Pug (Image Credit: Erin & Camera)

How to understand your pet’s body language

Pug (Image Credit: Erin & Camera)

Pug (Image Credit: Erin & Camera)

At some point or another, there’s a good chance you’ve wondered what your cat or dog is feeling or thinking. You aren’t an animal whisperer like Ceasar Millan or Jackson Galaxy on Animal Planet, so the best you can do is guess. You aren’t alone, because all parents of furry children sometimes feel frustrated that they don’t understand their pets, but there’s good news. Understanding what your pet is feeling isn’t as difficult as you think, and you don’t have to be trained for years to figure it out.


Even though cats can sometimes seem bipolar, they still give off signs with their whole body you should be aware of. This means that you need to be focused on not just their tail, but their ears, eyes, whiskers, mouth and body position in order to truly grasp what your cat is trying to tell you. When it comes to deciphering your frisky feline’s attitude, the Humane Society has offered some very great tips:

Content. The best way to identify if your cat is happy and content is to ask yourself this question: does it look like your cat is half asleep while sitting up? If the answer to this question is yes, your cat is content. A cat whose eyes are half closed, whose ears are facing forward, is purring, and is sitting or laying down is a happy kitty. Add in a little bit of kneading and you’ve got a cat that is over the moon. Other key signs your cat is happy? A quivering, erect tail… that or they just marked their territory. Thankfully, if your cat has been neutered or spayed, it just means you’ve got a very happy cat.

Playful. Cats are hunters, which means they love a good toy to stalk. You’ve probably seen this happening often: your cat crouched low to the floor, with their butt a little elevated and tail twitching. Hunting for a cat means play time, and after they teach that toy mouse a lesson, they move on to bigger and better things (like sleeping). Occasionally, if you have multiple pets at home, your cat may stalk its other housemates, but make sure that your other pets don’t take offense to your cat’s playfulness and that no one gets hurt.

Irritated or over-stimulated. Irritated cats typically have their ears turned back, tails twitching and might even growl at you. This is a warning and you should approach with caution (if you truly must) or leave the cat alone, unless you want your hand sliced. A small bit of advice for owners who like to play with their cats – sometimes, playful kitties can forget they aren’t actually hunting in the wild. This is called over-stimulation. When they get too excited they can exhibit some of the same signs as an irritated cat and may scratch or bite. At that point it’s time to take a step back and let them blow off some steam.

Nervous or anxious. There’s no worse feeling than knowing your cat is feeling scared, anxious or nervous. The big wide eyes and crouched body while they walk are the most obvious identifiers. Typically they are looking for a place to hide that’s quiet and away from what startled them, which can be under a bed or sofa, or on a different floor of the home. When this happens, give your cat some space and let them come out when they are ready. If they have been gone a while, shake the treat bottle and then show them some affection to calm them down.

Angry and aggressive. There’s absolutely nothing more terrifying than an angry cat. This one is very easy to spot, and chances are you already know this one. When a cat’s fur is standing on end, they are growling, hissing or spitting, don’t approach the cat. Most cats don’t like to fight, but if the person or animal threatening them doesn’t back down, they will lash out. The best advice for an angry cat is to back away slowly and let them work it out on their own. It’s not worth losing a body part over an angry cat.


Unlike their feline counterparts, dogs are typically very happy animals. They love to play and be around you, and they make wonderful home invader detectors… or squirrel detectors, or mailman detectors. Regardless, you love your dog and want to know what’s going on in Fido’s head. Thanks to the ASPCA, we can give you a bit of insight into the body language of a dog:

Happy or content. A dog that is happy or content will typically show it in the face and tail. They will wag their tail from side to side, and some people have even said that it will appear their dog is actually smiling because of how their mouths look. The best way to determine if a dog is happy is when they seem relaxed. More than likely, this is how your dog will act on a regular day-to-day basis when he’s walking around the house or the yard.

Excited or Aroused. You know when you yell, “Do you want a treat, boy?” and your dog starts to jump around and their tongue hangs out of their mouth all-lopsided? Well, that’s an excited dog. Sometimes, dogs can’t hold their excitement inside and they will bark in a nonthreatening manner… because let’s be honest, when you’re excited you probably let out a little shout too. A dog that is excited typically starts to exhibit signs that they are feeling playful. An aroused dog looks very similar to an excited dog, the only difference is that an aroused dog may start to exhibit fear or anxiety, which in turn can lead to aggression.

Playful. Now this is always fun. When your dog feels like playing, typically, they will bounce around, run fast and even do their iconic “play bow.” You probably have seen it, but it’s when they crouch down on their front legs with their butt in the air, almost like they are bowing or inviting you to play. This means that if they start to run after you, they just want you to chase them back. They aren’t being threatening and they want you to know that. So go outside, toss the ball around, chase your dog and revel in the floppy tongued goodness that comes from a very happy and excited dog.

Alert. When your dog sees a squirrel, right before they dart off after it they will begin to seem alert. They will be looking in the direction of the squirrel or where the noise came from, their body forming an arrow with tail will pointing straight out or pulled up over their head. Occasionally you might here a low growl or bark, but if your dog has their sights locked on something and seems tense, chances are they’ve just been alerted to something.

Fearful or Scared. This is the most heart breaking sight you could ever see. A dog that is scared will hunch over with their tail between their legs, eyes looking sad and facing the ground. Sometimes they will even lick their lips or yawn, both of which are techniques used to release tension. Sometimes when we are scared we can feel small, and with dogs, that feeling is expressed in literally making themselves as small as possible with hunching over. This posture can also be associated with whimpers and flat ears. Approach a scared dog with caution, because some dogs can become aggressive when scared to defend themselves.

Aggressive. There are three types of aggression a dog can show: fearful, offensive and defensive. Each one is characterized by similar actions, such as teeth bared, growling and raised hair, however it’s how the dog reacts to the situation that helps you determine how aggressive your dog is feeling. For fearful aggression, a dog will bark and lunge at the dog it’s angry with, but quickly back away. Offensively aggressive dogs are ready to attack, and it doesn’t matter if the opponent is leaving, they may still attack them. They will hold their heads higher and growl in a threatening way that tells the opponent dog to steer clear. For defensively aggressive dogs, they typically don’t want to fight and usually won’t unless they are instigated. They typically back away while growling, and at this point it’s best to leave the dog alone and let them cool off before approaching.

Image courtesy of Erin & Camera
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