National Hug Your Pet Day 2024: April 10 and How to Celebrate with All Kinds of Pets

why are dogs so loyal
Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock.com

Written by Drew Wood

Updated: September 10, 2023

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National Hug Your Pet Day is celebrated on April 10, 2024. It is a day dedicated to celebrating the love and companionship of our furry (or feathery, or scaly) friends. On this day, pet owners show their appreciation for their pets by giving them extra cuddles, treats, and attention. Whether you have a dog, cat, or something more exotic, shower them with love this holiday and show them how much they mean to you. In this article, we will explore the history of National Hug Your Pet Day, the benefits of hugs, and ways to celebrate with your pet (plus substitutes for hugs for animals that just aren’t huggers)!

The History of National Hug Your Pet Day

National Hug your Pet Day started in the United Kingdom. Canine behaviorist Ami Moore proposed the day initially to focus on dogs, which of course are absolutely and irresistibly huggable. Ms. Moore dedicated this day to raising awareness of rescue dogs in need. Additionally, it allowed pet owners to show their canine friends a little of the loyalty and devotion they lavish on us. But the holiday excluded people with companions like cats, horses, or ball pythons. Sometimes they need a little squeeze too! So the day expanded to include all pets, big and small, traditional or exotic.

The Benefits of Hugs to You AND your Pet

You probably don’t need a reason to hug your pet. But if you save your hugs for human friends only, you might be interested to know that hugging or petting an animal releases a neurotransmitter in your brain called oxytocin. This hormone creates a sense of bonding. In fact, it’s the same hormone released in the brains of both mothers and infants when babies are nursing. And it’s not just people who can benefit. Both you and your animal get the same release of the cuddle hormone when you hug and pet them.

Oxytocin promotes feelings of trust, security, and connection with others. It can also help to reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression, and can even improve overall mood. Research has shown that people who receive regular hugs have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Essentially, hugs can help reduce the negative effects of chronic stress. Additionally, oxytocin has anti-inflammatory effects, which can promote overall physical and emotional well-being.

Oxytocin is found only in mammals. Birds and reptiles have a similar chemical called mesotocin and fish have isotocin. While these chemicals seem to play a similar role in social behavior, they are not necessarily triggered by hugs. But by learning more about the preferences of your pet’s species and your individual animal, you can find good substitutes that you both will enjoy.

Do Animals Like to be Hugged?

dog and owner

Particularly dogs and cats may enjoy a hug from their owners as a sign of affection.

A hug should be enjoyable for both parties, otherwise, it’s more of a capture, and nobody likes that. Whether or not your pet likes to be hugged depends on the species, the circumstances, and the individual animal’s personality.

Some pets, particularly dogs and cats may enjoy a hug from their owners as a sign of affection. However, it is important to remember that not all species, and not all individual members of a species, enjoy physical contact or attach the same meaning to it as humans do. Some may prefer you to pet or scratch them instead. And of course, any animal will appreciate a tasty treat as a substitute for physical contact.

Even an animal that enjoys hugs may not enjoy them in certain circumstances. For example, if they are excited, distracted, fearful, stressed, or in pain, they may not want a hug. They may be reluctant toward someone they don’t trust, such as a child or an overly effusive guest. They may also resist contact with a person wearing a strong scent or someone who has been drinking, which may be confusing and unfamiliar to your animal. Some animal species may become more reclusive or aggressive and territorial during the breeding season. And of course, even a hug that is welcome at first can go on too long. We’ve all been there, right?

Hugs and Hug Substitutes for 8 Types of Pets

Well of course we would like to hug all animals but it’s more than we can manage to include every type of pet in this article. But here are a few ideas of how you can celebrate National Hug Your Pet Day with eight common types of pets:

Dogs and Cats

  • Dogs often enjoy hugs, but some find them constraining and stressful. Invite your dog to sit next to you, in your lap, or lie well-supported in your arms. See how it responds to a gentle embrace. Add some scratches behind the ears or at the base of the tail and you might just have a happy hugger on your hands. If your dog doesn’t enjoy hugging, substitute a game, a walk, or a healthy treat. Never hug a stranger’s dog as even apparently friendly dogs can become suddenly alarmed and may deliver a nasty bite to the face. It’s better to get acquainted with an unfamiliar dog by allowing them to sniff your closed fist, then if they permit, give some gentle pets and light scratches.
  • Cats sometimes enjoy a gentle hug but it depends very much on their general temperament and mood from moment to moment. If you want an especially cuddly cat, you might check out the ragdoll breed, which is so affectionate and floppy, some people compare it more to a dog than a cat. To avoid freaking out a non-hugging cat, sit quietly and dangle a finger nonchalantly. If the cat chooses to investigate, gently stroke its cheeks and scratch around its chin and ears. Run a hand down its back if it allows and scratch lightly at the base of the tail. You can also play with a toy or offer a treat. Less is more with many cats, so stop petting before your cat grows irritated. And of course, if you are honored to have a cat choose to sit on your lap or your computer keyboard, stop everything you are doing, sit perfectly still, and enjoy this rare moment of favor from his or her royal highness.

