Animal Expression

Understanding Your Pet's Body Language

Communication between men and women can be difficult even though we speak the same language. So how do we talk with a species who uses a different language? Last week’s Pet Chat column examined how pets communicate with us through sounds. This week, I’m going to examine how pets use facial expressions and body language to express how they are feeling.

Expressions Dogs Use

When you look at a dog’s face, you can tell a lot about what they are feeling. You will notice that dogs can wrinkle or straighten their forehead to show confusion or determination just as humans do. If a dog wants you to give him further direction, he may tilt his head to one side. An interesting fact-dogs don’t just yawn when they are tired, you will also see them yawn when they are nervous.

Dog’s eyes tell a lot about their mood as well. Dogs will give us the “whale eye” (turn their head away to look so that whites of eyes show) when they are scared. Dogs in an anxious state may have dilated pupils. If a dog is angry or ready to defend himself, his eyes narrow and follow your every move. At this stage, it is very important not to look the dog in the eye because he will see it as a challenge.

Dogs also use their ears and mouth to communicate with us. If a dog’s ears are raised, he is relaxed and listening. If they are back, he may be signaling submission or may be fearful. A dog in a relaxed posture may let his tongue flop out of his mouth. If a dog is happy or wants to play, he will appear to smile. But beware if a dog bares his clenched teeth and wrinkles his nose, he may be preparing to attack!

Expressions Cats Use

Interestingly, whiskers are not just for judging the width of gaps or the proximity of objects; they are also mobile and help to indicate a cat’s mood. The whiskers are held to the side when a cat is in a neutral state and perk forward when a cat is interested in something. If your cat licks you, this could be the ultimate sign of affection. Your cat may consider you to be a part of his or her family, like a mother cleaning her kittens.

Cats seem to use their eyes to communicate more than one might think. Slowly blinking communicates trust and affection; it’s said to be the equivalent of blowing a kiss. If you have sustained eye contact with a cat, she may interpret it as being assertive or even aggressive and it may make her uncomfortable. Ask any non-cat lover if a cat has ever come to them in a household full of cat lovers and most likely they will say “yes.” This is because the cat lovers all stare at the cat, wanting the cat to come to them and the non-cat lover will look away. The cat goes to the person who looks away since they consider that person to be non-threatening.

According to Temple Grandin, an eminent scholar of animal behavior, one reason why cats’ emotions are so hard to read is that they have no eyebrows. Think of how often humans use eyebrows to communicate!

We can also try to interpret what our pets are saying by looking at their body language. Below are just a few examples of the vocabulary of feline and canine body language:

• Tail up: A dog is confident or on alert. A cat is playful, happy, confident

• Wagging tail: A dog is friendly, excited, or curious. A cat’s gently flowing tail means it is interested, but a rapidly flicking or thumping tail signals irritation or anxiousness.

• Tail lowered: The cat or dog is afraid. Other signs are ears flattened; eyes narrowed or averted, and body cowering.

• Rubbing: Dogs usually rub to be scratched or petted. A cat will rub its cheeks against things to mark their ownership (they even do this to people). A cat rubbing its body or the top of its head against you, or head butting, is a sign of feline affection.

• Play stance: Playful dogs raise their hindquarters in a “play bow,” and wag their tails and bark in rapid spurts. Playful cats usually crouch (sometimes wiggling their back feet) and then pounce on what they are playing with.

• Back arching: If your cat’s back rises up to meet your hand when you pet him, this means your cat is enjoying contact with you.

• Back lowering: If your cat’s back lowers if you try to touch him, this usually means your cat is on his way somewhere and doesn’t want to be stopped.

You can learn a lot about animals by being aware of their facial expressions and body language. Being conscious of their “language” can even help you stay safe around strange animals you come across. More importantly, you can learn to communicate better with the animals you know. And you thought only Dr. Doolittle could communicate with animals.


Adoptable Pet of the Week

Timmy is a 2 year old neutered male pup, weighing about 38 lbs. His paperwork lists him as a “griffon”; though he looks like a very cute terrier to us! He is much lower keyed and gentler than is typical of a terrier. He’s sweet, sensitive, affectionate, eager to please and quick to catch on. He gets along well with the other smaller dogs at DAWG. He would be a wonderful family dog for a family with dog savvy gentle children. During the week he is in a foster home, but he will be at DAWG during regular public hours Friday-Sun from noon till 5:00. Contact DAWG to meet Timmy or for more information.

DAWG (Dog Adoption and Welfare Group) is a no-kill not for profit dog rescue/adoption organization located at 5480 Overpass Rd , Goleta . 805-681-0561. You can email us at See us and all our adoptable dogs at The public is invited to stop by and look around during non-public hours every day from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM. We rely on volunteers to take care of out dogs, and students can fulfill their volunteer community service requirement with us. Volunteer orientations are generally held every other Saturday at 10:00 AM. Contact DAWG for next meeting.


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