adulthood. Predatory species such as coyotes and wolves will learn hunting and attacking behaviors as young as six weeks old.
Pups will chase and wrestle one another, learning to be stealthy in hunting their prey and how to catch and kill them effectively. The pups will quickly understand the limits of biting within play to avoid injury.
Nuzzling of young to their mother’s teats will stimulate milk flow so the young can nurse. Interestingly, canine pups latch onto any available teat, but feline species have more refined table manners. Each kitten has a particular teat they will suckle from, and disputes often break out if a kitten tries to nurse from its sibling’s preferred teat.
Tactile Communication For Greetings
When familiar animals greet one another, they often incorporate vocal calls with physical contact. Cats will rub heads with other cats they feel comfortable with and quickly establish a grooming session.
A similar pattern is followed for dogs. Dogs greet with a gentle paw or lick of the face, followed by a play bow, inviting the other dog to play. What follows will then be a game of chase or play fighting to re-establish their bond as ‘friends.’
In wild animals, greetings between familiar animals usually involve physical contact, such as walking with bodies touching or nuzzling the head.
Dolphins use a variety of physical cues to greet and interact with others within their pod. Snout butts, head rubbing, touching with open mouths, and pats are all forms of greeting. Pectoral (fin) patting can be taken in two contexts. The first is a greeting or play interaction involving gentle patting the fin against the receiving dolphin’s body.
The pat becomes a more forceful slap designed to warn the offending dolphin in a more defensive or territorial situation.
Tactile Communication For Dominance
Dolphins also use tactile communication to show dominance. An irritated or threatened dolphin will teeth rake another dolphin. This is often seen in adult males when establishing breeding rights or in adult females keeping order within the pod.
A teeth rake is the motion of a dolphin passing another with its mouth open. The teeth momentarily scrape against the offending dolphin’s skin. While this does not usually result in injury, it is uncomfortable. This behavior is a show of dominance and to prevent unruly behavior from juveniles.
During walrus breeding season, males will use their bodies to gain dominance over weaker males. Interactions typically start with head butts or flipper slaps but usually escalate into bites. It is common to see many walruses with open wounds during the breeding months as males fight for access to receptive females.
These wounds are generally superficial, but females will not mate with a male who loses a fight or backs down from a dominance display.
In horses and deer, dominance can be shown in several ways using tactile communication. The first is with a head shake and nudge or butt against the neck. A nip using teeth may also be followed if neither individual backs down.
Hooved animals will also use their powerful hind legs to kick out at other animals attempting to improve their hierarchy within the group of males trying to mate with another male’s female.
Rabbits and hares have a somewhat human way of establishing dominance. At the start of the breeding season, males will participate in boxing matches to determine their dominance. Males who win the boxing match win the right to match with nearby females who are in season.
Boxing matches can also involve kicks to the face or chest using the hind legs. Both rabbits and hares can produce a strong kick, which often results at the end of a boxing match, and the male receiving the kick will usually back down to avoid being injured.
In many fish species, males will circle one another and then use a flurry of quick and repetitive body slams to warn off other males. In aquarium fish, this is common when fish are kept in small groups or with a disproportionate number of males and females.
The ideal number would be one male to 2 or 3 females, as this avoids potential fights between males and means the females are less likely to be harassed.
Animals certainly do not need hands to communicate physically with one another. The various forms of tactile communication that animals employ are often more effective in avoiding confrontation than any human interaction.
Berg, E. L., & Silverman, J. L. (2020). Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology, Reference Module. Elsevier Academic Press.
Colby, L. A., & Lee, T. M. (2012). The Laboratory Rabbit, Guinea Pig, Hamster, and Other Rodents. Elvesier Academic Press.
Dudzinski, K. M., Thomas, J. A., & Gregg, J. D. (2009). Communication in Marine Mammals. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals (Second Edition), 260-269.
International Cat Care. (2018, October 5). Cat Communication. Retrieved from International Cat Care: https://icatcare.org/advice/cat-communication/
Jones, L. A. (2011). Tactile communication systems: optimizing the display of information. Progress In Brain Research, Vol. 192, pp113-128.
Khan Academy. (2012, October). Animal Communication. Retrieved from Khan Academy: Science>AP Biology: https://www.khanacademy.org/science/ap-biology/ecology-ap/responses-to-the-environment/a/animal-communication
Kocher, S. D., & Cocroft, R. B. (2019). Encyclopedia of Animal Behaviour Volume 1. Elsevier Academic Press.