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Understanding Your Pet’s Mood: If Only they Could Talk!
September 20, 2021
Dr. Tammie Pearce, Director of Veterinary Science at AskVet
I have often wondered what my furry patients would say to me when they are not feeling well or hurting. I think many pet parents would also like to know if their pet is happy or sad or not feeling good. There have been many recent studies on the pet body language and how our four-legged friends are feeling has become a hot topic of conversation. By careful observation of your pet’s body language, facial expressions and vocalization patterns you can hone in moods and health. We will discuss a few indications for both dogs and cats on how to tell if your best furry friend is feeling their best!
Read What Your Pet Is Saying To You
If pets could talk, they would probably have some great stories to tell us! Since they will likely never start speaking in the human language (although there are dog modules that allow dogs to recognize words to form sentences https://fluent.pet/) we can study their body language, facial expressions and also the amount of vocalization to get a good indication how they are feeling.
Body language refers to how the pet sits, stands, lays down and walks or moves within their environment. Body position and how your pet walks and lays can give you good clues as to their mood as well as how comfortable your pet is in the current situation. Cats and dogs both have their own unique body language that can help us read their mood. By looking at your pet’s body language you can tell a lot about what mood your pet is in.
Felines are very good at hiding how they are feeling and sometimes only display subtle changes in body position. When cats are stressed or anxious, they will often hide or withdraw from their normal perching area to somewhere more secluded. Stressed kitties will avoid eye contact or hold their head slightly down with ears slightly to the side of their head and appear to not want to engage with humans or other pets.
In contrast, if your cat sits or stands with their head high and ears perked up, they are interested friendly and attentive to what you are doing. Your feline may ask for attention by rubbing against furniture near you or your leg or arm if they are on the couch next to you. A cat that is relaxed laying down, may roll on his/her back to be petted or expose their stomach. Happy kitties are interested in interacting with you and toys and may even initiate play.
Anxious pups may walk stiffly with head down or in the same plane as their back. Some dogs will crouch in fear or avoid all eye contact to help alleviate the stress. Ears will be down and their tail in a low or neutral position
Dogs that are holding their bodies rigid with head down and making eye contact with you or another pet are on high alert, which can escalate the encounter to a growl or bite. Sometimes when dogs are showing aggression toward another pet or human their hackles will also be raised.
A wagging tail shows arousal and not necessarily if the dog is happy. Tail wagging should be related to other body positions and facial expressions. Usually, dogs that are happy will have alert ears and head. They may or may not avoid eye contact but they will appear comfortable. Eye contact is aggression in dog language so having a stare down session is very stressful for a canine. Dogs that are happy or submissive may lay on their back and be happy to show you, their belly! Happy pups may wag more than their tail but may move their whole body in a loosy-goosy way. They may play bow, try to initiate play, or even bring you toys.
When combined with body language, how your pet looks at you, as well as positions of their ears and lips, can give clues as to how happy or unhappy your pet may be.
When you kitty is not feeling well or in pain their ears will be down or directed to the side of the head. Cats may also squint their eyes more when they are unhappy or look like they are grimacing by flattening out their lip and nose area. Their head may be held lower instead of upright whether they are laying down or sitting or standing.
Squinting of the eye should not be confused with the kitty blink. Kitty blinks consist of wide open eyes, erect ears and head, with a slow intentional blink. If you blink back, they will likely respond with another blink. This blinking behavior is kitty language for “friend” sometimes called a “kitty kiss.” When your cat is happy their mouth nose and eyes will be bright and alert to anything going on and they will be interested in what you are doing.
In stressful situations or if your pup feels unsure they will avoid eye contact. Dogs will often lift their lip in a snarl and stare which can be a prelude to attack or aggression.
Dogs in pain will also have a tragic look on their face and may have what has been described as “a glassy look” to their eyes. Showing the whites of the eyes sometimes called “whale eye” in the context of fear or scary situation can mean severe anxiety about the situation or uncertainty.
Pups that are happy can show some of their teeth usually front teeth and have a relaxed “smile” on their face. Their eyes will look bright and ears will be erect. The happy pup face will be tranquil not stressed and will usually be accompanied by body language that says, “glad to meet you!”
Pets will vocalize when interacting with humans and other pets. Vocalization has long been studied as the unique animal language that needs to be translated. Sometimes it is easier to judge vocalization clues with body language to better understand what your pet is feeling.
Meowing is not usually used for communication with other cats on a regular basis except in certain situations. Meowing is mostly used when communicating with the pet parent. Kitties will often meow when they want attention or food. A mother cat will also gurgle with a lower meow to greet and call her kittens to her. Some cats will still vocalize this way to catch their pet parent’s attention.
Purring is an indication of contentment in most situations but some cats will purr if they are unsure about a situation or if they are in pain. If the kitty is in pain, they usually will have facial and body language that confirms they are in pain and not purring because they are content.
Meowing can also sound different in different situations. A yowling sound can indicate a pet in heat/season or when combine with a kitty growl, about to be in a fight with another feline. Indoor cats that are yowling loudly and trying to urinate at the same time are in pain because of a urinary blockage; this is an emergency situation.
