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All pet owners would love to know what’s going on inside the heads of their furry friends. Our pets—and most animals, really—wear their hearts on their sleeves. When they feel happy or afraid, it shows clearly in their body language. And that can be your key to understanding what your cat or dog is thinking and feeling. This not only can help deepen the bond you have with your pets but also can be a way to stay safe when you encounter an unfamiliar cat or dog.
Bottom Line Personal asked Nicholas Dodman, DVM, DACVB, for his advice on how to understand what your pet desperately wants you to know.
Dogs, cats and pretty much all other animals are geniuses at interpreting one another’s body language. When a fight breaks out between two dogs, you may think it has come out of nowhere, but there’s likely been a huge amount of back-and-forth signaling before it started. You just didn’t notice or didn’t know how to interpret what was going on before the fight.
Typical dog behaviors and how to interpret them…
Tail wagging. People often assume that a wagging tail means a dog is happy. And that is true…sometimes. A wagging tail indicates that the dog is excited— perhaps it knows that a treat is coming or it is feeling anxious. Studies also show that a tail wagging more to the right of the dog’s body indicates friendliness, but a tail wagging with a bias toward the left may indicate mistrust or anxiety.
Tail position. An inverted “C” shape is neutral for most breeds. An extreme downward tucked tail indicates the dog is fearful and signals deference or submission. When the tail is straight up, the dog is feeling dominant or assertive, which can indicate aggression, depending on what else is going on.
Facial expression. When a dog’s mouth is open an inch or two and its tongue is lolling out, the animal is at ease. But when you see a clenched jaw or bared teeth with the lips retracted vertically and incisors showing, step back slowly—this dog may well bite if you get too close.
Teeth showing. It can be a pretty intimidating when a dog shows its teeth, but as with tail wagging, it’s not always a bad sign. Dogs sometimes perform what is called a submissive grin—when the dog pulls its lips back laterally to expose its teeth instead of more vertically as with an aggressive display. The submissive grin almost looks like your dog is trying to smile for a photo.
Suggestions for how to behave around a dog…
Don’t stare directly at a dog. The animal may interpret that as a challenge or aggression—but not always. If you’re sharing a loving look with your dog while you both relax on the couch, you likely have nothing to worry about. But if an unfamiliar dog is looking very intently into your face with a rigid body, be very careful. In that case, it is best not to look directly into the dog’s eyes but rather slightly off center, focusing on its ears. The dog will notice the slight alteration of your gaze and be less intimidated.
Pay attention to the dog’s ears. They are a good indicator of what a dog is feeling… but only with some breeds. The ears on a dog such as a Basset Hound are much more difficult to interpret compared with those on a dog with smaller, mobile ears, such as a Corgi or a Chihuahua. Rule of thumb: When a dog’s ears are pinned back— almost flush with its head—that’s a sign of fear…and fear can mean that a dog may bite to defend itself. Ears that are pointed forward means that the dog is being attentive. Of course, being attentive can be good or bad, depending on other body language and what has caught the dog’s attention.
Take all this advice holistically. You need to look at the entire dog, not just one part of its body. When in doubt, be cautious. Many people have been bitten after offering a dog a hand to sniff. If a dog is showing any signs of aggression or fear, shoving a hand toward its face can be taken as an invasion of its personal space and quickly result in a bite.
You have to learn a slightly different language with cats. But as with dogs, the animal’s head can tell you quite a lot—especially the ears and pupils.
Typical cat behaviors and how to interpret them…
A relaxed cat will have its ears in a neutral or pricked position. Its eyes will look calm with pupils that are midsized, not dilated. The tail also will be relaxed and down, generally.
A pushy, confident cat. Its ears will be pricked forward, and its pupils will appear as slits. This could be a sign that the cat will scratch or bite you. When a cat starts to feel uncertain, its ears will start to swivel to the back of its head, making a sort of wide “V” shape with the rest of the head.
When a cat is fearful, its pupils will get wider and its ears will go back farther.
If the cat is getting aggressive, the tail will make an inverted “U.” The animal will pull its feet in together, and the head will be low and the back hunched. Its fur will stand on end and tail will get bigger.
A very fearful/aggressive cat will swing its ears back. The more fearful it is feeling, the more dilated its eyes will become. At its most fearful, a cat’s ears will be so far back that they will seem almost invisible when you look at the cat from the front, and its pupils will be almost completely black. The cat may start to hiss and crouch, and its tail may be tucked between its hind legs.
One question I am often asked about cats: Why does my cat attack even when it seems to be enjoying being petted? This is called petting-induced aggression. The cat is telling you, in no uncertain terms, that it has had enough. Warning sign: The cat starts to turn its head to the side glancing sideways furtively and the tip of its tail will start to twitch.