What is your cat or dog telling you?

What is your cat or dog telling you?

We may think they understand every word we say, but cats and dogs can talk to us too, using body language.

“At times of joy, all of us wished we possessed a tail we could wag,” said the poet WH Auden, and there’s nothing more expressive of joy than a dog’s wagging tail. If you have a cat, however, you’ll know that a rapidly waving tail is a sign of something far less benign: anger, annoyance or attack-mode.

Our pets might be different species, but they still communicate with us, and when we know them well enough we learn to decrypt some of their feelings or needs. But there are far more subtle details we can notice that offer even more clues to their minds.

What your dog is saying - Understand your dog’s body language

An open mouth with a relaxed lip means the dog is calm, while a shut mouth can be a warning sign. If most teeth are bared, the dog is on the defensive, while if only some of the teeth are bared and the skin on the top of the nose is wrinkled, then the dog is rather angry. In general, showing the teeth is a threatening gesture – which means that in some situations, such as if they’re already scared, certain dogs can misinterpret the smile of a human being as a threat.

A wagging tail means “let's play”, but if only the end is moving, it’s a bit nervous or confused. A tail between the legs means fear – but the language of the tail is very nuanced and best understood with experience.

When he shoots his tongue out and licks his chops, going beyond the upper lip, you have a relaxed doggie. Even better, if your is face being licked, it’s a gesture of happy submission – for example when you return home, it means, “Here you are, at last!”

If your dog’s eyes are wide open, with very dilated pupils, he’s on the attack. Never stare at a dog for too long. For humans this is just attention, but to a dog it’s a challenge. If it turns its gaze away, though, this is a message of submission and calm.

Apart from the more floppy-eared breeds, ears that are forward and stiff indicate a self-confident dog. If retracted, though, it feels insecure and stressed.

Hair that’s standing up a bit on the shoulders and around the neck shows confidence, but if the hair on the spine is standing up the dog is afraid and wants to appear bigger, because it feels under threat.

In general, a high pitch indicates strong feelings: excitement, frustration, fear, watchfulness. A low pitch means “Keep your paws off my territory”. A dog will whine when it is anxious and wants to be reassured, and if it’s crying, yelping an moaning, just like a child, it is asking for TLC. Make sure it’s not hurt or in pain.

What your cat is saying - Understand your cat’s body language
A tail waved in a jerky manner means excitement for a cat if it’s seen prey or a threat: it indicates the “fight or flee” instinct kicking in. As with dogs, a tail between the legs indicates fear, particularly if the ears go back and flat on its skull, the pupils are dilated and it growls. It’s best to leave a cat like this alone, as it’s likely to lash out.
A waving or thumping tail means discomfort or sometimes curiosity – again, it’s often a warning to hold back, particularly if it starts waving while you’re stroking it. Time to stop!
A shivering tail, on the other hand, is the most affectionate sign of all, reserved for its preferred people, simply meaning: “I love you”. Consider yourself very lucky when you are blessed with this.

When a cat’s ears are facing back, it’s assessing the environment and preparing for its next move. If, at the same time, the body is lowered, it may be best to check the state of your curtains or couch, as it’s probably feeling guilty. If they are straight up, your cat is alert and interested in what is going on.

An arched back and fur standing on end would usually mean, “leave me in peace”, but in kittens it’s an invitation to play. Add a low-pitched growl and stare, though, and it’s best to keep out of your cat’s way!
Kneading – when the cat administers a rather sharp-clawed massage with its front legs – is typical of kittens and often stays as a habit in grown cats. It’s supposed to hark back to when kittens knead their mothers’ teats to get milk.
When a cat rubs around you it is marking you as its territory – it’s a compliment, sort of. Lowered front legs means that the cat wants to avoid a fight, but if the legs are tense, the cat is confident and ready to attack.

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