“Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.” 

— A.A. Milne

 That dogs and cats are non-verbal frustrates pet owners. When faced with a problem or behavior issue, many owners wish their pet could simply speak up and explain the matter. However, while wasting their time wishing their pets could talk, owners fail to notice how dogs and cats can communicate quite clearly through their body posture and behavior.

To learn a foreign language, we break down its basic components, develop our eye and ear, and learn the most common phrases first. Pet body language is no different, so Country Valley Veterinary Clinic has written the following guide to help you interpret a few of your pet’s most important emotions.

Pet body language requires macro and micro viewing

For accurate interpretation, dog and cat body language should always be evaluated in context. For instance, a full body shake-off is a stress relieving behavior, but dogs on the beach are simply removing water from their coats, and not stressed. Likewise, a dog in training who is repeatedly licking their lips, normally a signal of stress, may feel anxiety from the learning process, or is simply enjoying tasty rewards. 

How pets say, “I am happy and relaxed”

Happiness may be the most universally identifiable emotion. No matter the species, hiding true joy is almost impossible. Pets experiencing positive emotions are completely relaxed physically, with little to no muscle tension, and may expose their underside for a nice belly rub. Species-specific expressions of contentment may include:

  • Dogs:
    • Body Loose, fluid body carriage, bending their bodies in a C-shape on approach, and resting in extended positions.
    • Face A soft expression, with a slightly open mouth
    • Ears — Neutrally placed, or slightly forward
    • Tail — Wagging gently in a straight line from their back, or slightly elevated
    • Gestures — A play bow, jumping up, showing their belly, or moving in circles
  • Cats:
    • Body — Sitting or lounging, with minimal muscle tension  
    • Face — Gazing at you with half-lidded eyes
    • Ears — Neutral position, or swiveling, to catch sounds
    • Tail —  Erect, but held relatively still, with their fur flat
    • Gestures — Rubbing against people or objects, kneading, or grooming rhythmically
    • VocalizationsPurring, which is speculated to have a self-soothing effect 

How pets say, “I am scared or nervous”

Dogs and cats who bite are often reacting out of fear, and although the action may seem unprovoked, or the pet gave no warning, their warnings were likely ignored. Fear and anxiety in pets should be respected as a basic and natural response, and never punished.

  • Dogs:
    • Body Low posture, cowering or hiding, slowed movements, muscular tension, and possibly curling up in a tight fetal position
    • Face — Furrowed brow, lip-licking, and whale eye (i.e., showing the white portion of the eye) as the dog tries to see in all directions
    • Ears Pinned back, or moving rapidly
    • Tail — Low or tucked between their legs
    • Gestures — Pacing, circling, panting, yawning, frequent scratching, or shaking off as if they are wet 
    • Vocalizations — Growling or whining
  • Cats:
    • Body — Moving low to the ground, or crouched with tense muscles, ready to flee
    • Face — Dilated pupils, or a sleepy appearance, avoiding eye contact
    • Ears  — Flattened or turned back
    • Tail — Curled close to the body
    • Gestures — Freezing, actively running away, or hiding 
    • Vocalizations — Hissing or growling

How pets say, “I am in pain”

One of the most important messages a pet owner should understand is how their dog or cat communicates pain. Pets naturally conceal discomfort and pain as a survival mechanism, so signs of pain are often subtle. However, with a trained eye and a mental inventory of your pet’s typical body language, you can identify their suffering early. Pain often is misperceived as fear or anxiety, so have your pet examined at Country Valley Veterinary Clinic for any unexplained behavior changes such as:

  • Dogs:
    • Body — Low posture, arched spine, carrying their head below the shoulders, limping or favoring one side, or restlessness
    • Face — Fear-related facial expressions
    • Ears — Angled outward or backward
    • Tail — Low, or lacking typical animation
    • Gestures — Sensitivity when touched, aggression, hiding, reluctance to perform typical activities, or excessive licking
  • Cats:
    • Body — Compact appearance, obvious limping, crouching, or a hunched back
    • Face — Furrowed brow, and eyes dilated or squinting
    • Ears — Flat against their head 
    • Tail — Low, lacking animation
    • Gestures — Isolated from family, quiet, detached, decreased or no appetite, or changes in litter box habits

Cats and dogs live incredibly complex lives, and we have only scratched the surface of what they may be thinking and feeling. We may never know the full meaning of our pet’s actions, but we can benefit from countless animal behavior studies, as well as our own familiarity with our pets.  

If you have more questions about your pet’s behavior, and what they may be trying to tell you, contact Country Valley Veterinary Clinic.