What Is Your Pet Really Saying?

Photo: Kristin G.

Photo: Kristin G.

Have you ever looked at your cat or dog and thought, “What are they thinking?” Well, you’re not alone. Dr. Carlo Siracusa, Director, Animal Behavior Service at Ryan Veterinary Hospital, realizes that humans, dogs, and cats are species with enormously different communicative skills. In other words, cats understand cats, dogs understand dogs, and humans understand humans. But is it possible to understand one another? Dr. Siracusa and many of you believe the answer is YES. Many of us feel that our pets understand our various moods and emotions, but can we understand them as well?

Cats are independent, and their communicative skills are relatively poor. Even our purring household cat will sporadically rub up against us when the spirit moves him, but the next minute he will turn and hiss. It is important to pay attention to his body language.

On the contrary, dogs have always been social animals. They have developed sophisticated communicative skills. But do they always enjoy the exuberance that some people show when interacting with an unfamiliar dog? To answer this question, let’s observe what most dogs would do to greet another dog or a human. If we want to know what the dog thinks about the interaction, we have to look at the rest of his body. If he is “play bowing”, he may be happy to start a playful interaction. Conversely, if his ears are positioned backward and his tongue is repeatedly licking his lips and nose, then the dog probably needs some more time before engaging in a closer interaction. There are many other behaviors that a dog can show in similar circumstances, and each of them comes with a different message. Unfortunately we don’t always pay attention to these messages and, unless a dog is clearly showing an aggressive behavior, we assume that he is fine with us. So we move forward too quickly and start a close physical interaction that might make feel the dog threatened.

According to Dr. Siracusa, observing your pet’s behavior is the best way to really get to know him. He suggests that we:

– Know the species-typical behavior

– Observe the behavior of the single individual to understand his messages

– Respond appropriately, in accordance with the pet’s point of view!

This is a great exercise to improve our communication skills and promote empathy towards those species, cultures, and individuals that see the world in a different way. We should make an effort to understand their emotions and respect them.

For other behavior tips, check out the Penn Vet Behavior facebook page.

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