How can I Tell what my Pet is Thinking?
Animals communicate to us all the time. Every species, including humans uses their body to communicate how they feel. Humans also use their voice - words usually to add clarity to another human. Animals also use their voice - meows, hisses, barks, whines, whinny are all vocalizations that add emphasis to what that animal's body is telling us. As a veterinarian and behaviorist, I spend a lot of time educating people on how to read and listen to what this animal is saying to us.
Veterinarians and technicians learn a little of this during the years in school. Much is learned through added education and experience. I find this to be unfortunate because understanding what the animal in front of us is telling us, will help both the animal, owner and veterinary staff to provide the care, welfare and interpretation of what this animal needs. In this article I will give a short summary of the most important aspects for a dog or cat owner to know what their pet is thinking.
When reading an animal's body language, look at the entire body - not just the ears or the tail. A dog may be wagging it's tail walking around a playground with it's owner, but the ears may be down, body held low and the dog is nervously looking around. Is this dog happy because the tail is wagging? No, he is wavering between happy because it is with the owner, but scared of the noise and activity of the children. That is why the ears are back, tail down and body held low. Putting it all together one would say this is a nervous dog one who does not want children near. What tends to happen is the owner sees the wagging tail and thinks "my dog is happy around children." When a child approaches and the dog starts pulling behind the owner, or lets out a growl, the owner is now confused. "Why growl if your tail is wagging?" the owner thinks. The dog growled because he is fearful and cannot get away. As the child approached, the dog pulled away - trying to get away. Stuck on the leash it growled to make it more clear - stop child. All of this can happen in a few seconds and likely when growl happened the tail was not wagging. This scenario plays out often, unfortunately resulting in near bites and sometimes punishment for the growl. Humans do not understand what the dog is telling them. Everything that dog did was saying "I am scared now I have to make the scary human go away."
Cats are more subtle with their body language. A small change in how they are sitting - from laying sprawled out to curled up means they are now tense. Staring, small tail flicks means they are increasing in tension. Cats do not wag their tails in happiness - only dogs do! Cats will turn their ears to the side, and crouch their body down when upset. A common miscommunication is when owners pet their cat repeatedly. The cat may first push their body into you for the petting, but will start to flick the tail or twitch the skin and ears turn back slightly, indicating they are getting irritated. As you continue to pet, the cat may suddenly bite or swat to make you stop. That swishing tail and twitching skin was the body language of "I am not liking this." Even though they are still sitting with you the rest of the body is saying time to quit petting.
As humans we tend to greet animals the way humans want to be greeted. We go up to the face, reach out and touch the head, face or body immediately and even kiss an animal on the head. For humans this what we like - face to face because the majority of our body language cues are facial. For many animals a face approach is threatening. Many get used to it but if you look at many dogs, cats and horses when an unknown person goes to the face they pull away at first. You are invading the personal space. Another misinterpretation is humans think if it is nice for them, it must be nice for the animal. Not always so. Watch the animal and see what the animal is saying.
To help you with reading your pet's body language here is a good place to start:
The Signs of Early Anxiety in the Dog poster. There will also be a cat body language poster soon.
Dog Body Language by Brenda Aloff
What is My Cat Saying by Jacqueline Munera