New Pet Owner

Understanding Your Pet’s Body Language

Understanding Your Pet’s Body Language

What’s your pet trying to tell you with its eyes, ears and tail? Without saying a word, dogs and cats express emotion — and indicate when to come closer and when it’s wise to back away.

Cats and dogs are excellent non-verbal communicators. Wordlessly they can convey a mood, from relaxed and content to angry and alarmed. The ability to interpret their expressions enables us to understand and respond appropriately.

Pets instinctively use a combination of posture, tail position, eyes, ears, and facial expressions to send a message. Although dogs and cats often show emotion in similar ways, there are species-specific differences.

Observe your pet’s body language, compare it with these typical behaviors, and see if your dog or cat is sending you a message:


Happy: Rapid tail wagging from side to side or in circles is a sure sign of canine joy when ears are in a natural position and the mouth is relaxed or slightly open. Some dogs even appear to be smiling.

Alert: Gaze is intense and focused. Ears perk up and angle forward, and head and neck are erect or slightly cocked. Posture is upright with the dog’s weight distributed equally on all fours. The tail is rigid and immobile.

Excited: Weight shifts to rear legs as a dog readies for action. Ears are up, the tail is held high and mouth may be slightly open in anticipation.

Friendly: A friendly dog will look up at you and may jump up on you or bring you one of its toys.

Playful: Bouncy and energetic, a dog who wants to play may first stretch into a bow to let you know he’s up for fun. Or he may nuzzle or paw at you and then take off running in the hopes you’ll chase after him (another good reason to make sure he’s microchipped).

Afraid: Scared dogs appear to cower and shrink in size. They back away. Their ears flatten out and the tail descends low or goes between the legs.

Submissive: Submissive dogs try to make themselves look small and they walk low to the ground. They tuck their tail low or between their legs and avoid looking another dog or a person in the eye.

Dominant: Standing tall and looking large, a dominant dog tilts its body forward. Tail is high, ears are up, and she looks at other dogs or people unblinkingly.

Aggressive: Hostile, belligerent dogs are to be avoided. They generally stare, unblinkingly at a person or animal. Posture is intimidating, with weight shifted forward. Tail is raised high. Teeth are bared. The dog may vocalize with low, threatening growls or barks. Avoid when possible — and do not issue a challenge by staring back.


Happy: Eyes that are closed or half-shut, ears angled forward and a tail up or languidly flexing all signal a contented cat. His fur will be flat and he may begin to purr, stretch out, roll over or knead with his front paws.

Alert: Eyes wide open. Ears subtly tipped forward.

Friendly: Slow blinks indicate affection and contentment.

Playful: Ears open and tilted slightly forward and a tail curled upward indicate a cat willing to engage.

Afraid: A fearful cat tucks his tail low between his legs, shifts his ears sideways and his pupils widen. He wants to be anywhere but there and may rush away to find a safe spot.

Submissive: Crouches, gets small, flattens ears.

Tense: Pupils narrow and tail stands upright and vibrates almost imperceptibly.

Angry: Ears flatten and point upward, pupils narrow, whiskers point forward, tail begins to thrash. Back arches, fur stands on end, claws extend. Back off!

Defensive: Pupils shrink, tail twitches and cat responds to perceived threat by growling, snarling, hissing or spitting.

Susan Breslow is the former Head of Publications for the ASPCA and the author of the children’s book “I Really Want a Dog.” She writes about pets and people and cares for two rescued cocker spaniels.