Animals vocalize by barking, growling, hissing, and meowing, but body language is their main form of communication. Because we don’t speak the same language as our furry friends, it’s often a challenge to decipher what they are trying to say. Pick up on clues your pet sends with her ears, eyes, tail, and posture, and you’ll better understand in no time.

How pets use their tails to communicate

Both cats and dogs wag their tails, but it’s not always an indication of happiness, even in dogs. A relaxed, happy dog will hold her tail at about spine level or slightly below, and wag loosely from side to side or in a circle. As her excitement or anxiety increases, the tail comes up and moves more quickly. A fearful dog may tuck her tail between her legs, or wag stiffly, which should let you know to be cautious.

A cat also uses her tail to communicate, but her raised tail has a different meaning. A tail held high, with a slight twitch or curl, usually indicates a happy, curious cat. If your cat is slowly twitching her tail back and forth with her ears pricked forward, she is debating how she feels about something and can easily become agitated. Watch out if she whips her tail back and forth, because she doesn’t approve of the situation and is about to lash out.

How pets use their eyes to communicate

In both cats and dogs, slightly closed eyes are a sign of contentment. Dogs may also squint, making their eyes almond-shaped with no white showing. A nervous dog’s eyes will be wide open, with much of the whites showing. This eye position, called whale eye, is a key indicator of a dog’s stress level. Friendly dogs rarely make intense, direct eye contact, but gaze softly  at trusted humans.

A cat will stare into your eyes and slowly blink or look away if she likes you. A cat who is interested in what you’re doing will stare directly at you, but this is not considered threatening, as it is with dogs. Your cat’s pupil size also says a lot about her mood. Dilated pupils indicate she is stressed or scared, while constricted pupils mean she may be ready to lash out aggressively.

How pets use their ears to communicate

Despite the variety of canine ear shapes, you can still get a clue about their feelings by looking at the position of their ears. For both cats and dogs, ears pricked forward display alertness and interest, while ears held back or flat against their heads indicate fear. Ears pointed up and slightly to the sides mean a happy animal, while ears straight out to the sides can display nervousness.

How pets use their body posture to communicate

Pets can use not only certain body parts and their positions to let us know their thoughts and feelings, but also their overall body posture. A playful dog will be loose and wiggly, and will bow for good measure. A nervous dog will stiffen up and show displacement behaviors, such as yawning, sneezing, or whole body “wet dog” shaking.

Content cats also carry themselves in a loose, relaxed manner, and may even sit and knead on a soft surface to display happiness. Arched backs can mean two different things, depending on the fur. If your cat approaches with an arched back and flat fur, she is happy to see you, but if she has an arched back and fluffed fur, she is best left alone.

When reading your pet’s body language, always consider her environment. A heavily panting dog is likely showing stress while in an unfamiliar place, or she may just be cooling off after a 10-minute game of fetch. Your pet’s situation will help determine what she’s trying to say.

Is your furry friend displaying unusual or abnormal body language? Schedule an appointment with us for a comprehensive physical exam.