Is Dog Scratch Reflex Bad?

Do you know why dogs want to have their bellies rubbed by their owners? One reason is that it may be their way of seeking attention. And as you start to rub your dog’s belly, you’ll notice that its legs are twitching. The more you hit that spot, the more frequent the legs will be kicking. This response is connected to the ‘scratch reflex’. Is that bad? Let’s find out.

Why Is There A Scratch Reflex?

All creatures possibly possess reflexes. They are involuntary movements wired in the brain due to many factors. One main factor for having reflexes is protection. Some reflexes can be considered hereditary, or that “fight-or-flight” response. Some reflexes are molded from experiences, especially those used in combat fighting.

One particular response is also noticeable to most creatures and that is scratching. We scratch because some part of the body makes us feel itchy and we continue to scratch until we feel relief. Sometimes, we also scratch out of habit, just like when something confuses us or we experience a sudden rise in temper.

Dogs too scratch involuntarily. The scratch reflex we humans experience is the same for dogs. This means that when a dog finds a body part itchy, they scratch that part until they feel relieved. When you are rubbing the dog’s belly, it will unknowingly kick its own leg or legs. This response is characterized as a scratch reflex.

Does Scratch Reflex Feel Good For Dogs?

So, does scratch reflex feel good for dogs? When dogs feel itchy, they scratch that particular body part. However, when you are rubbing the belly of the dog, the kicking-of-legs response doesn’t indicate an itch in the belly area. What it means is that there is something only similar to that feeling of itchiness, like irritation.  

The more you rub the dog’s belly, the more it needs to urgently release that irritating feeling. The leg kicking means that as you rub the belly, the network of nerves, or also known as the “sweet spot”, is stimulated. The nerves will then communicate to the spinal cord and command the leg to move. And that command serves as an outlet for that irritating feeling.

Do Dogs Hate The Scratch Reflex?

As mentioned, dogs do things for the sake of seeking attention and one of them is demanding a belly rub.

When you rub the dog’s belly, you can observe its body language aside from the kicking leg. If they love it, they’ll just lie comfortably and continue to have their bellies exposed. If they hate it, they’ll turn around and walk away.

To give you an analogy, it is kind of like tickling a toddler on the abdomen. The toddler laughs, indicating a positive response. Their limbs also start flailing as if wanting to get out of the situation, similar to the scratch reflex. But if the toddler is annoyed, there will be more of a negative response like crying.

How Does Scratch Reflex Manifest?

In a study conducted by an English neurophysiologist named Sir Charles Sherrington, he found that the scratch reflex of the dog manifests in 4 different stages. These are the following:

  1. The Latency Period – This refers to the delay period from the motion of scratching up to the time the leg starts kicking. It can also be explained as the travel period of the signal from the nerves due to the stimulus, which is the scratching, until the leg responds to the command from the spinal cord.
  2. The Warm-up – This refers to the build-up of momentum. The kicking starts slowly and then increases in intensity as the belly rubbing on the sweet spot continues.
  3. The After Discharge – This refers to the ‘residual sensation’ the dog feels after you stop rubbing the belly. You might observe that the leg continues to kick until the movement ceases.
  4. Fatigue – As you resume rubbing the dog’s belly, the scratch reflex also continues. But after some time, the leg kicking gradually slows down. This means that the dog felt fatigued after that intense involuntary movement.

Is It Good Or Bad?

Now that we identified what scratch reflex is for dogs, why it occurs and how it manifests, we shall explore if it is good or bad. Remember that scratch reflex is involuntary, so no amount of dog intellect can override that.

Is It Good When Dogs Kick Leg When Scratched?

If you may recall, when your dog’s legs kick as you rub its belly, it is a result of the scratch reflex. Your dog is looking for an outlet for that temporary discomfort it felt. Therefore, it doesn’t necessarily mean that dogs don’t like their bellies to be rubbed. If the dog hates the rubbing, there will be negative reactions and leg kicking is not one of them.

Nevertheless, you must also remember that the dog can fatigue from the activity. It might be like being rubbed at the sweet spot at first but later on, it can get annoyed and tired. So, it is better not to base your assumptions on whether your dog likes belly rubbing or not from the leg kicking alone.

Why Does My Dog Have So Many Scratch Reflexes?

It is not only during belly rubbing that the dog’s scratch reflex is activated. The dog will tend to scratch whenever there is a feeling of itchiness, irritation, or annoyance. It is only normal since the dog is only trying to protect itself by warding off the cause of those unfavorable feelings.

This might signal a bigger problem if the scratch reflex tends to activate during normal activities such as eating, drinking, urinating, defecating, walking, and sleeping. Having so many scratch reflexes even at normal routines indicates that the dogs might have allergies, dermatitis, or scabies.

You can try regularly washing your dogs and using soaps to help with skin and fur conditions. Furthermore, you can change their diet and clean their environment more often. If those things don’t work, it will be better to seek medical help.


Do not overthink the dog’s scratch reflex the next time you rub its belly. There are noticeable indicators if your dog enjoys the activity or not. You must be concerned about having too many scratch reflexes, especially during normal routines. The best solution for that is to consult a veterinarian.

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