How to Read Your Pet’s Body Language

Because our pets can’t talk to us, they give us signals to let us know how they are feeling. But are you sure you can read those signals?

“Most conflicts that arise between animals and humans are due to miscommunications,” said Dr. Kimberly Krug of the Animal Behavior Clinic in Portland. “To communicate effectively with our pets, we have to learn their language. This takes practice.”

Krug said almost all body parts on our precious pets can provide us with information about what they are “saying,” and while some messages they send us are obvious, others are not.

A cat that’s hissing or a dog that’s growling are likely upset, but other communication, such as a dog licking his lips, is much more subtle.

Some common body language signs that can indicate that your pet is happy or content:

  • Soft eyes
  • Ears forward or relaxed
  • Relaxed mouth
  • Loose body

“Dogs also wag their tail, while cats often show a relaxed or upright, slowly moving tail. Cats whiskers may be forward,” said Krug.

Both dogs and cats may vocalize when they’re happy, but the sound is often quite different than when they are unhappy.

“Cats may chirp, meow or trill when happy while dogs may whine, bark, or howl either when they are happy or unsettled,” said Krug.

Dogs and cats that are upset often appear uncomfortable.

“They may tuck their body in tight, be stiff or still and may lower their head,” said Krug.

Learn to spot fear and anxiety

Krug said it’s important to recognize that many unwanted behaviors stem from the emotions of fear and anxiety.

“Feelings of fear and anxiety are uncomfortable and affect the welfare of our pets on a day-to-day basis,” she said.

Fear-inducing triggers or incidents are specific to each individual, she said.

“I think skydiving is fun but you might become panicked at the mere thought of jumping out of a plane,” said Krug. “It can be really easy to tell our pets that something isn’t scary because we don’t think it’s scary. This is unfair, doesn’t help our pets learn how to cope with things in the world that they find to be scary, and can exacerbate fear and anxiety disorders by pushing animals past their emotional threshold.”

The first step is to learn as much as you can about how dogs and cats communicate.

Some animals will tremble when they are afraid.  A dog may tuck his tail under his abdomen and his facial expression may be sharp with his mouth closed tightly, open with retracted lips, or he may display a furrowed brow.

A cat may tuck her tail in close to her body or flick her tail quickly, indicating agitation. She may also arch her back or hold her ears back or hold them tight against her head. Whiskers may also be held back or held tight to the face.

Hair standing up is also a sign of fear.

“Cats may ‘puff up’ all of their fur when they are scared,” said Krug. “Pupils may dilate. Dogs may lick their lips or yawn when they are nervous or afraid.”

Dogs may also avoid eye contact or display “whale eye” (showing the whites of the eyes).

Krug said while noticing individual body parts can be helpful to know what your pet is saying, it’s most important to learn how to observe your pet’s entire body to really understand what’s going on.

“Dogs may put their ears back, hunch their posture, and growl while wagging their tail. This is a dog that is experiencing a negative emotional state but if you only looked at the tail, you might be fooled,” she said. “Cats most often purr when they are content but they can also purr when they are sick or afraid.”

Don’t be afraid to seek help

Krug said it’s not uncommon to see pets displaying signs of fear, anxiety or aggression, but this doesn’t mean it’s normal.

“These are uncomfortable feelings and so coming up with ways to provide our pets relief is really important for their quality of life,” she said.

Krug said if your pet is experiencing what you suspect to be signs of fear, anxiety, reactivity or stress of any kind, it’s important to seek help.

“People commonly wait a long time, hoping their pet will ‘grow out of it’ or ‘get over it,’ or they think ‘it’s just a phase,’” she said. “Unfortunately, most behavior concerns do not just go away and they get worse with time.”

“There is so much that we can do to help our pets live fulfilled lives and minimize stress,” she said.

And while long-standing problems may take longer to change, this shouldn’t prevent you from seeking assistance.

“I recommend seeking out a positive reinforcement-based trainer,” said Krug. “A good place to start is the IAABC (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants). Veterinary behavior clinics specialize in treating pets with a variety of behavioral disorders.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the team at Animal Behavior Clinic is offering virtual consults and assessments as well as virtual behavior modification training sessions.

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Susan Wyatt

A Western Washington native, Susan Wyatt writes about health and wellness, pets, travel, etc. etc. In her off-hours she enjoys gardening, reading and playing bagpipes. She lives in Issaquah with a ginger cat named Vinny (aka Yawny McYawnface).



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