Select Page

I was watching my dog and cat the other day and noticed they interact much differently from how I interact with other people. Most animals don’t have hands or speech, so they need to use tactile communication.

Animals use tactile functions to communicate. This can include nuzzling, licking, head rubbing, pawing, body contact, boxing, and biting. Depending on the species, these actions can express affection, anger, warnings, or dominance.

Standard social culture for humans includes handshakes, hugs, or a pat on the back as acceptable forms of tactile communication. Animals have far more methods of communication than we do and in this article, we look at some of these.

There are four ways that animals communicate.  Find out what they are in this article I wrote.

What Is Tactile Communication?

Tactile communication is the use of body contact as a form of communication. These can involve the following:

  • Nuzzling
  • Licking
  • Head rubbing
  • Pawing
  • Body-to-body contact
  • Boxing
  • Biting

Tactile communication has many forms and meanings, with each species having its own methods of body contact to suit its needs. What may be a friendly greeting for one species could be a display of dominance for another.

This form of communication is often seen in herding or pack animals such as rodents, felines, and canids. Both domesticated animals like dogs and cats and their wild counterparts such as wolves, bobcats, and lynx exhibit comparable forms of tactile communication.

For instance, both domestic cats and lynx will use head rubs and body-to-body contact as a form of bonding between related or familiar individuals.

Animals use pheromones not only for communication but in many different ways.  Find out more in this article I wrote.

Wolf bonding

Tactile Behaviors As Bonding

Many rodent species are inherently social creatures, often forming family groups that can encompass more than 20 individuals. These close-knit communities rely heavily on physical contact to foster and sustain bonds among related members and those familiar with the familial unit.

The degus is a large rodent resembling a rat, which prefers to dwell in compact family groups consisting of parents and offspring. Within these family clusters, degus regularly huddle together during sleep. This behavior serves a dual purpose: safeguarding the group while also making emotional connections stronger.

In a domestic setting, unrelated degus are often introduced to each other’s company. This introduction is carefully managed, initially involving a physical barrier to prevent potential conflicts. Here, tactile communication plays a pivotal role in facilitating successful bonding.

The two degus, initially separated, engage in friendly nose-to-nose greetings and explore the new scents. They also attempt to establish grooming rituals by reaching out to touch each other’s paws or tails through the barrier. These behaviors signal a mutual desire for companionship. If such positive interactions do not transpire, cohabitation should be reconsidered.

Tactile communication extends to parenting in mammals. When newborn mammals come into the world, mothers employ licking to stimulate their breathing and promote circulation. This cleaning process also serves to transfer the mother’s scent to the offspring. In response, the young ones move toward their mother, seeking proximity and reassurance. They often rest in close physical contact, sharing body heat and enhancing protection from potential predators.

Birds, too, harness tactile communication as an essential parenting tool. Species like gulls and blackbirds sport a distinctive colored spot on their beaks. Chicks instinctively peck at this spot to prompt the parent to regurgitate food for nourishment. Adult birds further utilize nuzzling to groom their chicks’ downy feathers until the offspring undergo their first molt and can self-preen.

Mothers in the avian world leverage their wings to reposition their nestlings, especially during adverse weather conditions, ensuring their young ones’ comfort and safety. As the youngsters grow, play becomes a bonding mechanism and serves as practice for skills they’ll need in adulthood.

Predatory species such as coyotes and wolves start to learn hunting and attacking behaviors as early as six weeks of age. Playful chasing, wrestling, and mock skirmishes among pups teach them the art of stealthy hunting and effective prey capture, while also imparting the importance of tempering bite force to prevent harm.

When it comes to nursing, nuzzling plays a crucial role, in stimulating milk flow from their mothers. Canine pups display a less selective approach, latching onto any available teat. In contrast, feline species have a preferred teat. Disputes can erupt if a kitten attempts to nurse from a sibling’s favored source of nourishment.

Animals communicate many emotions visually. Find out more here

Tactile Communication As Greetings

When familiar animals greet each other, they often combine vocalizations with physical contact. For instance, cats, when comfortable with one another, may initiate a greeting by rubbing their heads together and then proceed to engage in mutual grooming.

Dogs exhibit a similar pattern of greeting. They might extend a gentle paw or offer licks to the face, followed by a playful bow as an invitation to interact. This gesture often leads to a game of chase or friendly play-fighting, reinforcing their bond as friends.

In the realm of wild animals, familiar individuals also engage in greetings that frequently involve physical contact, such as walking in close proximity or nuzzling each other’s heads.

Dolphins, known for their complex social interactions, employ a diverse repertoire of physical cues to greet and interact with fellow pod members. These gestures include snout-to-snout contact, head rubbing, gentle touches with open mouths, and even pats.

Pectoral fin patting, in particular, serves various purposes. It can signify a friendly greeting or a playful interaction when one dolphin gently pats another’s fin against its body. However, in more defensive or territorial contexts, the pat can become a more forceful slap, serving as a warning to another dolphin.

Dolphins bonding

Tactile Communication As Dominance

Dolphins often 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 prevents unruly behavior from juveniles.

During walrus breeding season, large 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.

The 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. This usually starts with a head shake and nudge or butt against the neck. A nip using teeth may also follow if neither individual backs down.

Hoofed animals may also use their hind legs to deliver kicks at other animals in an attempt to establish dominance within a group of males vying for the attention of a female already claimed by another male.

Male rabbits and hares will participate in boxing matches to determine their dominance. Males who win the boxing match also 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 in 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. 

References And Further Reading

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:

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:

Kocher, S. D., & Cocroft, R. B. (2019). Encyclopedia of Animal Behaviour Volume 1. Elsevier Academic Press.