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Miss Communication’s Tips For Understanding Dog And Cat Body Language

Dogs and cats rely heavily on nonverbal signals to communicate their moods. Their facial expressions, ear position, tail position and movement, and overall body stance convey their intentions. Ideally, we take all of these components into consideration because the same detail can convey different meanings when other details are also considered. For example, dogs wag their tails when they’re feeling aggressive and also when they’re feeling friendly; cats purr to indicate that they’re nervous and also to tell us that they’re content.

So many tails, so little time. (I'd give these dogs more room than this. Especially the poor little dog in the center!) (Photo courtesy of Oskarp.)

Ear and tail position and movement are the details that are usually easiest to observe from a safe distance, often providing the most information about mood. Of course these descriptions apply to animals who have full mobility of their bodies. Keep in mind that some types of tails are more expressive than others; a black lab’s long, straight tail has moves differently than a pug’s shorter, curly tail.

Common signs of happy, friendly dogs:

  • Relaxed face, possibly panting slowly
  • Corners of the mouth slightly turned up (smiling)
  • Relaxed body position
  • Tail wagging from side-to-side or in a circular motion
  • When standing: in neutral, happy stance (relaxed with weight evenly balanced on all feet) or play bow stance (front end down and rear end up)
  • When sitting or lying down: one paw folded and tucked under

Common signs of happy, friendly cats:

  • Eyes half-closed, pupils narrowed, blinking leisurely
  • Ears slightly to the side and slightly forward
  • Tail mostly still
  • When standing: tail straight up or curled forward at tip and possibly twitching side-to-side
  • Paws kneading
  • Purring

Below are some of my favorite websites with illustrations of dog and cat body language.

Jay Padilla includes these images of dog body language “Signals” on Tuscon Grooming Pets & Grooming Services website (http://www.tucsongrooming.com/?p=23):

Sarah Hartwell’s web page “Cat Communication – Body Language” (http://messybeast.com/cat_talk2.htm) includes this graphic showing  facial expressions and ear positions of cats:

Catster’s “Cat Body Language” article (http://www.catster.com/cat-behavior/cat-body-language) has these great images of cat tail positions and what they mean:

(Note: Nonexclusive use of this article has been granted to other pet industry organizations but Kari Kells retains copyright.)

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