Pet Body Language
It's An Interesting Language To Observe and Interpret
We highly evolved human animals take our various communications skills for granted; communicating through spoken words and sounds, written words and symbols, and body language.
The lesser evolved animals communicate through sounds, scents and body language. Given that information, one would think that, since different species use sounds and body language, it should be fairly simple to communicate with our pets. Not necessarily. You have to learn their language.
If we understand the principals of animal communication we can better relate to our pets, but you have to keep in mind the big differences in what certain elements of body language mean.
For example, we normally maintain eye contact with whoever we’re speaking to. But to non-human primates and most other animals, prolonged eye contact is a threatening gesture.
We smile a lot when we’re having a conversation. To many animals, that could be interpreted as baring the teeth, another threatening gesture.
We sometimes initiate non-threatening interaction with others of our species by using friendly contact such as hugging and shaking hands.
Animals usually avoid contact until all the sniffing is finished, unless of course they’re engaging in territorial battles or predator/prey interactions.
Some dogs feel the need to protect a pack member, and may take exception when, say, a long lost relative or friends visits and you greet each other with a hug. The dog may interpret that as an attack and take action of his own.
Scents known as pheromones provide information about an animal's identity, sex, social status, reproductive state and more. That's why there's a great deal of sniffing when two animals, whether of the same or different species, meet.
For animals, sounds can communicate aggression, possession, anger, fear, contentment, alarm and other states of being.
But a major element of communication for our four legged friends is body language. If you know how to read them, clues to an animal's present state of mind are usually revealed by various bodily postures.
Take note of the eyes, ears, mouth, and tail. They show a lot about an animal's state of mind and can reveal a lot about its intentions. Knowing warning signals can help you avoid bites and scratches, the consequences of violating the animal's rules of etiquette.
Is your cat ticked off at you? Look for dilated pupils, flattened ears, parted lips and flicking tail. If they're happening all at once, I wouldn't try to pick him up.
Is your cat content? Look for pupils to be slits, ears to be upright, mouth to be closed and tail to be swaying gently. Go ahead, pick him up. He'll likely fall asleep in your lap.
Most animals exhibit a curious lip-curling behavior that is not, however, a display of aggression, fear or anger. In response to an olfactory stimulus, they'll fling their head back and curl their lips in order to read the details of whatever they just sniffed.
Called flehmen, you almost always see it in documentaries about deer, moose or other hoofed wildlife when they get to the part about the rut.
They always show the male sniffing the female to determine breeding readiness, and whether the answer is "yes" or "not tonight deer" (pun intended), they throw their head back and curl their lips. Big cats do it, too.
And so do little cats; and dogs, for that matter. Animals possess an organ within their hard palate known as the vomeronasal organ (VNO) or Jacobson's Organ.
Its job is to help the animal reconcile the pheromones it just snorted. Not only is it valuable when the animal is sniffing another animal, but it also comes into play when an animal sniffs a spot where another animal has marked territory, relieved itself or stopped for a rest.
Some animals leave their scent by rubbing against various surfaces. Your house cat does this when she rubs against your leg or the corner of a wall.The pheromones are deposited by special glands that lie near the surface of the skin.
When dogs perform the flehman movement it's also known in some circles as "tonguing" because they tap their tongues on the roof of their mouths to direct the molecules of scent to the VNO.
We have a VNO also, but it’s about as useful to us as our appendix is.
Animals communicate their frame of mind or their intentions with the rest of their bodies, too. For example, when dogs feel threatened, they'll drop to their side or back, often with a paw raised.
The photo above illustrates this classic submissive behavior, which more often than not, will ward off an attack.
Dogs in fear of an attack will sometimes scooch down and empty their bowels and/or bladder.
Not that they've had the stuff scared out of them, but in the doggy world those submissive gestures often neutralize a potential attack or elicit “approval behavior” by a dominant figure.
You may have seen submissive urination in puppies you’ve had. That's why, if you're house training a puppy and he has an accident, it might be best if he doesn't see you cleaning up the mess.
He may misinterpret your actions and leave other "things for you to approve of" all over the house.
A dog approaching in a non-threatening way usually does so with its head lowered and tail drooping.
A dog feeling confident will have its tail held high. When they seek higher ground, such as on furniture, or on their hind legs with their front paws on your chest, it's often a display of dominance.
Ever wonder why cats arch their backs when they think they're in danger of an attack? They believe it makes them look larger and, hopefully, intimidating; a common ploy among smaller animals. You’d never catch a lion doing that.
When looking for information about animals and their care, you can get different theories about the same subject from equally credible sources. However, most professional agree about animal body language.
In studies, books and papers on the subject, explanations of the various behaviors are pretty consistent from one expert to the next. It would be nice, though, if they were all in agreement regarding the many other aspects of animal care and feeding.
© 2012 Bob Bamberg