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Communication In Domestic Pets

Updated on April 6, 2012

I'm sure that a lot more communication goes on between our pets then we currently know how to interpret, but there are some communication types we can recognise and feel reasonably confident of interpreting correctly. Often we can tell that the animal doing the behaviour is communicating because the animal on the receiving end of the signal will respond. For example when a dog performs a play bow to another dog (the signal receiver), the receiver will either accept by returning a playful move or reject the offer of play by turning away or snarling.

Visual Communication

Body Language

The play bow in dogs - the dog lowers its front end and sticks its bottom in the air signalling a desire to play and indicating that all of its following moves, will be part of the game so shouldn't be taken seriously.

Bob the smaller terrier performs a play bow
Bob the smaller terrier performs a play bow | Source

Submissive pose in dogs - A submissive dog will pull back its ears and lower its body and tail. They may urinate at the same time or roll over on to their back. The pose has the effect of making them look non threatening and vulnerable to reduce the likelihood of the other dog or dogs being aggressive towards them.

The finger waggle in red eared slider terrapins or turtles - a male red eared slider turtle will face the female whilst swimming and flutter his front claws towards her face to attract her. It may be partly tactile communication too.

Visual Communication

Plumage and Colour

Colour change in Yemen (or veiled) chameleons - Most people know that chameleons can change their colour to match with natural backgrounds. Just as interesting are the colour changes they can make to communicate - for example reddening to demonstrate that they are a strong male and prepared to defend their territory.

Plumage in male Peafowl - Not many of us have the room to keep peafowl, but everyone knows how showy the peacock's tail is and will have witnessed the peacock strutting around with his tail fanned out shimmering it at females to try to impress them.

Plumage and beak colour in male Zebra finches - like many male bird species, the male zebra finch has more vibrant plumage then the female and also a redder beak. The condition and depth of colouration communicates to other males that he is a prime specimen and advertises him to females as being genetically successful.

A Pair of Zebra Finches - the male on the left has showier plumage with chestnut cheek patches, a black barred breast and white spotted chestnut flanks.
A Pair of Zebra Finches - the male on the left has showier plumage with chestnut cheek patches, a black barred breast and white spotted chestnut flanks. | Source

Sound Communication

This can be vocal produced through the mouth or beak, but may be produced by some other means such as rabbits thumping their hind feet on the ground to warn of potential danger.

Sound communication between our pets which we tend to miss out on are sounds above our hearing range (above 20 KHz) which can be detected using an ultrasonic microphone and converted in to a frequency of sound audible to humans.

Cockatiel Song - male cockatiels have a rather tuneless, but very earnest song as you can hear in the video clip (apologies for the poor picture quality - he likes to sing before the sun is properly up!). As with most bird song this serves to impress the females and demonstrate fitness to other cockatiels. Cockatiels can mimic sounds so will incorporate other bird's songs in to their repertoire.

Pet Cockatiel Singing

Dog Growl - this is a low sound warning the other dog or animal approaching to keep away or risk being snapped at or bitten. Cats use a similar low sound as a warning, often accompanied by a visual cue of a wagging tail.

Cat Hiss - if the warning growl is ignored by the approaching animal a cat may follow up an explosive hiss and swipe with the claws. The hiss is a universally recognised warning sound associated with snakes which may well be why in can be effective in deterring other species which try to approach a cat.

Rat Giggle - research by Panksepp and Burgdorf 2003 has shown that pet rats produce an ultrasound 'giggle' (approx 50KHz) when tickled by a human and also giggle when playing with other rats. Communicating pleasure to other rats in this way should result in more of the pleasurable stimulus occurring - extending the fun.

pet rats communicate using ultrasound as well as using some squeaks which are audible to humans.
pet rats communicate using ultrasound as well as using some squeaks which are audible to humans. | Source

Communication by Touch

Touch, especially grooming each other, is important to many of our pet animals.

Cats grooming each other - this can reinforce bonds between individuals and seems comforting for both the groomer and the animal being groomed. Sometimes a touch can be interpreted as an animal seeking reassurance from another. In the picture below, Tilly tabby was making friendly approaches to Spirit, sniffing her ear and gently nudging the side of her head.

Most social animals such as dogs, rabbits and cockatiels will groom other members of their group

Stallions nipping -Touch can be used to signal aggression - after all a bite is technically touch! A stallion will sometimes nip his mares communicating that they need to move away from a threat.

Dogs chin resting - a dominant dog may rest its chin on the shoulder or back of another dog to demonstrate its superior position.

A Friendly Touch
A Friendly Touch | Source

Scent Communication

We must miss an awful lot of scent communication with our inferior human noses. Yes we can smell dog urine, but we have no idea whether it was produced by Stanley the neutered Labrador from down the road or Tessa the in heat pug from the next village.

Pheromones are linked to scent communication. They are chemical messages decoded my special receptors in an animal's nostrils.

Mare sex pheromones - You may have seen pet ponies raise their heads back, draw back their lips and flare their nostrils rather like they are laughing. This is known as the 'flehman' response and is believed to help equines sample pheromones, such as those given off by a mare in heat, more effectively. The mare's sex pheromones communicate to the male that she will be receptive to mating.

