Since our pets can’t speak up to tell us how they’re feeling, it’s up to us to read the signals they send. Animals do vocalize, but most of their communication with each other—and humans—happens through body language. By observing your pet’s facial expressions and posture, you can decode the messages he’s sending your way.
Canine body language
Is your pooch feeling playful or content? Do his flattened ears mean he’s scared of the dog approaching him, or is he reacting aggressively? It’s important to know how to read your dog’s body language so you can respond appropriately.
Relaxed. When your dog is in his home territory, he should feel calm and relaxed. A relaxed dog is content, secure, and confident. When your dog is relaxed, you may observe:
- Upright ears
- Mouth hanging slightly open
- Tail hanging downward and relaxed
- A loose, relaxed stance
It’s also important to be able to read the body language of other dogs you come across. A relaxed dog can be safely approached, but you should always do so slowly. Once you approach, hold out a hand—palm down—for him to sniff before you attempt to pet him.
Playful. Think of how your dog looks when he spots a canine buddy or he’s begging you to roughhouse with him. Dogs asking for some playtime display predictable body language:
- Ears will be standing up erect
- Mouth is often open, with tongue hanging out
- Tail is held up, and often wagging
- Lowered front end in a “play bow” stance (they may hold this position for a short time and then break into a run or jump around)
Scared or anxious. You can probably pick out the obvious signs that your dog is feeling scared or stressed out:
- Ears laying down flat against his head
- Lips curled, perhaps with teeth showing
- Eyes wide with large, dilated pupils
- Tail held low, possibly tucked between his legs
- Body lowered to the ground, with the hair over his shoulders raised to make him appear larger
It’s important to recognize when your pet is feeling anxious so you can remove him from the situation. A fearful dog’s fight-or-flight instinct may prompt him to bite if he is cornered and thinks he cannot escape.
Aggressive. An aggressive dog is dangerous, since he is primed for attack. He can be identified pretty easily by these telltale signs:
- Ears held erect and leaning forward
- Lips curled with teeth visible in a snarling gesture
- Tail held stiffly outward or straight up
- Stiff-legged stance, possibly leaning forward toward the threat, with the hair over his back raised
If your dog is acting aggressively toward a person or another dog, it’s critical that you remove him from the situation immediately so no one gets hurt.
Feline body language
Your cat is purring, so she must be happy, right? And that twitching tail—a sign of playfulness or aggression? Cats can send mixed signals, so read on to find out what her body language is trying to tell you.
Content. If a cat is content and comfortable in your presence, she will let you know by strutting around confidently or seeking your attention. Ways you can tell that she’s happy:
- Ears are forward and relaxed
- Mouth is closed, and possibly purring
- Tail is held upward and relaxed
- Walk is slow and confident (if seeking attention from you, she may flop down and roll over onto her back)
Playful. Whether stalking a feather on a string or chasing your shoelaces, a playful cat often reverts back to her predatory instincts. Signs your feline friend is feeling frisky:
- Ears held upward and erect
- Mouth closed, but she may let out short chirps or chatter at you
- Tail may flick from side to side (be careful—this can also signal that your cat is overstimulated and done playing)
- May sink low to the ground as if stalking something or may lower her front half with her rear end in the air as if ready to pounce
Scared. When your cat feels threatened, she will either try to avoid the threat (flight) or puff herself up to look larger (fight). Most cats in this situation would prefer to avoid fighting and will assume this posture:
- Ears turned sideways or held flat back against the head
- Mouth often closed, but may purr (purring does not always mean your cat is happy)
- Eyes wide with large, dilated pupils
- Tail held down, and possibly tucked between the legs
- Body crouched low to the ground, as if trying to hide
Aggressive. If hiding or running does not seem to be the best strategy, your cat may choose to fight. An aggressive cat will assume the classic “Halloween cat” pose:
- Ears held back flat against the head
- Mouth open with teeth exposed, often accompanied by hissing or growling
- Eyes narrowed with dilated pupils
- Tail held upright and bushy
- Stiff posture, with an arched back and hair raised to make her appear larger and more threatening
If your cat is displaying these signs, the message is clear: Stay away! You should give her some space and let her calm down.
Curious about your pet’s body language? Give us a call at 704-867-8318.