Most days, my black cat, Derby, seems mildly amused by me – but usually not enough to motivate him to get up or do anything that’s physically challenging. Unless he’s hungry. If that’s the case, you really can’t get him to stop circling, meowing or harassing you until you feed him. Feeding him usually satiates him – for a while.
Despite his apparent lack of interest in my comings and goings, he does quite enjoy sharing his feelings about things. The other day, frustrated with my inability to come up with a solution to something, I looked over at him and asked him if he knew the answer to my question. He looked at me with his large yellow eyes and gave me a high-pitched, squeak, as if to say, “I’m sorry Mom, I just don’t know!”
Non-animal people would surely roll their eyes to this and point out I’m completely anthropomorphizing – which may be entirely true. But, I know for a fact that Derby, along with his very large brother, Guinness (a 100-pound German shepherd), are constantly trying to communicate with the human side of the household. Of course, they use very different methods.
While learning to communicate with your animal is an endeavor that should be tailored to your specific pet’s personality, habits, etc. There are some general guidelines for learning to read your pet’s behavior, and in turn, communicate back. To that end, I chatted up some experts to help figure out what Derby and Guinness are trying to tell me – and hopefully help you out with your own communicative pets.
What Is Your Pet Trying To Say?
“As a house call veterinarian, I have the opportunity to witness dog and cat body language in my patients’ home environments,” says Dr. Jeffrey Levy, a holistic veterinarian and pet expert in New York City. “As soon as I walk in the door, I can tell how my patient is doing –whether dog or cat – by its eyes, ears and tail. They give me clues into both physical and emotional well-being.”
Levy says both dogs and cats have some notable behaviors that may help clue you in on their thoughts.
“Cats don’t generally close their eyes in the presence of a human unless they feel safe,” he says. “Blinking slowly signals trust and contentment. When you have a private moment with your kitty, communicate in the same way with eye contact and slow blinks. It will be a bonding experience.”
When your cat’s ears are pinned back and flattened, almost square in shape, it probably means he’s angry or about to be aggressive. The same goes for widely dilated pupils.
“Think of lions in a hunting posture,” Levy explains. “Body low to the ground, tail twitching. You will see the same signs in a house cat.”
Another thing to notice is the position of your cat’s tail. His tail will stand up straight when he’s happy to see you, but also to signal he’s in his personal territory. A stiff tail with the hair standing out (usually combined with an arched spine and unsheathed claws) means your cat feels threatened. A nervous cat will tuck his tail and slink close to the ground, while avoiding eye contact. On the other hand, your cat’s tail wrapped around your arm or another cat signals friendliness.
“A happy cat will arch its back at your touch and mark you with scent glands by rubbing its head and body on you,” he says. “This marks you as his personal ‘territory.’”
While their body language might mean something different than for cats, dogs also communicate with their eyes, ears and tail.
“My new canine patients, who are often in pain, are not always happy to have a stranger in the house,” he says. “I watch for signs of aggression: squinty eyes, flash of teeth, and even warning nips or pulls at my clothing.”
Dogs avoid eye contact with other dogs as a sign of submission, but will often gaze at family members – a sign of trust. However, if a strange dog stares at you or gives you a sideways look that shows the whites of his eye, it can be a sign of aggression. A dog’s ears lifted or pricked up means he’s alert and swiveled forward can mean aggression. Relaxed or flat ears are a good sign, while pinned back ears shows fear or submission.
“Dogs wag their tails when happy or excited, but may give half wags when contemplating an act of aggression,” he says. “If the tail is raised, it means the dog is alert or aroused. Submissive dogs will tuck their tails.”
If you see the hair on your dog’s back rise (aka hackles), it’s an aggressive posture – especially when accompanied by showing teeth and a low growl. It could mean your dog is getting ready to protect you from a perceived danger. At the other end, a dog rolling on its back means either submission or fear.
“You can boost your pet’s self-esteem with a good tummy rub,” Levy says.
Don’t Forget That Your Pet Is Unique
While general behavioral guidelines can be a good place to start to get a feel for what your pet is saying. Remember that pets, like us humans, are individuals. And a big part of learning about what they’re trying to communicate involves paying attention.
“Watch what the animal is telling you and work from that,” says Eleasha Gall, director of Animal Behavior and Training at spcaLA. “If your dog doesn’t approach a person to get pet, that’s OK. If your dog doesn’t want to go meet a dog, that’s OK, too. Don’t try to force what you want from them. Each animal has their own individual personality.”
