Pet Wise: Learn to interpret animal body language before another pet enters your household

When most humans encounter animals, we may be missing the messages animals convey to us and to each other from their body language signals. People tend to focus on wagging tails and vocalizations when observing animal behavior. However, if we learn these signals, we can observe if a new pet and the resident pet are interacting appropriately and safely.

Fearful and frightened animals tend to make themselves look smaller and may avoid eye contact with people or other pets. Fearful dogs may show the whites of their eyes and urinate on themselves when approached by other pets. Their body language message is “I am not a threat to you so please do not hurt me!” Something else to keep in mind is that frightened animals may bite out of fear to protect themselves (the so-called Flight-Fight Response mechanism).


Body language signals

To understand the messages that animals convey we must “Listen with our eyes” and focus on their body parts.

Angry Dog Body Language signals:


· Eyes: are in a fixed stare which means a challenge, threat or confidence.

· Ears: are pricked up or pointing foward.

· Mouth: the lips are curled and teeth are showing.

· Body: is tense or stiff, hackles raised (hair on the neck shoulders and back) to make the dog look bigger.


· Tail: is held upward and still or wagging very fast.

Angry cat body Language signals:

· Fur: is puffed out to make the cat look larger.

· Ears: may be flicking or pinned back.

· Tail: may be twitching or lashing

· Eyes: the pupils are enlarged.

· Body: the muscles are tense.

Content, happy dog body language signals:

· Eyes: have a soft sweet expression.

· Ears: are in a relaxed position

· Mouth: is relaxed, almost in a smile for some dogs

· Body: is relaxed, and the dog might roll over on his back to ask for a tummy rub!

· Tail: may be held level with the back or slightly low and wagging slowly. Dogs with very short or “docked” tails are a joy to watch with their “wiggle butts!

Another delightful canine body language signal to observe is the “Play Bow” when a dog invites another dog or a human to play a game like tag. It starts with the dog approaching a human or another dog (or even a cat) and lowering the front of his body with the tail held high & wagging. Barking also adds as an invitation to join in as well as a toy dropped into a person’s lap!

Content, Happy Cat Body Language signals:

· Tail: is held up straight as the cat walks with confidence. When the tail looks like a question mark, the cat may be in “play mode” so be ready to toss a toy or a wad of paper!

· Eyes: have a soft expression when showing affection to the humans who are the cat’s loyal servants. When the cat is in play mode the pupils may enlarge as the cat may be ready to pounce on a toy.

The next column will address introducing a new pet into the home with other pets.

Recommended reading

· “The Cat Behavior Answer Book” by Arden Moore, published by Storey Publishing Company.

· “Cat Body Language” by Trevor Warner, published by Collins and Brown.

· “The Power of Positive Dog Training” (2nd Edition) by Pat Miller, published by Wiley Publishing, Inc.

Pets and holiday parties

If you are planning a Holiday get together with family and friends, you may want to send invitations with the following message to keep your pets safe during the event:

We are looking forward to seeing you and your family at our home to celebrate this festive season.

As you may already know, we regard our pets as our family members and want them and our guests to be safe, so please obey the “House Rules” listed below.

· Don’t feed our pets! Some must eat prescription diets due to health issues so “people food and drinks” are prohibited.

· Please supervise your children (no running through the house or loud voices or opening doors to let the pets outdoors).

· If the dogs are in their crates please DO NOT let them out and don’t stick fingers into their crates because it is an invasion of their space and someone could get bitten.

· Do not pat the top of a dog’s head because it is a sensitive part of their body (small whiskers are located there) and some dogs can be “hand-shy and may back away tor even bite if they feel threatened.

· Please do not pick up our pets or encourage our dogs to jump up on you.

We want our guests to have an enjoyable and safe visit at our home as well as provide our pets with a pleasant socialization experience with our guests. Looking forward to seeing you!

Iris Katz serves as a member of the board of directors and as an educational facilitator for the Humane Society of Carroll County. Her column appears on the third Sunday of the month.

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