Some dog breeds seem to bark more than others and some breeds like the Basenji do not bark but have a yodel or whine/howling that replaces barking in other breeds.
Growling is a warning to other dogs and humans and is usually accompanied by uncovered canine teeth with curled lip, lowered head, raised hackles and stiff body posture.
Dogs will often do an alert bark when there is a potential intruder or perceived threat. The alert bark is more forceful but at the same time can be associated with a more relaxed but interested demeanor than the aggressive growl. Pets that bark continually while the owner is absent, are having anxiety from either separation or other phobias that should be addressed with your veterinarian and a behaviorist.
Happy dogs generally will bark a few times and will be accompanied by body language that says “I am happy.” The barking is usually one or two barks rather than continuous barking. Some dogs also try to get attention with whining and may whine when they need to go outside or when you are not paying them the attention they deserve! Young puppies also will whine in different situations. Young puppies whine to communicate with their mother and littermates and may use this method of vocalizations to get their pet parent’s attention. Pets can whine if they are in pain, but that is usually associated with other signs of pain as below.
Signs of Pain
Signs of pain and discomfort vary by species. If you note number of these behaviors or signs of pain it may be time to pay your veterinarian a visit or give them a call.
Grimace or look of worry with ears flattened out to the side is the classic sign of pain in a cat. The lips and face may also flatten slightly from normal and eyes may be partially closed. Cats typically will avoid interacting or may hide when in pain. Kitties may also lay tucked up or sit very still and not react to, or seem unaware of, their surroundings. If they have hip or joint pain they may crouch down or you may see obvious limping. If the pain is associated with urinary tract disease they may yowl while trying to urinate. If there is severe pain from say a fracture or urinary blockage, kitty may lash out, try to scratch, hiss or bite at people or other pets that come near them.
Guarding, constant weight shifting or avoiding movement are signs that your pup has pain when moving. Obviously limping or not placing weight on a limb is a sure sign that there is something wrong. Some dogs will cry or whine and cannot be distracted from the vocalizing by a touch or voice. Dogs in severe pain will also have a worried expression on their face, may curl up in a ball facing away from interaction and avoid eye contact. Ears will often be held down or off to the side and the pup will avoid interaction with their owners or other pets.
Signs of Happiness
Pets display a number of signs that they are happy usually at the same time.
Many cats will come to you and ask for interaction or play. They may rub on you while purring or chortling. A happy kitty may present you with a very special present like a dead mouse or bird or a very special toy. Kitties seeking your attention may follow you around the home from room to room. If they are sitting with you, they may knead dough on you or any pillows/blankets near you. Cats that rub on your face or you, as well as sleep right next to you, are happy indeed! Your feline may also be willing to have you scratch their chest or belly and may demand attention by pulling your hand back to them with their paw, so you will continue to give them affection. A cat that is alert and loves your rubs and cuddling is a very content and you are a very fortunate to have a special relationship with your pet.
A joyful pup is a pleasure to be around. They will be ever so glad and excited to see you when you come home. They will have a “floppy body” and relaxed facial expression. Dogs often do play bowing when they want to play, bringing you a toy or ball for fetch or tug-of-war games. Some canines will smile with their mouth partly open and have alert ready for anything expression on their face. Their tail wags will be very fast or they may wag their whole body. When they are excited, their expression will be one of interest in what is going to happen next. A happy pup loves to play or go out for doggy activities like hikes and walks or training sessions. Your happy dog will also follow you around the house and will lean into you for scratches and pets. Delight is evident with your pup’s exuberant response to everyday activities with their favorite person!
While not every day can be the best day ever for our pets some warning signs should be mentioned here if there is a change in your pet’s behavior. If you notice a change in appetite, your pet is not eating at all or eating less, those are warning signs that they are not feeling well.
If your pet is hiding more than normal or separating from other pets and people in the home, that may be indication that there is pain or some other disease process causing lethargy.
If your dog is shaking or constantly barking when you are gone that is a sign of separation anxiety or worry about loud noises, for example firecrackers or thunderstorm fear. Medications from your veterinarian, pheromones, interactive toys like Kong and non-medication option for dogs like the Assisi Loop (https://assisianimalhealth.com/) can help with anxiety.
If you note that your pet is drinking more water than they used to or is urinating more often or not able to urinate those are signs that there could indicate an endocrine or urinary tract issues that need to be address right away. If you see any of these changes in behavior or notice your pet is limping, not able to jump or climb onto their favorite resting spot, that is the time to consult your veterinarian for an exam and diagnostic testing like urinalysis, blood work and possible radiographs.
Some Concluding Thoughts
With some simple observation of your pet’s appearance and attitude you can gain understanding into how your pet is feeling. Every interaction you have with your pet is an opportunity to assess how they are feeling or if something has changed. We all delight in seeing our pets healthy and happy and armed with information about their body language and behavior any minor change can signal the need for a consult with your veterinarian.
That's another pawsitive tip from AskVet's Dr. Tammie! To learn more about pet care, you can chat with an AskVet veterinarian 24x7 on the AskVet app any time, day or night.
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