Learning as much as you can about body language and training are a big part of the process.
“It’s not expensive and gives tons of information,” she says.
Also, do your research, because not everything you hear from other pet owners may be accurate.
“A common misconception used to be that if a dog was wagging their tail you could approach it,” says Gall. “But we know this is very much not the truth; it depends on how they are holding their tail, at what height and even how it is moving at the base of the body. So we know that a wagging tail is not a sign of friendliness. Not only that, but they have broken it down even more! Did you know that wagging to the left or wagging to the right have different meanings?”
Another interesting bit of research involves dogs and emotions. According to the study, humans and dogs share similarities in a part of the brain linked to positive emotions.
Gall’s advice to help us communicate better with our pets? Train them how you’d like them to respond using positive reinforcement.
“Don’t wait to see what your pet will do in a situation, instead, set him up for success,” she says. “Just like I wouldn’t expect to land in Germany and know how to communicate fluently in German if I’ve never taken a language course, we shouldn’t have animals and expect they should just know what to do. It makes no sense… Use positive reinforcement and train them how to respond to our lives and cues. You live on a busy street? Train your dog to relax on a bed or play with you instead of bark at people walking by.”
Veterinarian Dr. Jeff Werber, owner of Century Veterinary Group in Los Angeles, says one of the most important tips he offers pet parents is to observe and pay attention to their pet’s “normal.”
“In terms of food, behavior, activity level, responses, everything,” he says. “If you know what your pet’s normal is, you’ll know when something is off. That ‘something’ might turn out to be nothing. Or it could turn out to be something serious. It is often easier to note a change in behavior than to identify a behavior with a symptom.”
However, there are some basic universal behaviors that can communicate your pet’s condition. For instance, panting, shivering, dilated pupils, loss of appetite are generally signs of stress, he says.
It can really pay off to learn to read our pets better since they can potentially alert us to things we’d like to know about. For instance, earthquakes and even diseases like cancer.
“Dogs have been known to alert us to imminent earthquakes, cancers, seizures, diabetic blood sugar levels, changes in barometric pressure preceding severe weather,” says Werber.
And What About Other Types of Animals?
When it comes to most things pet related, dogs and cats do tend to get a lot of attention. But clearly, not all our pets have fur, and they still have something to say.
Barbara Heidenreich is an animal training and behavior consultant and president of Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training in Austin, Texas. She specializes in working with animals in zoological parks such as giraffes, elephants, bears, gorillas, tortoises, foxes, tigers, etc., but also works with companion animals that are more non-traditional pets, like parrots, rabbits and guinea pigs.
“Parrots have some things that can be very specific to them,” she says. “For example, feather position gives us a lot of information. Parrots will fluff different feathers when relaxed, showing aggressive behavior or when very excited.”
Rabbits will stamp or thump their back feet loudly on the ground when they’re concerned about something, she says.
“They will also do an extra high leap and side kick into the air when highly aroused or sometimes when first released into an open area after a period of confinement,” says Heidenreich. “Many rabbits respond favorably to having their head and ears stroked. A rabbit soliciting this kind of attention will often present its head towards a person and freeze as if waiting for touch. Once the hand makes contact, they press themselves flat against the ground. They will often hold this position even after the petting stops. This kind of touch can often be used as a reinforcer for good behavior.”
For ungulates like horses, giraffes, cows, pigs and goats, she will observe eyes, ear position, tail movements and tension in the muscles for information.
“And with all animals, I empower them to approach me,” she says. “This is a big part of helping animals to be comfortable. This might be avoiding direct eye contact, lowering myself so I am not standing tall, or presenting the side of my body instead of facing front, and moving slowly. These small adjustments can increase an animal’s comfort. I also always try to pair my presence with something I know the animal values, such as a preferred food item when we first meet. This starts the relationship off on a good note right away.”
While there are certainly species-specific behaviors, different species of animals do share some behaviors.
“Animals in general have some similarities in terms of responses,” Heidenreich says. “For example, most animals move away from things that create a fear response, or look for an escape path. When relaxed and comfortable, their eyelids may be [half] closed and their muscles soft, not tense. A concerned animal may appear vigilant and observant of its environment. It may stand tall with its eyes open wide and scanning the environment with all its senses. In many cases people can often generally make a reasonable guess on an animal’s state if they give themselves time to look at and evaluate body parts and what they are doing to gather information.”