Decoding Your Pet’s Body Language

Although our pets may bark and meow, they also are communicating with us through nonverbal signs. Decode your pet’s body language with these insights! Just remember to take context into account as their emotions are more accurately read when considering the specific scenario.


Tail

Dogs

When relaxed, a pup's tail will usually extend at the same level as their spine in a neutral position. Neutral positions can vary by breed so take note of your dog’s normal tail position to recognize when their emotions have shifted. A fearful dog will tuck their tail between their rear legs, hold it rigid against their belly or stiffly wag it.

Although many people believe a wagging tail is a sign of happiness, it actually means that your dog is emotionally aroused. Therefore, it could mean excitement or frustration. When excited or aroused, the tail will typically rise above spine level and will move side to side in short rapid movements. A helicopter tail wag where the tail spins in a circle is a happy wag, which usually occurs when a dog is greeting a friendly face. A faster wag (think twitch-like) indicates a higher level of arousal which can indicate a dog on alert.

Cats

A happy cat will have their tail up or slowly flex it to show that they’re content. When their tail is curled upward, your feline is willing to engage in play. Similarly to dogs, cats will tuck their tail low between their legs when they are afraid. Be mindful when your cat’s tail is high as it can either mean a confident cat or a potentially aggressive animal depending on the context. If they are tense, their tail will stand upright and just barely vibrate.


Ears

Dogs

As dogs have varying ear types, it may be more difficult to read their ears, especially if they have floppy ears. However, the key is to look at the base of their ears for insight into their emotions. Ears will move forward, pointing towards the subject of interest, when they are aroused. Notice that their foreheads will often wrinkle when ears are forward. When relaxed, a pooch’s ears may be slightly back or to the sides.

Cats

When felines are happy and playful their ears will be angled forward. A submissive cat will flatten their ears. For a cat who’s experiencing fear, anxiety or stress, the ears may be tucked back or held low and shifted to the sides. When angry, a their ears will point upward. 

 

Facial Expressions

Dogs

Relaxed pups will have an open mouth (possibly panting) with the corners of their mouth upward slightly. Along with panting rapidly, tense or fearful dogs will have a closed mouth with lips pulled back at the corners and have large pupils with fully open eyes.

Yawning and lip licking can be a sign of stress, especially when accompanied by a tight mouth and whining. However, if your dog yawns shortly after you do, it is probably just because yawning is contagious for dogs as well as it is for humans. Lip licking after a meal is common, but it is important to note when they do a quick tongue flick outside of mealtime which signals they are uncomfortable.

Lastly, a grin with front teeth, a soft body posture, a wagging tail and other signs of content show that you have a happy dog. If they bare their teeth, they are displaying a warning for aggression which typically happens alongside a snarl or growl.

Cats

Closed or half-shut eyes often show a happy cat with slow blinks indicating affection and contentment. On the other hand, when eyes are wide open, your furry friend is alert and possibly afraid. When pupils shrink and there is growling, snarling, hissing or spitting, your cat is acting defensively. If your feline shows their teeth, it is not a sign of a smile, it is a sign of aggression.


Body Posture 

Dogs

When seeking play, dogs will usually play bow and will have loose and wiggly body movements. If your furry pal is stiff, moves slowly, looks away, lays down, or displays other avoidance behaviors, this can indicate that they aren’t interested in social interaction or are finished with playing.

Leaning away, leaning back, trembling, crouching, lowering their body or head, rolling on the side or back or freezing completely are all indications of a fearful dog. An aggressive pooch will make themselves look larger with a raised head, tense body and by leaning forward on their front legs.

Cats

If your cat feels scared, they will try to protect their body, which is why they will make themselves smaller by scrunching into a less exposed shape. On the other hand, cat stretching or rolling on their back is a sign that they feel comfortable as they are voluntarily exposing themselves. Cats that are angry or fearful will make themselves bigger, which can include stretching onto their toes and arching their back with hairs standing up. If your cat is anxious or worried, they may keep themselves low to the ground by crouching down.


Sources:

https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/advice/how-to-read-dog-body-language/

https://www.mypet.com/new-pet-owner/understanding-pet-body-language.aspx

https://www.tuftandpaw.com/blogs/cat-guides/the-definitive-guide-to-cat-behavior-and-body-language

https://pets.webmd.com/cats/features/cat-body-language#1

https://resources.bestfriends.org/article/cat-body-language-communication-and-expression