Recognising pet body language: What your dog or cat is saying
An arched back or wagging tail – our pets can tell us a lot with their bodies. If you study the behaviour of your dog or cat, you can learn to read what your pet’s body language means.
What is body language?
Just like we use our voice to convey words, we can also use our body to convey a message without making a sound. Body language is also called non-verbal communication, communicating without using words. It’s not just humans that use body language, animals use it, too. Your dog or cat can tell you something through their attitude or behaviour. Learning to read your animal’s body language can help strengthen your bond with your pet.
Getting to know your pet
As soon as a pet moves into your home, they become part of your family. The bond between humans and animals can be very close and very special. To better understand your pet, it is important to get to know them properly. Study your pet’s behaviour in different situations, especially in the beginning. Try to find out how your pet behaves when they’re relaxed, but also see how they act when they’re scared or angry. Pets can’t use words to express themselves, but we can get a lot of information from their body language.
Body posture, facial expressions, and other forms of body language
Your pet’s posture plays an important role in their body language. How do they hold their back or tail? When you study your pet’s behaviour, you’ll soon discover that your dog or cat’s posture will vary in different situations. In addition to their body posture, you can also look at your pet’s facial expressions. How is their mouth positioned? Is it open, relaxed, or are the jaws closed? Also look at your pet’s eyes. Are they squeezed tight shut or wide open? Are the pupils large or small? Dogs and cats can also clearly communicate quite a lot with their tails. Is your dog wagging their tail or is your cat’s tail pointing straight up? Then that absolutely means something! By observing your pet’s behaviour in different situations, you’ll learn to recognise what your animal is trying to tell you.
Please note: not every dog or cat or every breed behaves in the same way. Beagles carry their tail high by default, but there are other dogs that carry their tail low. That’s why it’s important to study your pet’s behaviour, so you know what’s normal for your pet and when their behaviour changes.
A dog’s relaxed posture
In a calm, positive situation, your dog will be relaxed. They feel good, they aren’t stressed or in pain, and they’re calm. At this point, your dog will be in a relaxed or neutral posture. Here are some ways to recognise the relaxed posture of a happy dog:
- Mouth slightly open. When a dog is relaxed, their mouth hangs open a bit.
- The eyes have a normal shape and size. In a relaxed dog, you won’t be able to see the whites of the eyes.
- The ears are in a normal position and not backwards or upright. They’re relaxed and hanging down (or standing up, depending on the breed).
- The tail may be in different positions. If your dog wags their tail, they’re excited or happy. A happy dog will usually move their tail in a slow, wide-sweeping gesture.
A cat’s relaxed posture
If your cat isn’t tense or in pain and is calm and well, they’ll probably have a relaxed posture. Here are some ways to recognise the relaxed posture of a happy cat:
- The eyes have a normal shape and size.
- Your cat’s ears are up and forward.
- The cat has a straight back. A rounded or arched back indicates anger or aggression.
- By default, your cat’s tail will hang halfway down. If their tail is straight up, but ‘thin’ and the tip perhaps twitches a little, the cat is happy to see you. And if it hangs halfway down and swishes a bit, the cat is expressing their interest.
Just like us humans, dogs have different emotions. It could be things like fear or anger, but also excitement. They can’t use words to express their feelings, so they show their emotions through body language. Some behaviours signal different emotions, and not all dogs will demonstrate the same behaviours. That’s why it’s important to get to know your dog’s behaviour well. Here is a list of a few emotions:
- Stress and anxiety: You can recognise a dog experiencing stress or anxiety by excessive barking, excessive drooling or licking, and trembling or shaking. If your dog scratches excessively, this can also be a sign of stress. A frightened dog usually has a huddled body and tucks their tail between their hind legs or against their belly.
- Anger and aggression: There’s a tool known as the aggression ladder that’s used to depict aggression in dogs. Dogs that are angry may (in succession) turn away or blink their eyes, bark threateningly, growl, and bare their teeth. An angry/threatening dog usually keeps their ears low or back, shows the whites of their eyes, keeps their tail low and lowers their hind legs slightly.
- Happiness: A happy or joyful dog often shows it with an excited posture. The upper body is pressed flat against the ground, the hindquarters pointing up. The dog may also jump and wag their tail. If your dog is happy and at ease, they will gladly make eye contact with you.
- Pain or illness: It isn’t always easy to tell if your dog is sick or in pain. You can usually tell by decreased activity levels or appetite and a lack of enthusiasm. Always consult a vet if you suspect something is wrong with your pet.
Cats can also feel emotions and pain. They can use their body language to clearly show you, their owner, how they feel. Not every sign points directly to a specific emotion. For example, large pupils don’t always mean that your cat is afraid, sometimes the pupils enlarge during play. Study your cat’s behaviour to find out which behaviours really suit them. Here are some ways to recognise the different emotions:
- Stress and anxiety: If cats are experiencing stress or anxiety, you can see it in their cramped posture. The whiskers are drawn back, and the cat will blow, lick their mouth or smack. Your cat will probably have large pupils and keep their ears flat.
- Anger and aggression: When cats are angry, they often hold their tail straight down. They may blow, growl, whimper, spit, and lash out. The back of the body will be higher than the front and the cat may wag their tail. The cat can also fixate, this means they make eye contact for an extended period of time without interruption.
- Happiness: You can tell a cat is happy when their tail is loosely upright, sometimes with a little kink at the top. Happy cats usually have their ears pointed straight ahead. Ultimate happiness is indicated by the purring sound a cat makes. But remember, cats may also purr when they’re in severe pain, for example after a serious accident or during birth.
- Pain or illness: Cats are masters at hiding pain or illness. If your cat suddenly starts eating less or is less active, it could be a sign that something’s wrong. If you suspect that something is wrong with your cat, always consult a vet.