Body Language in Cats and Dogs
October 14, 2015
Our pets can’t speak to us in our language, but they “speak” to each other and us via a rich vocabulary of non-verbal communication. Becoming familiar with what their body language means can help new pets acclimate to a home more comfortably and faster, prevent bites and scratches, identify the root causes of behavior problems and develop a plan to address them, while miscommunication can cause fear, distract us from the real cause of problems (for example, thinking a dog is “dominant” instead of fearful), and make some behavior problems worse.
Keep in mind that all body language should be interpreted in context. The following illustrations are guidelines rather than strict rules, since just like people all pets are individuals and may have individual quirks or behaviors as well as physical breed differences (such as ear and eye shapes or tail lengths in dogs). Occasionally facial, posture, and tail cues may contradict each other and you will need to use your judgment and familiarity with your own pet as well as the situation to interpret them. A dog looking at something to their side but otherwise relaxed and loose is not likely to be exhibiting “whale eye,” or a dog who is panting heavily with the mouth wide open after playing fetch for an hour is probably not exhibiting “clown face,” for example.
The following illustrations were obtained from www.doggiedrawings.net. Artist Lili Chin has a number of free downloads available at this site exploring our pets’ body language both generally and in specific contexts and they are well worth browsing through. Here are a few examples:
Notice how much tail position communicates in cats, but that a raised tail can be either a friendly greeting or an attempt by a “super terrified” cat to appear bigger against a thread. The rest of the body language (posture, eyes, and ears) tell us which is which.
As a species, dogs put a lot of effort into conflict avoidance. We know more about their specific facial expressions that have developed to diffuse and de-escalate conflicts than we do in cats. These are often called “stress signals” or “calming signals” and they are often misinterpreted as guilt, shame, or being “sorry” for an action. In reality, the dog is usually expressing discomfort, fear, stress, or trying to diffuse a tense situation (such as our obvious anger at finding the dog after s/he has done something like getting into the garbage).
Like cats, interpret these expressions in context with the rest of the body. Many dogs, for example, “grin” as an excited greeting. The tail, posture, and willingness to interact with us will be very different for these dogs than for a dog who is grinning due to stress or tension.
We are learning more and more about dogs’ and cats’ nonverbal communication and how to correctly interpret it. This can help us understand our pets better, which ultimately leads to happier pets AND pet owners!
Written by: Karen Christopherson DVM CVA