Interpreting Your Pet's Language
Every part of your pet’s body tells a story. The tone of his voice, how he stands, the angle of the head, the set of the ears, and the degree of eye contact all have something to say. Dogs and cats use their body movements and facial expressions to let you and other animals know what is going on in their mind. Our job is to figure out what these subtle signals mean.
Think of it as deciphering a foreign language without an interpreter. Want to find out what your pet is feeling? You do not have to be Dr. Dolittle to talk to your animal. “Just watch his body language,” says Dr. Deena Case-Pall, a psychologist and animal behaviorist in Camarillo, California. To determine what your cat or dog is thinking, first notice what his entire body is doing, then hone in on the individual parts. The following guide will help you understand your pet.
The body electric. When a dog feels relaxed, her whole body looks happy. If she is standing, all four feet are placed evenly on the ground. If she is sitting, her body is relaxed and there is no tension in the muscles. When she is ready to play, the dog will crouch down with her rear end pointing up in the air; this position is called a “play bow.” When she is guarding something, she will lean forward. If she feels challenged, she may bare her teeth or thrust her head upward.
When a cat is totally relaxed with another cat or you, he will roll over and stick his belly upward. This means total submission. However, keep in mind that just because he exposes his belly, he might not want it rubbed. A cat that is feeling defensive will be poised for action. He will arch his back and puff up his hair so he looks larger.
The eyes have it. A soft gaze means a dog trusts you and is not afraid. When she looks directly at your face, it shows alertness and interest in what you are doing. Glancing at you from the side shows submission. If she is blinking a lot, she may be stressed. A hard stare can signal dominance or defensiveness.
When a cat is relaxed, he will half close his eyes, point his ears forward, and purr. If he is alert, his eyes will be wide open and his whiskers will stand straight out. If he is afraid or agitated, his pupils will be dilated. Staring is intimidating to a cat. When a cat wants to challenge or threaten another cat, he will stare directly at him.
Nosing around. Cats and dogs use their noses to sniff out friend or foe. Their sense of smell is one of the ways pets receive information about their environment. They lift their heads and twitch their noses to catch a scent. If you see a cat butting his head and rubbing his cheeks on another cat, it means he is comfortable with the other cat.
Mouthing it. If a dog’s mouth is open with her teeth covered, she is probably relaxed. A dog with a closed or slightly open mouth is generally alert but not aggressive. An aggressive dog will snarl, pulling her lips back tightly and exposing her teeth. However, sometimes when a dog’s teeth are showing, it may not be a sign of aggression.
A relaxed or alert cat will have his mouth closed. A defensive cat will open his mouth and bare his teeth.
All ears. A dog’s ears can swivel, lie back, or shift forward, and each ear can be doing something different. This makes a dog’s ears very expressive. When her ears are back slightly, the dog is relaxed, but ears that are folded back tightly show fear or even aggression. Generally, if her ears are forward, it means she is feeling alert; however, far-forward or erect ears can also signal aggression. If each ear is doing something different—one ear may be folded and the other flat against the skull, for example—she is probably confused!
When a cat is comfortable, he will point his ears forward. When he is agitated or scared, his ears will be folded flat back.
Telling a tail. A dog with a long tail uses it to its full advantage. When a dog holds it high and wags it, she is usually in a good mood. A low tail that is wagging only slightly means the dog is worried or insecure, while a totally tucked tail means she is submissive, anxious, or frightened. When her tail is high and rigid, the dog is challenging another dog or feels threatened.
A cat’s tail folded into a question mark means “play with me.” When a cat holds his tail high above his back, it is a sign of dignity and self-respect. A rapidly flicking tail signals annoyance and ambiguity.
Sounds like? Cats and dogs use a wide range of sounds, and some cats and dogs are more vocal than others. A dog whines, growls, or barks depending on the urgency of what she wants. Many dogs (especially the Nordic breeds) also use a howl, which is a locator sound, to try to find you or another dog.
A cat may growl, shriek, hiss, spit, or chatter to signal aggression. “Mew” and “meow” mean “give me some attention” and “here I am.”
If you are choosing a dog or cat from a rescue facility, you may not want to judge the pet’s personality by the body language you observe that day. Some pets are just not themselves when they are kept in a crowded, noisy, and confined space.
“Dogs and cats in shelter situations may exhibit more anxious behavior than they would when settled in a comfortable social environment away from the shelter,” says canine behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall, research associate at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. Once they are placed in a home environment, they usually settle in and start acting like themselves.
UNIVERSAL CAT- AND DOGSPEAK
Whether you live in Alaska, Australia, Africa, or Ireland, there is no pet language barrier. Dogs and cats generally communicate the same way no matter where they live. Once you recognize the normal clues as to when they are content, excited, or scared, you are multi-pet-lingual and can look forward to having a comfortable, chatty life with your pet.
It is wise to always approach unfamiliar animals with caution.
UNDERSTANDING MIXED SIGNALS
Sometimes it is not totally clear what your pet is trying to say. Her ears may be fluttering up and back, saying, “I am feeling a little anxious,” but the tail is raised and wagging as if to say, “I think I like you.” Similar to people, dogs and cats can be confused about what they really feel. They might need a few moments to size up the situation and decide what they think. The more you observe your pet’s body language, the easier it will be to decipher what she is expressing.