Why Do Animals Like Being Stroked?

Photo of dog

Stroking, touching and cuddling is an act many animals enjoy. I have often wondered why dogs like being stroked and chose to write this article to give some insight as to why animals like to be touched.

Being stroked activates neurons in the hair follicles that send a pleasurable feeling to the brain.  Cats like to be stroked as this leaves their scent, marking their territory, whereas some animals like being stroked as they cannot reach these areas themselves.

I wanted to find out some more about why animals like being stroked, and why it is good for the animal.  I found out some really interesting information.

Why Do Animals Like To Be Stroked?


Neurobiologists have taken a step towards pinpointing neural circuitry underlying why animals like being petted.

They used laboratory mice to demonstrate that a specific class of sensory cells in the skin reacts to being stroked with a brush, but not to a pinch or a poke. The scientists found that a subset of neurons responded only to stroking, but not any other forms of contact from the scientists.  

Anatomy of a neuron

Whereas most of an animal’s sensory neurons will react to a broad range of sensations, such as poking, pinching or prodding, the scientists found this was not the case in these mice. They found that by gently stroking the mice, this was the only sensation to stimulate a specific neuron.

The neuron, called MRGPRB4+ was activated with the stimuli of being stroked with a brush. Brushing did not activate any of the related MRGPRD+ neurons. These related neurons had previously responded to other stimuli, such as prodding.  

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The skin is full of receptors that respond to different kinds of touch. There are two categories of receptors. These are large nerve fibers and much smaller fibers.  

The large receptors transmit information to the brain, such as the position of our arms and legs, and how we recognize objects with our fingers.

The smaller receptors react if a fly lands on you, and also to pain. These smaller fibers are known as C fibers. There is a smaller sub-category of fibers that track the sensation of being stroked.

Photo of dog with human interaction

Most domestic animals enjoy being petted. This does, however, differ from one mammal to another as to how much.  

If we take the example of a cat and a dog, neither of them can reach the top of their head with their paws or their tongue. By being stroked in this area, we are reaching an area that they are unable to scratch themselves. Dogs and cat crave attention, and by stroking and petting them, we are giving them this.  


Cats like to be rubbed, as this is part of their natural grooming routine. When they were kittens, the mother would lick the top of their heads, and the head scratch possibly reminds them of these times. They likely see their owner as the mother in these times because they associate this act with their mother.  

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Cats also have scent glands that are contained all over the body. These scent glands are mainly in parts of their head such as the cheeks, chin and forehead. By stroking them in these areas, they are leaving their scent on us, marking their territory.

Cats also like to rub up against humans. They have a behavior called bunting, which is where they rub their forehead on a human. This is done to mark their territory, and also expresses feelings of friendliness.

Cat being scratched


Dogs are quite different from cats. Although some like having their heads scratched, many do not. The gesture of approaching a dog from the top to stroke their head can be a dominant gesture to them.  

They do, like cats, show signs of affection by nuzzling their heads into their owners. This is a sign of bonding and attachment.  

Although animals such as cats and dogs respond to being petted, other mammals do not. Marine mammals do not react well to being touched. Marine mammals have a unique coat, and the wrong type of stroke or touch can damage this. The coat they have acts as protection, and any contact can leave them susceptible to parasite and diseases.

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Rats lick their young, which helps them to urinate in the first few weeks. This also has the added side effect of making the young less anxious. Studies show that adolescent rats who were not licked when young are more prone to stress later on in life.

It is essential to know which parts of the body to stroke or touch while petting an animal. Different animals have different places for petting. You can tell where they like to be touched, by how they react, either negatively or positively.

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Rat being stroked

Why Do Humans Like Petting Animals?

Petting is a crucial component in building and maintaining good relationships and trust with animals. This is especially true in the pets that we choose to keep. When you meet an animal, whether it be a dog or cat, they feel good when being stroked or petted. 

This interaction enhances a good relationship with the animal. This is contrary to when you pinch or hit an animal as they will turn against you, never wanting to be close to you.

Being touched positively impacts a human beings brain. Human beings are very tactile creatures. They look for animals with soft fur that allow themselves to be handled and played with.

This makes that animal a particular popular domestic pet, whether it be a hamster or a dog. 
Petting these kinds of animals brings about an experience of calmness.

Through human-animal interactions, the human nervous system goes through changes. Our brains divide our feeling of touch onto our skin as pleasant, neutral or unpleasant. 

Guineau Pig being stroked

When encountering a pleasant sensation during petting, our skin is tied to a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. This is the area responsible for our emotional processing.  

When we feel something pleasant on our skin, we respond with positive emotional feelings. The anterior cingulate cortex reacts to all kinds of enjoyable sensations, including playing with animals. Patting and stroking animals involves responses that make them particularly positive for humans. 

Playing with a pet has positive psychological effects. Having a pet in our life comes with positive effects because of our closeness to them, and this emotional connection helps our mental health. 

According to numerous studies, petting animals can lower our stress levels and heart rate and release positive hormones.

The British psychological society has reported that several experiments prove that petting an animal reduces blood pressure and heart rate, which are tied to a feeling of stress. 

In one of the college studies, students were given an animal to pet during exams. The studies concluded that they all reported lower stress levels after the exams.

Petting animals brings positive feelings. Research shows that petting animals bring on a small surge of dopamine and serotonin, which induce a sense of positivity.

Petting reduces stress and brings calmness to us. According to a recent study, people experienced stress reduction and a feeling of calm when they stroked a variety of different animals.  

These animals not only had fur but also included hard-shelled animals. The reductions in stress and the feeling of calmness showed on various animals, even if the people being tested were not particularly fond of the animal they were petting.

Petting animals also helps to reduce pain and anxiety. Our response to animal petting is due to the importance of the sense of touch in humans. We use touch to build a bond with those we trust and love. 

Touching is not just a sensation but also a means of communication and bonding. Our relationship with our pets is not only mental but physical, meaning that touch is required.

Why Stroking Your Pet Is Good For You And Them

Stroking your pet, it is an excellent way to building and maintaining a loving bond, reinforcing the desired behavior and supporting a calm state. 

Stroking your pet is also a great way to check your pet’s coat. It is a great way to check if there are any parasites, snags in fur or changes in the body that may signal a health problem.

Horse been stroked

Just as we humans enjoy affection and attention through petting, so do our pets. When you stroke your pet, they feel good and enjoy the feeling that comes with this. By doing this, you are communicating love and showing attention to your pet.

When you stroke your pet, you build a strong bond with each other. They will be listening to your voice and instructions. By stroking your pet, you are reinforcing specific behavior, and they will become calm and submissive. Petting your animal is an excellent way to change negative responses from them into positive ones.

For information on why animals have hair, I have written an article you can find here.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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