Other Mammals

  • Rodents like guinea pigs, hamsters, and rabbits are prey animals that get startled by sudden movements, so approach slowly and calmly. They have a strong sense of smell, so let them sniff you. Their skin is delicate, so just rub them gently with a light touch, always in the direction their fur naturally lays. Your rodent may enjoy cuddling with you more if you distract it with a nice vegetable snack.
  • Horses will sometimes tolerate a gentle hug around the neck from a trusted human. Never try to hug or pet a horse that you do not know without guidance from its owner or trainer. Bringing the horse a healthy treat is a nice way to build up to a hug. Let them sniff you. Gently rub their velvety nose and pat or rub them on the neck and withers. You can lightly scratch them on itchy spots. They might enjoy having their mane gently brushed with your fingers. If the horse is gentle, calm, and trusts you, it might allow you to rest your head on its neck and pat the other side with your hand. But make it brief. If the horse becomes alarmed it can jerk away quickly and might unintentionally bump you with its head or step on your foot. It’s a large animal that can be skittish and needs to be treated with respect.
  • Pigs are less common pets but are highly intelligent. Some people keep miniature varieties in their homes. Pigs can become quite docile and affectionate when in constant contact with people. Patting them on the neck or back and scratching them gently are types of contact they will enjoy. If your pig doesn’t tolerate contact, give it something to eat. When paired with treats, your smart little piggy will probably be happy for a pig cuddle.

Reptiles

  • Reptiles typically do not enjoy being picked up or hugged, and it is important to avoid applying too much pressure on their bodies. Instead, you can gently stroke your reptile’s back or sides with your finger or a soft brush. Be sure to handle them in a calm and quiet environment, and avoid sudden movements or loud noises that could stress them out. Keep in mind though that a domesticated snake might see you as a kind of tree and attempt to climb you. When handling a larger snake, particularly a constrictor, never allow it to coil around your neck or torso, and always have another adult present in case you need help repositioning it.

Birds

  • Birds, such as parakeets or parrots, can be physically touched and handled by their owners. Birds enjoy human petting and scratching, especially on their head and neck. When handling your bird, be sure to use a gentle touch, as birds have delicate bones and feathers. But do hold them securely and keep them close to your body so they don’t feel unstable and fall. Birds will greatly appreciate the opportunity to fly or roam outside their cage, and of course, treats are always welcome.

Fish

  • Fish need to be handled with the greatest gentleness and respect for their natural behaviors. Obviously, do not take them out of the water. You know this, but your small kids might not. (Think about it in reverse, would you want something to reach out of the water and pull you into it to hug you?) Instead, you can gently place your hand in the water and allow the fish to swim around it. Fish also enjoy being fed by hand, but be sure to use fish-specific food and do not overfeed them. Fish also enjoy a variety of different environments. Show love to your fish by adding a decoration that mimics their natural habitat and gives them something new to explore. Don’t totally redecorate all at once, though, as too much unnecessary change can stress your fish.

How do Pets Show They’ve Had Enough Hugs?

cat

Cats communicate their irritation by flattening their ears against their head or twitching their tail. They may also hiss!

It’s important to get to know your pet’s preferences and respect their boundaries when it comes to physical contact. Watch their body language. And teach your kids to do the same, as they won’t have the experience to understand these boundaries as intuitively as you do. For example:

Dogs and Cats

  • Dogs may show they are no longer interested in being hugged, petted, or scratched by losing interest. They may stop responding to your touch or move away from you. A dog might also yawn or lick their lips as a sign of stress or put their ears back and tuck their tails as a sign of submission or fear. Growling or snapping is a sure sign to leave them alone.
  • Cats communicate their irritation by flattening their ears against their head, twitching their tail, or giving a small bite. They sometimes lick their fur to try to calm themselves down. Additional signs are hissing or growling, scratching, more aggressive biting, or walking away.

Other Mammals

  • Rodents may indicate they are tired of being touched by squirming, biting, or trying to escape. They may also become less active or less responsive to interaction.
  • Horses may indicate they do not want to be handled by displaying a range of behaviors. These include turning their head away, backing up, stomping their feet, or even kicking. Additionally, a horse may also indicate its discomfort through more subtle cues, such as pinning its ears back, raising its tail, or tensing its muscles.
  • Pigs may ask you to leave them alone by squealing, grunting, or making loud noises. They could also run away, back up, or even charge. Pigs can also deliver a painful bite if they are feeling stressed, so always stay aware.

Reptiles, Birds, and Fish

  • Reptiles who grow tired of handling might retreat to a hiding place, puff themselves up, raise their head, hiss, or bite. They will become inactive and show little interest in their environment or show stress by not eating or drinking.
  • Birds that grow tired of interaction may puff up their feathers, squawk, flap their wings, bite, or attempt to fly away. Other cues to watch for: tucking their head under their wings or turning their head away.
  • Fish indicate they are tired of your attention by retreating to a hiding place or a corner of their tank. They may swim rapidly or erratically, become aggressive, lose their appetite, or over time display pale or discolored fins.

You have spent more time with your pet than anyone else in the world, watching their behavior every day. That makes you pretty much the expert on that individual animal. You can intuitively understand whether or not your pet likes what you’re doing. But don’t go overboard attributing human emotions and preferences to them. They really are a different species and experience the world in a different way than we humans do. If you want to do things that make your pet happy, learn more about what their species enjoys. Consult a veterinarian, trainer, or animal specialist to help you figure out any inexplicable behavior.

Don’t Forget to Share the Moment!

Well, you know what they say these days: if you didn’t take a picture of it, it didn’t happen. So find a friend to snap a photo or take a video of you hugging your pet (or showing it affection in whatever way is appropriate). Post it online and encourage your friends to hug their pets by posting a link to this article (so they don’t think you made it all up!) And if they don’t have a pet, encourage them to head down to the nearest rescue and adopt a hug-buddy.


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About the Author

Drew Wood is a writer at A-Z Animals focusing on mammals, geography, and world cultures. Drew has worked in research and writing for over 20 years and holds a Masters in Foreign Affairs (1992) and a Doctorate in Religion (2009). A resident of Nebraska, Drew enjoys Brazilian jiu-jitsu, movies, and being an emotional support human to four dogs.

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