Interspecies Communication Tips From the Trenches
We’ve honed this skill intentionally over the years, and can ensure patients under our care experience minimal fear, anxiety, and stress.
Understanding pets takes time and practice and, because we sometimes make mistakes, we know that most pet owners are likely to misinterpret their pet’s signals from time to time.
Misunderstanding our pets means we may fail to fulfill their needs—and they will not enjoy the quality of life that is our goal. Reading pet body language incorrectly can also lead to serious accidents that involve pet bites and scratches—often directed toward children. To prevent these tragedies, and to help you provide for your pet, the Gentle Touch Animal Hospital team is offering practical tips for interpreting pet body language.
#1: Learn the five main pet communication tools
You may not realize it, but you already pay attention every day to these signals—your pet’s eyes, ears, mouth, tail, and body posture can communicate almost everything. To better understand the nuances of what your pet is saying, learn the various meanings of each cue.
For dogs, consider the following:
- Eyes — Avoiding eye contact, squinting, and dilated pupils can indicate stress. Staring directly and intensely with a frozen stance can indicate an impending lunge or bite.
- Ears — Forward ears indicate interest or attention, out to the sides indicates worry, and pinned back against the head indicates concern or appeasement—a gesture along the lines of “I come in peace.”
- Mouth — Panting without a need to dissipate heat indicates stress, especially with tension and wrinkles at the mouth corners. A relaxed, slightly open mouth indicates contentment.
- Tail — A wagging tail doesn’t always indicate happiness. A high, stiff, fast wag can indicate intense interest or impending aggression, a sweeping wag at spine level indicates relaxed contentment, and a low tail held down or underneath the body indicates stress.
- Body posture — Low, crouched postures and slow movements indicate stress or fear, a loose, wiggly body indicates happiness and play, and a stiff, forward-shifted stance can mean attention or aggression.
For cats, look for these signs:
- Eyes — Dilated pupils indicate stress, a long stare indicates interest, and slow, soft blinking indicates contentment.
- Ears — Forward ears indicate interest or alertness, sideways, “airplane” ears mean stress or frustration, and ears all the way back mean the cat likely will—if they have not already—lash out.
- Mouth — Hissing and spitting clearly indicate the cat’s fear of something scary.
- Tail — A raised, relaxed tail indicates a content cat, but a stiff, raised tail means uncertainty. A tightly tucked tail can indicate stress, while a loosely wrapped one generally means contentedness. Cats who puff up their tail are fearful and trying to look bigger, and they are frustrated if they are twitching or swishing their tail.
- Body posture—Relaxed cats often sprawl, roll, and explore their surroundings. A nervous cat often hunches up and tries to disappear. Terrified cats who fear for their life lash out with teeth and claws.
#2: Interpret the bigger picture
Now that you understand the signals from each individual body part, you must learn to interpret them as a whole. Different combinations signal different emotional states, while the same signal can mean two things in different contexts. When deciphering signals, consider what’s happening to your pet and what they’re trying to achieve. For example, a dog who bares their teeth while happily wagging their tail and body is grinning submissively—a peaceful gesture. But, a dog showing their teeth with their ears pinned back and tail tucked is extremely fearful. Worse—a dog showing their teeth, staring, ears forward, and body frozen is likely to bite.
#3: Understand pets are individuals
Not every pet conveys the same emotional state with the exact same behaviors—each has their own nuances. A pet’s life experience and learning impacts how they communicate, and what they expect from others. A pet whose previous owner ignored or punished them for communicating appropriately will learn to escalate their behaviors or develop quirky new ones. When you are interacting with a new pet, or trying to understand your current pet’s needs, remember—they will not communicate exactly the same way as others.
#4: Give pets the benefit of the doubt
Understand that pets do not harbor the same feelings and intentions as people. Pets can express their joy, playfulness, jealousy, frustration, or stress, but they never try to act “mean,” “angry,” or “spiteful.” Use your pet’s body language to evaluate their feelings and needs, but avoid assigning uniquely human intentions to their behavior.
#5: Always supervise pets and kids
Parents are often surprised when their faithful pet lashes out at their children, but pets never bite without warning—we simply fail to recognize the warnings. Children go through phases as they get older, and some pets are fearful of their noise, chaos, and less-than-gentle touches. Recognizing discomfort signs can help you teach your children to respect your pet’s boundaries, and to intervene before your pet feels the need to escalate the situation.
Cats are more likely to flee and find a good hiding spot when they have had enough. Dogs will use their body language to try to increase space between them and the child, so give them space if you notice the following:
- Whale eye — This involves turning away from the scary thing (i.e., the child), while monitoring them from the corner of their eye and showing the whites of their eyes.
- Walking away — Pets who leave are trying to avoid a situation, and they likely will lash out if they are followed.
- Yawning, panting, and lip-licking — Your pet will display these displacement behaviors when they feel uncomfortable and aren’t sure what to do.
Your pet is speaking to you every day—but you must take a few moments to stop and listen. If your pet is showing concerning behaviors, you’ve noticed discomfort or stress signals, or you have questions about interpreting their body language, contact the Gentle Touch Animal Hospital team for assistance.
Visit Fear Free happy homes or Cat Friendly homes to learn more about pet body language, and the benefits of reducing your pet’s fear, anxiety, and stress at home and in the veterinary hospital.