We have all wished that we could talk to our pet and actually have them chat back. Unless someone invents an animal translator, this is not possible. However, when we understand their body language, we can know more about what they are trying to tell us. Pets use different facial expressions, body postures, and vocalizations to communicate. Our team at Somerset Animal Hospital thought decoding these mannerisms would be helpful.

Happy pet signals

We want a happy pet. Reading their signs and knowing we have fulfilled this goal makes us happy and gives us peace of mind. However, reading your pet’s cues can be confusing. For example, a dog’s wagging tail does not always mean they are happy—the tail position in relation to the dog’s body and direction of the wag are the cues you need to recognize. A cat rolling over and showing their belly is not the same as a dog asking for a belly scratch. A pet’s expression can be complex and several elements should be considered.

  • Jolly  dogs
    • Soft, relaxed eyes that may appear to be squinting
    • Soft, supple ears
    • Lolling tongue
    • Loose body posture, possibly sitting or lying down
    • Slow, languid tail wag, which indicates contentment
  • Contented cats
    • Soft, relaxed eyes
    •  Slow blinking, which indicates affection toward the recipient
    • Relaxed body position, especially revealing their belly, or stretching, meaning they are content, but not asking for a belly rub!
    • Holding the tail high, which exhibits confidence
    • Curling their tail around another animal’s tail or a human’s leg, showing friendliness
    • Purring 
    • Rubbing on people or things
    • Kneading or “making biscuits”
    • Grooming in a relaxed manner
  • Playful dogs
    • Eyes soft and wide open
    • Ears pricked forward
    • Chest on the ground, with their hind end in the air—a play bow
    • Helicopter tail, which indicates excitement
  • Frisky cats
    • Intense eyes
    • Ears forward
    • Tail up and twitching
    • Pouncing, stalking behavior

Anxious or fearful pet signals

When our pets are distressed, we feel their pain. Knowing when they need comfort or to be removed from the current situation is key to keeping them calm. However, pet’s mannerisms can be confusing. Humans yawn when they are tired or sleepy, but dogs yawn to express anxiety. Dogs may also pant when they are feeling stressed, but if the temperature is hot, they may be panting because they need a cooler location and a drink of water. You have to read the entire situation before deciding what your pet is communicating.

  • Worried dogs
    • Averting their eyes
    • Flattening ears to their sides
    • Licking their lips
    • Yawning
    • Panting
    • Pacing
    • Holding their tail low
    • Not interested in treats
    • Whining
    • Barking
  • Stressed cats
    • Dilated pupils
    • Staring at something giving them concern
    • Ears pricked toward the cause for concern
    • Crouching low
    • Sniffing
    • Swishing tail
  • Frightened dogs
    • Cowering to make the body as small as possible
    • Observing their surroundings intently
    • Halting all motion
    • Tucking their tail between the legs
    • Urinating
  • Scared cats
    • Dilated pupils
    • Staring intently
    • Crouching down
    • Trembling
    • Tensed muscles
    • Fleeing

Angry pet signals

Pets can be dangerous when they are upset. Understanding when your pet is angry can help you avoid being injured. Many times a pet has unsuccessfully attempted to relay the fact they are anxious and upset about a situation before resorting to aggressiveness. Your ability to know the signs of an anxious animal should prevent your stressed pet from progressing to an angry pet. 

  • Irate dogs
    • Direct eye contact
    • Lowering their head
    • Flattening back their ears
    • Raised hackles
    • Pulling their lips back and exposing the teeth
    • Tail held erect, or curled over their body
    • Vibrating (i.e., flagging) their tail
    • Shifting their weight forward
    • Growling
  • Furious cats

    • Using the “Halloween stance” to appear larger and more intimidating
    • Constricted pupils, to focus on more detail
    • Flattening back their ears
    • Hissing
    • Growling
    • Swiping

Painful pet signals

If our pet becomes injured or sick, we want to know as soon as possible to alleviate their distress quickly. Cats and dogs instinctively never show vulnerability. Cats especially can be stoic and hide their discomfort surprisingly well. Knowing how to read your pet’s subtle pain signals will mean you can get them the care they need sooner rather than later.

  • Hurting dog
    • Restlessness
    • Panting
    • Tight or twitching muscles
    • Holding their head low
    • Not wanting to be touched
    • Limping or walking slowly
    • Inappetence
    • Excessive vocalization
  • Aching cat
    • Pupils dilated
    • Squinting eyes
    • Hunched back
    • Limping or walking slowly
    • More withdrawn and quiet than usual
    • Ears back
    • Hiding
    • Inappropriate elimination outside the litter box

Understanding the signals your pet is conveying will help you and your pet develop a deeper bond. This knowledge will help you predict your pet’s behavior and may allow you to anticipate and prevent problems. However, each pet is different and unique. The more time you spend getting to know your pet and the nuances in their individual language, the closer you will become. Do not hesitate to contact  Somerset Animal Hospital if you interpret that your pet is telling you they need to see one of our veterinarians.