Many people believe pets rely on vocalizations, such as barks, growls, meows, and hisses, to communicate. However, pets largely depend on non-verbal signals to get their point across. You may have noticed your cats don’t often meow at each other, but reserve that adorable “miaow” solely for speaking with their humans. Since we as humans tend to rely mostly on verbal communication, interactions with pets can lead to misunderstandings. Most people are unfamiliar with pet body language, which can directly contrast our human body-language signals. For example, a yawning dog is usually stressed, while a yawning person is more likely to be tired. 

Bridging the communication gap between you and your pet doesn’t have to be difficult. Read on to learn your furry pal’s subtle cues and help break down the language barrier!

Body language of a happy pet

Most people can easily identify happy pets, especially with familiar pets living in their home. Dogs and cats can confuse people, as each species has a key signal that is erroneously thought to indicate a happy, relaxed pet. A wagging tail in dogs does not always equal a happy pooch and a purring cat does not always equal a content kitty. When reading your pet’s body language, you must look at all the subtle signals, including the ears, facial expression, and posture. Here are the hallmarks of a happy, relaxed pet:

  • Dogs — A cheerful pup will have a loose, fluid body, with each body part relaxed and soft, and every movement will signal joy and a desire for attention and play. You will likely notice your dog’s tongue lolling from one side of the mouth, a soft facial expression, and usually almond-shaped eyes that are slightly squinty or blinking, instead of wide and staring. One of the most easily recognized signs of a happy dog wanting to play is the play bow, where your pooch will drop the front end to the ground, and wiggle the hind end in the air. These signs, as well as a rapidly wagging tail, either from side-to-side or in a circular helicopter motion, display a truly happy dog. 
  • Cats — A happy cat usually has a loose, but upright tail, that sways a bit while walking. The ears are pricked slightly forward, and your kitty may emit a meow, chirp, or trill to solicit attention. To gauge your cat’s mood, look at the eyes. Half-closed, drooping lids indicate a relaxed, trusting kitty, and a slow blink means your cat feels safe and comfortable in the present situation. 

Body language of a nervous pet

A nervous, anxious, or stressed pet is often more difficult to identify, especially since this category includes signals with a different meaning in human body language, such as yawning. If you notice the following body-language cues in your pet, assess the situation and take action to soothe your pet:

  • Dogs — Nervous dogs display many signals to alleviate the stress they’re feeling or to appease a perceived threat. Two commonly misinterpreted signals—yawning and lip licking—usually demonstrate anxiety in dogs. This means your dog is anxious and stressed, rather than tired or hungry. An easy-to-identify sign of a nervous dog is the whale eye. This is when a dog  turns away the head but continues to look at the threat, showing the whites of the eye. When paired with a furrowed brow, tense mouth, low tail, and frozen body, this signals that your pooch may be preparing to fight or flee.
  • Cats — When faced with a nervous or stressed cat, act quickly to remove the potential threat and calm your kitty down, or the situation may escalate. A nervous cat will lower their tail and twitch, and the twitching becomes more rapid and forceful as their anxiety increases. You’ll also notice the ears shift back and turn sideways. Dilated pupils allow your cat to focus more fully on a threat, and you’ll see wide, staring eyes from a surprised or startled cat.

Body language of an upset pet

When a pet feels threatened enough to react, the signs are usually easy to identify, but here are a few examples:

  • Dogs — When a dog is warning you off, you will likely see a stiff, wagging tail, tense body, and hard, staring eyes. Many dogs will bark sharply or growl. In addition, your dog’s hair may rise along the back. 
  • Cats — As a perceived threat comes closer to your cat, you’ll notice the pupils will constrict, rather than dilate. The ears will lower closer to the head, and may be completely flattened. A cat who is feeling threatened will take the typical “Halloween cat” stance, to appear larger and more intimidating. Fluffed fur and an erect tail are clear signals to avoid approaching this cat. 

Here at Boca Midtowne Animal Hospital, we place great importance on correctly reading and interpreting your pet’s body language. As a Fear Free veterinary hospital, we rely on pets’ cues to let us know if they are uncomfortable with the situation. If signs point to fear, anxiety, or stress, we will take a step back. By allowing your furry pal’s body language to guide us, we can determine whether they prefer their physical exam on the floor, in your lap, or wrapped in a blanket. Check out Dr. Man’s blog showing how a patient named Remmy benefited from our ability to read pet body language. With our Fear Free training, we ensure each and every pet who walks through our doors has a happy, pleasant experience free from fear, anxiety, and stress. 

Is your furry friend trying to tell you something, but you can’t figure it out? Schedule a consultation with our team to get a read on your pet’s behavior.