We Humans Need Animal Hugs But… Do Our Pets Need Human Hugs?

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Did you know that June 4th was International Hug Your Cat Day? Probably not. (I didn’t know it existed, either until my editor mentioned it.) But the fact that somebody somewhere decided we needed a day dedicated to feline-specific hugs raises an interesting issue:

We as humans most definitely require animal hugs but … do pets require ours?

It’s a great question, not least because the subject has been in the news lately. Ever since a scientist advanced the idea that hugs may not be the best way to show your dog affection I’ve been thinking:

Are hugs more for us than for them? Probably. And it’s true that I can think of affectionate gestures pets prefer over hugs. Still, this scientist claimed that dogs were actually visibly stressed by hugs.

Stressed? That seemed kind of strange to me. Which led me to delve deeper into the subject…

For starters, we should be clear: What’s being reported as “science" on what dogs enjoy or don’t… isn’t actually science. What’s being touted by a wide variety of news outlets as a “scientific study” on the subject of dogs disliking hugs is actually an opinion piece in Psychology Today, a pop-science magazine, not a peer-reviewed journal where legitimate research is presented.

The author, a Dr. Stanley Coren, used this platform to make an informal argument about an opinion he holds dear: that dogs do not like being restrained in human hug-like fashion.

The author’s contention is that dogs are visibly stressed when they are hugged. He advanced this argument by evaluating a small number of internet-sourced dog hug pics, subjectively assessing them for signs of possible hug-induced distress in the pictured dogs.

Upon identifying numerous signs of stress in the hugged dogs, the author concluded that dogs do not like to be hugged. Which may well prove true to some degree. However, there are several reasons to question this “study”:

  • Photographic evidence sourced from a supposedly random sampling on the Internet was used to make this case. I would question the randomness of this sampling. Often, the most popular pics are those in which dogs are making “funny” faces, thereby skewing the sample towards oddball canine expressions (which may well indicate stress).

  • The assessment of a dog’s displeasure was based on these pictures, with the opinion of just one examiner as foundation for the methodology.

  • This observation did not include a control group of dogs who were not being hugged. It would’ve been useful to assess a control group’s degree of discomfiture for comparison against hugged dogs’ pics.

To be fair, the author probably never intended this opinion piece to be characterized as “science.” After all, if I can poke holes in this informal study’s design, so can its author. It was likely only intended to promote a little thoughtfulness among those who would put their dogs into a WWF-worthy choke hold.

Sure, the media sometimes grabs a salacious headline and runs with it –– in this case, much to the dismay of pet cuddlers everywhere. But not to worry… as most of us know from personal experience, almost all well-socialized dogs love a good cuddle.

Then there are cats to consider: I can easily imagine that most cats would balk at the kind of hugs we’re willing to impose on our easygoing dogs. Still, I know plenty of felines who are perfectly willing to be smushed and snuggled as much as any dog. Just take it slow and keep it gentle, OK?