Female red sided garter snake sex pheromones - again this is a pheromone used by female garter snakes to communicate readiness to mate. However to complicate matters some garter snake males mimic the female sex pheromone and end up beneath a mound of males eager for some mating action. Rick Shine (Science News Nov 2001) proposes that it is weaker males, who haven't warmed up enough, who produce the mimicking pheromone because the heat resulting from being in the midst of ardent males will be beneficial to them.

Scent Communication - all dog owners are familiar with the poo crouch. The dog's anal glands glands attach a scent to the poo which then acts rather like a pungent 'tweet' being a message in the public domain which any passing dog can read.
Scent Communication - all dog owners are familiar with the poo crouch. The dog's anal glands glands attach a scent to the poo which then acts rather like a pungent 'tweet' being a message in the public domain which any passing dog can read. | Source

Unfamiliar Methods of Communication

Some more unusual pets communicate in ways that humans are very unfamiliar with. For example, I have kept long nosed elephant fish - Gnathonemus petersi which scientists have discovered communicate by using weak electrical charges along their bodies.

Claims have been made that dogs are capable of extrasensory perception (esp) and communicating psychically with their owners. Scientific experiments tend to disprove this such as Richard Wiseman's experiment detailed in 'The Truth About Dogs' by Stephen Budiansky. What is likely is that our dogs and other pets are capable of communicating by means which we can't perceive but which will become scientifically explainable. Ultrasound - communication by sonar is an example of a communication method which we used to have no knowledge of as we had no means of hearing it with our relatively insensitve ears.

Communication in Pets

Communication Type
Examples in Dogs
Examples in Other Animals
Body language such as the play bow
Colourful plumage in males of species like the zebra finch, finger waggle in red eared slider terrapins, colour change in Yemen chameleons
Urination (marking territory and scent from anal glands deposited on faeces
Pheromones detected by equines using the 'flehman response'. Female sex pheromone in red sided garter snakes.
Dominant dog resting its chin on the back of a submissive one
mutual grooming in cats and in cocktiels, nipping in equines
Growling or barking
Hissing and growling in cats, singing in cockatiels, rabbits thumping back feet
electrical currents in long nosed elephant fish

It is worth spending time observing your pet's behaviour and trying to learn to interpret what it is communicating to you or other animals. It can be fascinating and reward you with a greater understanding of your pet. This will help you to meet its needs more effectively and to enjoy each other's company to the full.

Interesting Extra Reading

The APBC Book of Companion Animal Behaviour
The APBC Book of Companion Animal Behaviour

An accessible book about the behaviour of pet animal species



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    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 

      7 years ago from Long Island, NY

      I've been studying different forms of communication lately and came across your hub, which I found very interesting. You introduced a few additional ideas that I never thought about, but that I agree with. Such as dogs using extrasensory perception to communicate with ther owners. It is well known hat dogs seem to sense when their owner is in trouble. I enjoyed reading your hub and voted up.

    • Moon Willow Lake profile image

      Moon Willow Lake 

      7 years ago

      Thank-you for this information. I really enjoyed learning the part about the communication that happens at levels that we as humans cannot naturally hear. I also really liked the electrical communication part as well. Thank-you for this very informative article.

    • Dubuquedogtrainer profile image


      7 years ago from Dubuque, Iowa

      Congratulations on your award! Well deserved! This is a very nice, visually appealing, informative and interesting hub. Voted up!

    • profile image


      7 years ago


    • Rusti Mccollum profile image

      Ruth McCollum 

      7 years ago from Lake Oswego, Oregon

      Thankyou for the education! I sure learned a lot.

    • gramarye profile image


      7 years ago from Adelaide - Australia

      Hi, I really enjoyed reading this. Well researched and presented. Voted up!

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      7 years ago from Oakley, CA

      @pinto2011--ambassador for PETA might not be such an honor--I used to root for them, but it turns out, they are not all they claim to be:

    • pinto2011 profile image


      7 years ago from New Delhi, India

      I am sure that PETA would like to made you their grand ambassador. If can communicate and understand them, definitely violence towards animal will decrease and shorten the gap and we can make a better planet.

    • robertlucian profile image


      7 years ago

      Congratulations! on Hub Of The Day Very good and interesting Hub

    • livingpah2004 profile image


      7 years ago from USA

      Very interesting hub. Congratulations on HOTD!

    • ComfortB profile image

      Comfort Babatola 

      7 years ago from Bonaire, GA, USA

      Very interesting hub. Yes, I have observed these subtle communications in the form of touch (grooming), scents and sounds among dogs, cats, birds, and even horses. And among other animals too.

      Thanks for sharing, and congrats on HOTD award!

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      This was very informative info for the pet owner. I really try to "read" what my dogs are "saying". Rats giggling...that is funny!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      7 years ago from sunny Florida

      My daughter and I had 13 cats at one time. (I was much younger then and had a very large house to accommodate all of these rescued cats.) Each cat knew its place. The dominant kitty was the smallest of all of them, believe it or not.

      There was a lot of 'touching'...not just of each other but they rubbed up against us...our legs and our necks when we were seated and they did it often. Thank you for sharing this. There are a number of bits of information that I found interesting to learn.

