Speak! Dog and cat communication
While humans primarily use verbal communication, dogs and cats mainly communicate non-verbally through the use of body language and secondarily through vocalizations. This is done through placement in a situation, body posture, ear and mouth movements. As this is very different from humans it behooves us to know what our pets are trying to tell us when they do try and communicate.
Per the center for shelter dogs, you have look at the entire body including the tail, the leg placement, the ears and head. The situation and context can also play a big part. A wagging tail does not necessarily mean the dog is looking for a friend, but it’s what most people notice first. If the rest of the dog’s body is tense, with its head down or in a crouched position, then the dog is not happy and could become dangerous. It must be observed where the dog is standing – do they sit on your foot (a sign of passive aggression) or do they just put their head in your lap? Are they tense or relaxed? Here are some communication types you may want to remember.
There are 5 different kinds of communication types dogs use: fear, aggression, arousal, anxious, and relaxed. These may mix as, much like humans, dogs don’t always have only one emotion at a time.
Signals may proceed as a progression as the dogs fear intensifies. They may lick their lips or yawn even if they are not hungry or tired. They may keep their mouth closed instead of panting and may crouch and put their tail between their legs or put their ears back. They may look away to avoid eye contact, and tremble. There are also things a frightened dog won’t do like eating or moving toward a person. Something to note is that fear can change to aggression but then the body language will change too.
Dogs use aggression to protect their territory or pack and signals of aggression are sometimes only that; signals that they are willing to protect their territory. Sometimes the dog hopes the signals are enough to scare off what it is perceiving as a threat but only a human who has been around the dog may be able to tell the difference. When a dog perceives a threat, it can be something like another dog, person, or even an inanimate object. A dog may growl and show its teeth with a stiffening or freezing of its body. You may see a widening of the eyes, snapping at the air, with a wrinkled nose and barking as aggressive behavior. Even in play aggression – the dog may exhibit some of these but other body language (like the stiff body) may be absent.
Arousal or excited behaviors can be triggered by many different stimuli. These can be what the dog perceives as good or unfavorable. An excited dog might jump or spin with a ‘soft’ body. They may ‘mouth’ a person or object with or without teeth contact, and their ears will be forward or at attention. Their tail is often up and wagging and they may bark and lunge with their fur (usually on their back or
neck) standing up. Excited behavior can be combined with anxious or aggressive behavior for situations where the dog is unsure of themselves.
Many dogs from shelters exhibit these behaviors even when they leave the shelter and are taken home by a family. Stress causes anxious behaviors like excessive panting, pacing and lack of focus. Dogs may show some of the same behaviors as a fearful dog like yawning or licking their lips as well as having a lowered body posture with their ears back. They may look away from a person and wag their tails slowly or drool heavily. Conversely they may also demonstrate excited behaviors like spinning, pacing or barking. These behaviors if extreme enough, may need special attention. More extreme cases can include destructive behaviors like chewing and scratching as well.
A relaxed dog is the kind of thing we all love to see. The kind of body language that communicates the dog doesn’t have a care in the world. Slow/normal panting with the ends of their mouth slightly turned up in an almost smile and a tail wag that just swishes back and forth or rotates in circular motions. They will often lay down even on uneven or (what looks to humans) on uncomfortable surfaces. This is the best body language for a dog to have. It communicates a contentness that isn’t really possible in any other state of mind.
Per Karen Sueda, DVM, Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, cat behaviors are more nuanced that dogs. Problems arise when owners take dog behaviors they can recognize and think they mean the same things when their cats display them. This could also explain why cats and dogs don’t always get along. They don’t ‘speak’ the same language.
-Displaying the tummy-
This can get tricky as some cats like to have their bellies stroked while others are displaying a relaxed stance that says they trust and like you but don’t actually want you to pet them there. Cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy calls this a cat hug and urges caution by watching the rest of the cats behavior. Cats also lay on their backs if they feel threatened so they can bring all 4 feet worth of claws to bare if defense is necessary. Watch the tail – is it thrashing in irritation – and the ears – are they back or forward in invitation. Even when it is an invitation be aware SOME cats can be overstimulated easily and the change in mood can be fast.
-The long blink-
This is usually a signal of contentment and trust from a cat. In feline society it is the ultimate sign of trust. It shows that the cat does not think you could become a threat and you can imitate the gesture if you want to signal back to your cat that you feel the same.
A cat’s tail is the best way to judge its mood. An indication of confidence would be the tail held high and straight. If the cat’s tail is wrapped around a human’s legs or another cat it is a sign of affection and, like dogs, if the tail is between it’s legs the cat is insecure or anxiousness. And of course, the ‘bottlebrush’ tail means they feel threatened or scared.
For cats, direct eye contact usually feels threatening, which explains why cats will gravitate toward the people who are trying to ignore them. The more dilated the cat’s pupils are the more information the cat is trying to absorb – you can see this when they are playing or thinking of attacking something.
Cats don’t usually meow much to each other when they are older. Kittens meow to get the attention of their mother, to be cared for, but once they become old enough to be on their own, they usually stop. Unless they become pets. They soon learn their human care givers are far more responsive to sound than being rubbed on or the position of ears and tail. Purring usually signals contentment or a feeling of safety – it also may be a way of seeking comfort, which is why they may do it when recovering from an illness or when close to death. High pitched trilling or chatting indicates friendliness or if in a more urgent way, could be an expression of extreme interest. This might be what you would hear if they see a bird outside a window, or a bug on a wall. Growling and hissing/spitting are a warning to stay away and a loud guttural sound, known as ‘caterwauling’ is a sound they make when threatened by other cats and is common in deaf cats.
These things are good to know but each animal has learned behaviors all their own. They learn them form the humans and other animals they encounter and whatever works best to get them what they need will be repeated. It’s also good to remember that if you don’t try to understand what your pet is telling you they need, they might try to get your attention in less acceptable ways.