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How to read your pet's body language

Updated on October 20, 2016
Bob Bamberg profile image

With 30 years in the pet supply industry, Bob's newspaper column deals with animal health, nutrition, behavior, regulation, and advocacy.

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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 threat gesture. We smile a lot when we’re having a conversation. To many animals, that could be interpreted as baring the teeth, another threat 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.

Go ahead, make my day! This is a puddy tat you don't want to mess with.
Go ahead, make my day! This is a puddy tat you don't want to mess with. | Source

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.

Flehmen response in lioness
Flehmen response in lioness | Source

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 flehman, 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.

Behaving submissively
Behaving submissively | Source

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 to the right 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 it has an accident, you shouldn’t let it see you cleaning up the mess.

It may misinterpret your actions and leave other "things for you to approve of" all over the house.

I'm just moseying along, folks.
I'm just moseying along, folks. | Source
Feeling pre-t-t-y self-confident
Feeling pre-t-t-y self-confident | Source
The cat is making itself look more formidable
The cat is making itself look more formidable | Source

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.

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    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      From your comments, Ann, I surmise that the tiger you petted was privately owned. I believe Texas is among the few states that allow private ownership of exotic (and dangerous) animals, unless laws have changed there. I'm curious as to what your feelings are toward private ownership of wild animals.

      New York used to allow it, but I think their laws have changed in recent years following such reports as an adult tiger living in an apartment there.

      I remember a documentary on one of the science channels within the past couple of years that chronicled the experiences of a young man who bought a baby hyena and raised it in his NYC apartment. The hyena ended up seriously injuring him. It was quite an eye opener.

      I live in Massachusetts, where it's illegal to own wild animals other than the traditional non-native pet species such as hamsters, etc. You can't own a sugar glider or prairie dog here.

      In addition to the obvious safety reasons, I'm opposed to private ownership of exotic animals because they have dietary and environmental requirements that are usually beyond the capabilities of private owners.

      And, if they get sick, you can't just bring them in to the local vet clinic. Besides, I sold pet supplies for a couple of decades and never saw a carrier large enough for a 350 lb. lion. Nice chatting with you.

    • Ann1Az2 profile image

      Ann1Az2 5 years ago from Orange, Texas

      Yeah, one swipe - that's all it would have taken! lol His paws were as big as my house cats (the cats themselves, that is, not their paws)!

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Ann, you're supposed to say, "Aw, it was no big thing, he only weighed 540 lbs and I can pack a pretty good punch when I need to." :) I also don't like to see big cats cooped up, but I'm grateful for the opportunity to see them in a zoo with adequate habitats.

      Documentaries, these days, are spectacular, but actually seeing one in person and hearing the sounds and experiencing the odors is beyond compare.

      Hi TravelAbout, nice to see you. As a youngster I remember my mother telling me what I thought was an old wives tale that dogs know if you're afraid of them because they can smell it. I had never heard of pheromones. I wonder if she's also showing a little submissiveness to appease you? Thanks for stopping by.

    • TravelAbout profile image

      Katheryn 5 years ago from United States

      Voted up. Great information. My lab uses sniffing humans the same way a dog sniffs other dogs. She uses it to determine human emotion. If I scold her she immediately comes over to sniff to determine whether I'm really annoyed or midly amused. Animals are wonderful beings!

    • Ann1Az2 profile image

      Ann1Az2 5 years ago from Orange, Texas

      Thanks for your kinds comments, Bob, but I was petting the tiger through the bars of his cage that his owner kept him in (unfortunately). I would have climbed in there with him if the owner had let me, but of course, he wouldn't - liability reasons, I'm sure. The tiger was still awesome and I felt sorry for him that he was in that cage, even though it filled up a good portion of the "yard." He wasn't pacing back and forth in a 6 x 8 cage. I still hate to see big cats cooped up like that - I think they're better off on a reserve or in a sanctuary of some kind.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Thanks for stopping by Ann. Nice to have another animal lover among my Internet friends.

      I guess it would take a fair amount of courage to pet a tiger as things can change dramatically in the blink of an eye. I'll bet it's an experience you'll never forget.

      I had the opportunity to interact with an 8 week old lion cub a few years ago. He totally ignored me and was focused on some stuffed animals in the room. Even when I pinned him down and tickled his tummy, he never made eye contact with me but remained focused on those stuffed animals. I got a thrill out of interacting with an animal that, in less than a couple of months, would be capable of killing me.

      Y'all take care. Regards, Bob

    • Ann1Az2 profile image

      Ann1Az2 5 years ago from Orange, Texas

      As an animal lover, and particularly a cat lover, I found your hub very interesting. I've learned a lot through living with cats that each one has their own body language, too. Just like people, they have "gestures" common to the same species, but they also have individual ones.

      I had the privilege of petting a tiger one time and I drew my hand back because I thought he was growling at me. Used to house cats, that's what I assumed. His owner, however, informed me that he was purring and that had he been growling, it would have been altogether different!

      Voted up and well done.