A happy dog wags its tail…or does it? Wish you could slip a mood ring on your cat’s back paw to know when to give her a wide berth? (Good luck with that). Even when they’re our best friends, our animals can sometimes drive us nuts, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Reimagining our bond with pets begins with the basics of any relationship: communication. Here’s insight from experts to help decode your feline’s and canine’s happy, not-so-happy and downright freaky behaviors.
The Eyes Have It
Cats can be frustratingly enigmatic, but there are nuances to watch for. Is your cat staring at you with eyes opened wide? (Be afraid. Be very…) Chances are that a hard stare without blinking means “Get the hell out of my face!” When provoked, a cat’s pupils get huge and the eyes turn glassy. This is a clear signal to give Kitty her space. Slow blinking, on the other hand, is a sign of happiness. Learn the difference! Your arms, legs, face and other regions of exposed skin will thank you.
Dog eyes express surprising emotional diversity. A relaxed, almond shaped eye means the dog is calm. Under stress, or when frightened, the eyes will appear smaller. If the dog is squinting for no good reason, it could mean he’s in pain. A dog’s eyes will convey a mood, but the direction of his gaze is important, too. Be ready to back off if a dog stares you square in the eyes with a tense face or avoids your gaze and exposes the whites of his eyes. Known as “whale eye” it’s often seen when a dog is guarding a chew bone, toy, dead squirrel or favorite spot. It means he’s on the defensive, and you should steer clear. Remove said squirrel at your own risk.
A Tail to Tell
While a dog's wagging tail is usually interpreted to be a sign of playfulness, it’s the complete opposite for a cat. Is the tail moving from side to side? The faster it's going, the more upset the feline. How’s the tail positioned? A relaxed cat walks with its tail down; it will typically greet you with a tail that’s up but not moving. If the tip of the tail is moving, the cat is unhappy about something, and a quick swish or whip of the tail means the cat feels threatened. Dogs use their tails the way people use smiles, so while a wagging tail generally means that a dog is happy or excited, that's not always the case. A low, slow-moving tail is much like a nervous laugh. The mid-level, wide tail wag where the tail practically hits the body is the happy wag. But a dog about to attack may hold his tail high and move it sharply back and forth. It’s important to look at the rest of the body: If the dog’s muscles are tense and he’s pulling back his lips, an unpleasant encounter may be moments away.
Barking up the Wrong Tree
Although cats are remarkably vocal, they meow almost only to humans. It’s their way of talking to us, leaving it up to you to decipher the meaning. Cats also growl, wail and even chatter—a high-pitched, fast stutter. Cats make this noise of frustration when they’re feeling predatory but their prey is out of reach. A chirp tends to be a friendly signal. On the dark side, hissing and spitting are unmistakable signs that your cat is feeling upset. This wouldn’t be a good time to kiss it.
A dog’s bark can indicate any number of moods, but it’s important to listen to it in context. Woofing while playing is accompanied by a relaxed body posture and sometimes a wagging tail, whereas low-pitched barks that are short or insistent yips can mean “Stop that! Now!’ Watch the body: If it’s stiff and he’s offering a low-pitched growl, the yapping can be a warning sign. Some barks are intended to get your attention. There’s also watchdog barking, a series of short and loud barks designed to alert you that someone or something is coming, and to announce that the dog is ready to handle whatever barbarians are at the gate. Whining is equivalent to the cat’s meow: Your dog is saying it wants something and is confident if he does it long enough, you’ll figure out what that is. Dogs are such trusting souls.
The Whole Kitty and Caboodle
With cats, changes in mood can be extremely tough to decipher. Look at the cat’s overall behavior: A drastic change of everyday habits is the most reliable indicator that something is wrong. Felines love routine, so when they begin making odd sounds, seem unusually aggressive, or forget how to use the litter box(!), it’s time to consult a vet. How to tell when your cat is happy? One of the happiest behaviors is kneading with the front paws, as if they are making dough.
As for dogs, destructive behaviors, like chewing shoes or swallowing paychecks, are big cues your dog is not happy. Puppies, on the other hand, learn how to explore their world through their mouths and should eventually grow out of the habit. For an older dog still gnawing on that Eames chair you snagged at auction, it’s likely he’s not getting enough exercise or outside time. Other ways a dog will show you something’s amiss about their mental state is they may begin sleeping in a different place, hiding, or sleeping more than usual.
All animals have unique ways of communicating and with a little study, we can become better, more responsive caretakers for them. If a horse wants to send a signal to “Back off!” he’ll flatten his ears and crinkle his nose. A hamster that’s standing on its hind legs and waving its front paws in the air isn’t trying out a vaudeville routine, its simply being curious and exploring its environment. When a bird clicks its tongue in a ‘tsk tsk’ manner, its not judging you, its inviting you to be its friend. Animals do a remarkable job of interpreting our moods, expressions and emotions. With a little bit of practice on our end, we can return the favor.