How to understand what your pet is trying to tell you

By: Barbara Righton

Author: Canadian Living


How to understand what your pet is trying to tell you

By: Barbara Righton
It was a stormy night. I was hunkered down on the couch when Butch, our normally passive male cat, walked up, stared me in the face and yowled so fiercely that the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Because his behaviour was so odd, I knew something was wrong. My boyfriend and I packed him into his carrying cage and drove through the pounding rain to an emergency animal clinic. It turned out he had a blocked urethra and needed an operation to save his life.

After he recovered, I realized something interesting. While Butch usually goes to my boyfriend for affection, it was smart of him to tell me that he was sick. In our household, which includes two cats and a dog, my boyfriend does the feeding and walking, but I'm the one who takes them to the vet. And I may be the one who listens most when they have something to say.  

How your pet communicates

Pets do talk, whether to tell us they are sick or feeling playful or wary of a stranger, and that is no bone of contention among veterinary animal behaviour experts. Because we want to make sure our pets are happy and healthy, it's important for us to make sense of their messages.
But it isn't always easy. "Pets are individuals," says Dr. Gary Landsberg, a veterinary behaviourist in Thornhill, Ont. "Some are more expressive than others." In dogs this difference is largely due to genetics – a toy poodle, for example, may dance on its hind legs for its supper, while a hound may bay for his. Genetics account for behaviour to a lesser degree in cats, except for exotic breeds such as Bengals, for example, which tend to vocalize more than ordinary domestic cats. In both dogs and cats, nurturing and training also play a role, but, says Landsberg, they only bring out the behavioural traits they are born with.

What pets share is their motivation. "Mostly they are trying to get something," says Dr. Sagi Denenberg, a veterinary behaviour resident who works with Landsberg. Uppermost may be your attention, which can include food, petting or even help, says Denenberg. But pets also try to warn us or even tell us to leave them alone. As we get to know them, we begin to understand their different ways of communicating.

Page 1 of 3 Discover what else your pets are trying to tell you on page 2.
How to understand what your pet is saying
Pets communicate visually, using a variety of body parts that often act in concert. If the eyes are windows to the human soul, they may also be a key to interpreting your animal's behaviour.

Pets have a way of getting our attention by staring at us, like Butch did, say the experts. If a pet's eyes are wide open, with pupils dilated, it's alert and may be about to pounce or give us a nip. Ear position is a giveaway, too. The normal position of a cat's ears is up, says Dr. Mary Klinck, a veterinary behaviourist at the University of Montreal, but ears that are flattened back indicate fear. When a dog's ears are up and pointed forward, he’s alert and trying to decide what to do next.

Changing postures and sounds your pets make
Postures change from one dog breed to another. Terriers, for example, may naturally be more upright in their carriage. But other dogs and cats may assume an upright posture, says Klinck, to scare away a threat by making themselves appear bigger.

Both dogs and cats may stand tall when they are very interested in something, like a bird or a ball. But Klinck adds that if a cat or dog approaches you with an upright posture, he may just want you to back off; if his posture is lowered, he's signalling that he's not looking for trouble. If she's feeling playful, a cat may roll over to invite play; a dog may let you know by crouching with her butt in the air and her tail a-waggin'.

Tails are very expressive. Cats often hold them straight up when they are happy. Dogs do it when they are acting in a dominant way. A dog furiously wagging its tail may be especially happy to see you, but when a cat lashes its tail, it's most definitely not happy – or may be about to scream at an interloper in the garden.

As for sounds, pets can do things that are really dramatic, says Denenberg. In fact, he explains, dogs have four different barks that vary in pitch and frequency, from the low rolling growl of warning to the long, high-pitched howl of stress. An alarm bark is high-pitched and monotone.

A play-with-me bark goes back and forth quickly between high tones and low tones. "Cats, too, have a whole repertoire of recognizable sounds that they make in different situations," says Klinck. "They often chirp in a friendly interactive context." Or cry when they need help.

Page 2 of 3 – Find out how to effectively communicate with your pets on page 3.
Body language
Dogs and cats are able to use their bodies to convey a wide range of emotions. Here are some of the things they may be trying to share with you – and how.

• Fear or uncertainty: He'll avoid making eye contact with you; or he'll tuck his tail.
• Stress: He'll pull his ears back.
Wants attention: He'll put his paw on your knee, nudge you with his snout or bark.
• Interested…maybe: He'll lower his tail and move it from side to side.
• Defensive: He'll raise his tail straight up (it will bristle at the base, along with the hair on his back); he'll raise his head, too.

• Vigilant: She'll be wide-eyed (and her pupils will be dilated).
• At ease: She'll half-close her eyes.
• Frightened: She'll pull her ears back; or she'll puff up her tail and keep her body low and her tail swaying.
• Friendly: She'll raise her tail straight up and greet you with chirping noises.
• Pursuing prey: She'll lash her tail back and forth; she'll also do this if she perceives a threat.

Our part in the dialogue

Pets talk to different members of the family in different ways. "It's like kids who learn to interact in one way with one parent and in another way with the other," Denenberg says. "Dogs and cats come into this world hard-wired to communicate with other dogs and cats," says Klinck. "With each of us, they learn what is effective."

From the moment a pet comes home, it learns to rely on different people for different things. Felix, the cat, may only meow at Mom, asking for food, because Mom began to feed him when he was a kitten and feeds him the most often. Likewise, Murphy, the dog, may associate the word "walk" with the teenage daughter in the house who tends to take him out the most. "And sometimes the word is associated with only one person," says Landsberg.

Whomever they talk to in the family, communication is always a two-way street. By getting to know our ways, our pets learn what works. And we learn what they want us to know. As we grow together, experience helps us all to become truly kindred spirits.

This story was originally titled "Pet Speak" in the September 2011 issue.

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How to understand what your pet is trying to tell you