What is the most appropriate phrase for touching i.e. a dog or a horse in a gentle manner? My first guesses are 'to pet' or 'to fondle' or 'to scratch'. Anyway, the other meanings of those words let me conclude, that there need to be more appropriate words.

  • to pet would be the most common term for that. Example: Wow, is this your cat? Can I pet it? – Michael Rybkin Apr 29 '18 at 13:33

You can definitely pet or stroke your dog.
Though pet may have other connotations if applied to humans, it's perfectly acceptable to pet your pet.

Scratch is OK.
If you're going to scratch your dog's head, people are going to generally take that to being a gentle action - they really wouldn't assume without other context that you were about to attack him with barbed wire ;)

There's a diminutive form of scratch you could also use - scritch. You're probably not going to find it in any dictionary[1], though I have a vague idea it may have originated in the Peanuts [Snoopy] comic strip.

You can also pat a dog or horse, though that diminishes with size. You wouldn't want to pat the cat, she wouldn't like it.

Fondle is definitely to be avoided.
That is really never going to give the right impression. It has only sexual overtones & no 'clean' alternative definition.

[1]No results in OALD but I found it in Oxford Living Dictionaries

US [with object] To scratch; (now) especially to scratch (a pet) affectionately with one's fingernails.

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    Yes, cats love scritches. :) It's interesting to note that we say scratch the cat's head or the dog's head, when the actual physical movement of the fingers is not the same as to scratch someone's face, for instance. Isn't that funny? – Lambie Apr 29 '18 at 13:45
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    I would guess that's probably why it was 'diminutised' (I'm sure that's not a proper word;) to scritch. It has no aggressive connotation. – gone fishin' again. Apr 29 '18 at 16:02
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    Indeed, if I scratch you (on purpose, sorry) I rake my nails over your skin. But, if I scratch a dog or cat's head, I actually move my nails or fingertips in short little movements. Yes, I agree that scritch is a great verb. Oh, by the way, no one said Pat the dog's head. :) – Lambie Apr 29 '18 at 16:08
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    I have pretty commonly seen "fondle" used for stroking an animal's ears (dogs, horses, probably not cats as they generally don't like that). I think specifying "ears" mitigates the sexual connotation. – 1006a Apr 29 '18 at 18:10
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    Honestly, I think it would be best avoided by a non-native... just in case ;) – gone fishin' again. Apr 29 '18 at 19:12

“pet” and “stroke” are good words. “fondle” and “scratch” may be interpreted in a different manner

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