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Here’s Why Dogs Kick When You Scratch Their Belly


Every true dog lover has surely noticed a certain behavior that dogs exhibit when someone scratches their belly: they begin to kick and twitch their legs uncontrollably. Well, the reality of it is that there’s some actual science going on here. There’s a sweet spot on your pooch’s belly that causes their foot to twitch automatically, meaning that they really don’t have any control over this movement. It’s like when a doctor checks your reflexes and taps your knee and your leg moves on its own.

And indeed, this odd phenomenon is actually referred to as the “scratch reflex.” Like many other animals, dogs evolved this natural reaction as a means of self-protection. It’s an involuntary response that is there in order to keep your pooch safe from irritants or dangerous bugs. So in a way, their body is actually responding to what they think is an “attack” when you rub their belly.

So how does this work? Simple. Underneath certain portions of their skin, there are neural pathways connected to the spinal cord. These nerves are “activated” by a scratch or a tickle and their job is to send messages up the spinal cord, which then instructs the dog’s leg to kick, as a means to ward off the impending “threat.” This could mean that your dog doesn’t really like the sensation of having their belly scratched, but that’s up to you to decide.

According to Lore Haug, a veterinarian and animal behavior expert at Texas Veterinary Behavior Services, this reflex can be even easier to illicit in dogs that have allergies. This is because their skin is borderline itchy anyway and when you rub their skin, it accentuates the scratching. This reflex aids dogs daily against invading bugs that can threaten their health and carry diseases such as fleas. The itchiness caused by these insects can activate this reflex and the kicking can knock some of the fleas off.

This reaction protects dogs in a similar way that it protects us humans. If you accidentally touch a hot stove, your spinal cord will recognize the pain before your brain realizes what’s going on and your hand will jerk back. This is crucial to our survival and the same is true for dogs. So, remember that while this behavior may seem odd, in the end, it’s just another sign that your pup’s sporting a healthy nervous system.

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