You probably already have an idea of what your dog or cat is thinking. Cross-species communication has been key to the evolutionary success of dogs, humans and to lesser extent cats.
Some animals are expert communicators. If my dog is standing in front of me and looking me in the eyes, I know she wants to go out. If she is doing that and stamping her feet, she wants out NOW!
Despite these close bonds of communication, there are times animal instinct takes over, pets revert back to primal displays of body language and communication breaks down. Or perhaps you have a new pet, those bonds haven’t been established yet but you would still like to understand what your pet is feeling.
In this post, I cover some warning signs you should look out for when dealing with dogs and cats, this is a basic introduction and doesn’t make you an expert. Don’t read this post and feel like you have a license to start approaching every dog you see on the street.
Certain types of body language can be obvious, like growling or hissing, but those behaviors are a last resort and if you can learn to notice more subtle displays there will be less stress for you and your pet.
Loose, relaxed stance; head and ears up; tail down. This is the body language of a dog that is calm. Contrary to accepted belief a wagging tail doesn’t necessarily mean the dog is happy. There are situations, especially when a larger dog is trying to assert dominance, that tail wagging can occur but there is also a threat.
A slight change in body position to leaning forward; a stiff, straight tail; eyes clearly fixated. These are all signs that your dog is alert. Something has caught his or her interest. Depending on the situation this may be a good time to remove your dog.
From signs of interest and alertness, we move into displays of aggression, fear, and stress. These are indications of a volatile situation and steps should be taken to calm the dog or remove it.
Signs that your dog is experiencing negative emotions include: ears laying back, their tail is raised and stiff, the hairs on their back and shoulders are raised and bristling. If your dog is fearful but not ready to submit he or she will take a lower more prone stance, dropping their tail and head.
If a dog is fearful, distressed and showing signs of submission they will begin to pant rapidly and appear to lick the air or the face of whoever or whatever they are submitting to.
Cats are typically less communicative than dogs. It’s not that our bonds with cats are less than those with dogs, it’s just a different relationship altogether. However, cats do communicate through body language that we can learn to interpret.
A cat’s natural disposition should be calm, relaxed, and observant. In body language, this looks like a reclined or lounging cat quietly watching.
Cats are extremely territorial and have a need to be the alpha of their territory. This means that any big changes in a cat’s life are going to cause it anxiety. A cat experiencing stress will appear to cower, becoming smaller. Its eyes will be wide and fixated, while its ears swivel independent of one another, scanning for more information. If a cat is preparing for a fight its ears will flatten down and back. A cat in this state will have a still tail or a tail with some slight movement near the tip.
Anxiety can quickly turn to fear or anger. The cat that was balled up, cowering and trying to seem small is now preparing to fight. It is puffed up, often standing with straight legs to try and appear larger than the perceived threat. Ears back, they will often become vocal, growling and hissing and swiping at whatever it is they are upset by. Avoid situations where someone could get hurt.
Unlike many animals, cats experience frustration. Perhaps Grumpy Cat really was grumpy. Cats can experience frustration as a result of boredom, not getting what they want, or feeling as though they are being neglected. Incessant meowing, fixed eyes and pacing are all signs of a frustrated cat. The solution to this, entertain your cat! Play with it, give it what it wants if that’s possible.
Cats, dogs, rabbits, and humans, every animal unknowingly communicates their moods and feelings through body language. By being able to read your pet’s temperament through its behavior you will be able to identify situations that make it uncomfortable and hopefully de-escalate the situation before someone gets hurt.