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Body Language—What Is Your Dog or Cat ReallyTrying to Tell You?

Although animals do not speak our language, having a better understanding of their non-verbal cues provides valuable insights into what they are really thinking and feeling.

At home, most pet owners instinctively know when their cat or dog needs something. A certain facial expression, a flick of the tail or a posture can tell us whether they are happy, hungry or hankering for a game. However, in unfamiliar surroundings or when meeting new people and pets, non-verbal signs can easily be misinterpreted.

Being able to read your pet’s body language will help to you to:

● Anticipate and prevent conflict with other pets (at the park or at the vet).

● Know when your pet is in pain.

● Know when your pet needs attention.

● Strengthen the bond between you and your pet.

There is a universal set of body language indicators that helps us to understand and communicate better with our pets. Here are a few of the most common signs that your cat or dog may be trying to tell you something.


It’s common for us to ‘humanise’ our pets and to assume explanations for their behaviour based on commonly held beliefs . For instance, most people might see a dog wagging its tail and assume that it is happy, however a tense tail wag accompanied by a stiff body posture can indicate stress or agitation.

Let’s look at some of the ways dogs use body language to communicate with us.

Happy, playful, content

When your best friend is feeling happy you might notice the following:

● Relaxed body posture

● Relaxed ears

● Play bow (elbows on the floor, hindquarters raised)

● Active, ‘bouncing’ excitement

Some dogs will lean into you if they are enjoying a pat and feeling content. A happy dog might also try to lick you (doggy kisses!), paw you to get your attention or bring you their favourite toy. Sometimes it’s simply the stare you can’t ignore (“let’s play!”).

Anxious or fearful

Depending on their history and circumstances, some dogs may exhibit more reactive or submissive behaviour. It’s important that your dog is assessed in a controlled environment before introducing them to other pets or letting them off leash at the park. Training and conditioning may be an ongoing requirement for some.

Indicators that your dog may be feeling nervous or stressed include:

● Rolling on back (submissive)

● Avoiding eye contact

● Ears flattened

● Pacing

● Trembling

● Tail tucked between hind legs

● Lip licking

● Yawning


Aggression often stems from fear. Being alert to these signs and taking steps to remove your dog from the situation can help to prevent fights that may result in injury and further behavioural problems.

● A high wagging stiff tail

● Alert stance

● Narrowed eyes

● Raised hackles

● Teeth bared and lips curled


There’s nothing more worrying for a pet parent than thinking your dog may be in pain.

Any sudden changes in behaviour should be investigated by a veterinarian to ensure that there is no underlying physical cause, however the following signs may be indicators that your pet is feeling pain or discomfort.

● Vocalisation

● Excessive licking or scratching

● Resistance to being touched

● Reluctance to play or exercise

● Lameness or limping

● Shaking

● Low posture


Cats are very expressive if you know what to look for. Their body positioning, tail twitches, ears and eyes can all tell us what our feline friend is thinking.


A contented kitty is easily recognisable by:

● Ears are held in a natural posture (not flattened or held back)

● Eyes half closed, pupils at normal size

● Lying down with belly exposed

● Sitting up straight with head up

● Kneading

● Paws curled and tucked inwards

When approached, a happy cat may arch their back for a pat or rub their head against you to show affection. Rubbing is also used by cats to mark their territory as a message to other cats.


When your cat displays the following body language, you know it’s game on!

● Ears alert and pointed forward

● Eyes are watchful and pupils dilated

● Body crouched and ready to pounce

● Tail raised and flicking


Cats are very good at hiding their pain. Signs that your cat may be feeling pain or discomfort include:

● Crouching with head and ears down

● Eyes dull or glassy

● Ears drooped

● Reluctance to be picked up, held or touched

Anxious or fearful

Cats who are feeling threatened or frightened will communicate their fear with:

● Eyes open and pupils dilated

● Ears flicking back and forth or flattened

● Body arched and fur bristling

● Tail either straight and stiff, or curling around the body for protection

If you notice these signs of pain or anxiety, or any sudden changes in your cat’s behaviour please contact us immediately.

Visits to the vet can be made less stressful for your cat by:

● Teaching your cat to get used to the carrier and covering it with a towel when visiting the clinic.

● Using spray pheromones such as Feliway to help your cat feel more relaxed.

● Rewarding good behaviour. Praise your cat for sniffing or entering the carrier for a short period of time.


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