Sep 17, 2019

How to Understand Your Pet’s Body Language

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Since we can’t interpret woofs and meows from our pet dogs and cats, it’s important to learn their body language. Our pets provide many visual cues, most often seen in their eyes, mouth, ears, tail and even their fur.

If you’ve lived with a dog or cat long enough, you can probably easily recognize their moods. But your furry best friend may have occasional reactions that trigger unusual behavior. Here are some ways to understand their body language.

Dogs’ Body Language

A dog’s tail can be a barometer of many feelings. If a dog is relaxed, its tail will likely be held straight or below his spine, and wag in wide, loose circles. An excited dog’s tail will be higher, and move faster. If the tail is held high and erect, your dog may be focusing on something – perhaps a squirrel to chase or even an intruder. If a dog is hesitant or uncertain about a situation, its tail may wag very slowly, almost like a ticking clock. A frightened dog may hold its tail between its back legs.

As for body actions, a playful dog will bounce back and forth, with lots of wiggles and jumps, and an open mouth that almost looks like a big grin. Its eyes may appear to be squinting.

A dog walking in circles or acting restless often has to relieve itself.

A content, happy dog may lie on its back and look away from you, waiting for a belly rub. If the dog is kneeling in the front and has its rear up in the air, that’s a classic “I want to play” pose.

If your dog is nervous or uncomfortable, it may look away from you or down at the ground. The dog’s ears may be pressed back against its head, with a forehead furrowed with wrinkles. The dog may salivate or lick its lips, and start whining or trying to hide. A common trigger for many dogs is the sound of fireworks or thunder. A dog that is petrified may bare its teeth; its pupils may become dilated – and it may become aggressive.

Cats’ Body Language

Most cat personalities are complicated to interpret, although cat lovers acknowledge that feline quirks are part of their charm. Any cat that chooses to sleep on your open book is confident and comfortable with you.

Happy cats often will rub their heads against your legs. Ironically, they often do it while their human is preparing their meal, which some assume means “hurry up.” But the cat is actually “marking” you with its scent glands, an instinctual way to tag a safe person.

A cat’s tail offers an array of signals. A cat walking with its tail held high means it is confident and happy. If the tip of the tail is twitching, it might be annoyed. A fast tail thumping may mean the cat is agitated, while a slow swish may mean it is suspicious. A rapidly swishing tail may mean your cat is on the hunt, whether for a ball or critter.

If a cat arches its back, it might just be a languid stretch, especially if accompanied by a yawn. But if a cat arches its back with fur standing up, and it has a menacing stare, step away because it could mean an attack.

A cat that rolls over and exposes its belly appears adorable – and may be looking for a belly rub from a doting owner. But cats who show their belly with exposed claws and bared teeth probably feel trapped, so be careful.

And pay attention to a cat’s ears. Ears facing forward signal contentment; ears straight up signal alertness. But ears flattened and back against a cat’s head are likely a sign of fear or anger.

Extreme Warning Signs for Any Pet

Any pet that growls, hisses or even spits is clearly warning you to stay away. Raised fur can also be a sign of extreme stress. There may be a variety of reasons, typically pain, fear of an unknown person or place, or an imminent attack from another animal. Use extreme caution in these circumstances, and get help if it appears your pet may attack.

Information for this story was gathered from the ASPCA, American Veterinary Medicine Foundation and the Humane Society of the United States.