    • 2patricias profile image


      7 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

      What an amazing and interesting hub! I have two cats, now aged 16. I bought them from the same breeder - they are cousins, one 2 weeks older than the other. I am convinced they communicate.

    • urmilashukla23 profile image


      7 years ago from Rancho Cucamonga,CA, USA

      Well written article on communication In Domestic Pets with great pictures! Enjoyed. Voted up.

      Congratulations on Hub of the day award.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      7 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Congratulations on HOTD! Very well-done article and nice photos.

      We have 6 cats--you can definitely see the communication process in action. There is a "pecking order" among animals other than birds, and it sure shows up among the cats! That "Flehmen response" is also often seen in cats, as a mouth-open, semi-wrinkled nose attitude. It is rather comical-looking.

      I had dogs growing up, and they, too, have their unique methods of "talking" to us.

      Voted up, interesting, useful and shared.

    • Nettlemere profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      Thank you so much everyone, I must admit to feeling really chuffed to get hub of the day. (Hope chuffed means the same in the States as it does in the UK!)

    • Kyricus profile image


      7 years ago from Ohio

      Nice hub! As a multi-dog owner I certainly recognize a lot of the body language my canine companions employ. But bar none, my Jack Russell is the best at it. She makes my other dogs look positively body language mute.

      She's more expressive than a Hollywood actress and better looking in most cases to!

    • AnnaCia profile image


      7 years ago

      Congratulations! VEry good and interesting Hub.

    • bmcoll3278 profile image


      7 years ago from Longmont, Colorado

      Wow I have seen this behavioral actions in dogs and birds many time but your article made me stop and think about it. Thanks for a great hub voted up.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      7 years ago from Florida

      I had to come back and say Congrats on Hub of the Day! You deserve this honor for this Hub. I've been watching a TV show on PBS that shows communication by the whales and the dolphins. It is incredible. I watch my dogs at play and can't help but wonder: what are they saying to each other?

    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 

      7 years ago from Georgia

      This was very interesting information. It's helpful to know when dogs are being aggressive to each other and when they are playing. Congratulations on Hub of the Day.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      Vespa Woolf 

      7 years ago from Peru, South America

      I love you photos and the information on animal communication. Congratulations on Hub of the Day!

    • BRIAN SLATER profile image

      Brian Slater 

      7 years ago from England

      hey, lucky old you! seriously well done on Hub of the Day:)

    • Nat Amaral profile image

      Nat Amaral 

      7 years ago from BC Canada

      A very sweet and informative hub. Congrats on the hub of the day: it's clearly well earned. The picture of the kittens were especially sweet!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      This is an interesting hub! Pets are so fun to learn about. Animals have unique ways of communicating with us. Congrats on hub of the day!

    • anusujith profile image

      Anoop Aravind A 

      7 years ago from Nilambur, Kerala, India

      wow! interesting topic.i like my pets and always talk with some new information from your article, thank you.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      Wow Nettlemere, you have so many interesting things to say on this subject, which sure is fascinating! Awesome Hub. I've learned a lot from it! Now I can observe my friends' pets and have a slightly better understanding of what's really going on :)

    • brackenb profile image


      7 years ago

      Really interesting content. Learnt things I didn't know about certain animals. Voted up and interesting.

    • Nettlemere profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      Thank you so much everyone - I really enjoyed myself writing this, but it's nice to know other people have found it of interest. I feel very lucky to have lived with lots of different animals and had the opportunity to watch their behaviour, it's good to be able to share it.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      7 years ago from New York

      You certainly did your homework! You've included a wide range of animal communication with a range of different animals. I agree with Mary, the table was a nice touch an of course the video of your cockatiel was interesting. (A little more melodious than mine who just likes to wake us up every morning.) Voted up and interesting.

    • tarajeyaram profile image


      7 years ago from Wonderland

      Very good information. Animals communicate all the time. We usually can not understand them. However, if you observe them you will understand them. Voted up and sharing.

    • Movie Master profile image

      Movie Master 

      7 years ago from United Kingdom

      What a fabulous article, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading, I thought the pet cockatiel singing was quite beautiful!

      Thank you, voted up and shared.

      Best wishes Lesley

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      7 years ago from Florida

      I have been around animals all my life, and have seen different species communicate with each other. It is very real. I like the way you laid out this Hub with the table, etc. I voted this UP, etc.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Another excellent hub. You clearly know a great deal about animals and their behaviour. I loved the photos as they really demonstrated exactly what you have just said. Thank you.

    • Sadie14 profile image

      Brittany B 

      7 years ago from U.S.

      This is a great hub! I actually see a lot of these dominance actions expressed by my Dachshund onto our friend's German Shorthair...kind of weird but that she would do these things but he is an older dog. Thanks for the info!

    • BRIAN SLATER profile image

      Brian Slater 

      7 years ago from England

      Wow or should I say woof, you obviously know quite a bit about how animals communicate and this shows through in your knowledge.It is always difficult especially if the animal is a puppy in trying to understand what they mean or want, but after reading this I am at least better prepared. voted up awesome :)


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