As a pet owner have you ever wished for the ability to speak to your pet? Just imagine what it would be like if you could come home from a long day at work, and upon greeting you at the door, Fluffy asks you how your day has been? What if you could ask your dog how many friends he or she made at the park today? Or how many mice your barn cat has caught? Imagine, if they could tell us how they were feeling — happy, sad, sick, or stressed? Well, what if they already do tell us? What if their language is just so subtle, that we may miss it if we don’t already know what we are looking for?
Pets can’t talk in the same way we can. Instead, they express themselves through little tiny changes in body movement, such as a changed expression or a sideways stance. Let’s get into some specifics about communicating stress:
Dog displaying ‘whale eyes'
Dogs have many different ways of showing stress that become obvious to us once we know what we should be looking for. These can range from vague behaviors to full on warning signs that they are uncomfortable. Watch for:
- Refusing to eat
- Yawning when not in a calm and relaxed environment
- Repeatedly switching from a standing to laying position and vice versa
- ‘Whale eye’, or showing the whites of his or her eyes
- Furrowed eyebrows
- Ears pressed back against the head
- Tail tucked between the legs
- Cowering and shivering
- Raising hackles
- Baring teeth
Dog with ears pressed back and baring teeth
Of course, not all dogs will show all of the above signs all of the time. Some dogs may not display their signs incrementally and can skip directly from a more subtle sign to biting in an instant. However, most dogs do give plenty of warnings before jumping to an extreme, so it is very important to give them space and watch them carefully.
Depending on the situation, such as when fireworks are exploding during a New Year’s celebration, some dogs may not feel the need to escalate to growling or biting, and will stop at a lesser state of stress.
Kitten with an arched back and puffy tail
It is no secret that cats can be more difficult to read than dogs. Cats communicate even more subtly than their canine counterparts. While watching how a cat positions its ears and how it moves its tail are very good indicators that it is about to strike, these are already considered extreme states in cat body language. Ranging from subtle to explicit displays of stress in cats, watch for:
- Refusing to eat
- Urinating inappropriately or becoming unable to urinate (especially in male cats)
- Slinking with the body low to the ground
- Curling into a ball while not in a calm and relaxed environment
- Swishing tail tip
- Ears pressed back against the head
- Puffy tail
- Arched back and raised hackles
- Panting when not playing hard
Cat with ears pressed back, arched back with raised hackles, and a tucked, fluffy tail
Even more often than dogs, cats may exhibit subtle early warning signs of stress that we do not notice until they have already escalated to hissing, growling, swiping, and biting. It is very important to move slowly with cats in order to give them ample time to express discomfort before they feel like they need to jump to more extreme communication methods.
And just like in dogs, displays of stress in cats can be situational. Cats are more likely to show prolonged subtle signs of stress when not confronted head to head, such as when moving into a new environment or when they are feeling ill.
How can we help when our pet's stressed?
Removing stressors - This is an obvious solution when possible. For example, if pets are becoming stressed by unwelcome visitors or by being in strange environments, removing those strangers or putting them in more familiar environments can relieve their stress.
Supplements and diets - Believe it or not, there are supplements and diets that can be used to help calm pets. These include calming pheromones, supplements, probiotics, cat grasses, and certain herbs. Unfortunately, success varies between pets and situations, so finding a combination or regimen that works well for you and your pet is important, thought it may take some trial and error. Checkout Wellnergy Pets Calming Chews with Hemp and Probiotics, if you're looking for natural supplements to try if you feel your pet may be stressed:
Treating any illnesses - Many pets will display signs of stress when feeling sick or in pain. It is always important to bring pets to a licensed veterinarian if a source of stress cannot be easily identified. A veterinarian will perform a physical exam and any tests necessary to identify any potential illnesses.
Ultimately, understanding dogs and cats takes patience and practice. The more time we spend observing their body languages, the more we are able to figure out how they are feeling and what they are trying to communicate with us.
One day, we may finally develop a dog and cat translator device (which we may end up regretting after the thousandth time they ask us to help clean their butts). Until then, we’ll just have to rely on the above subtle signs of a pet stressed.
About the Author:
Dr. Debra Chen, D.V.M. has been a practicing companion animal veterinarian for over three years in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to moving to the Bay, she received both her veterinary and undergraduate degrees at the University of Minnesota. After spending a third of her life in Taiwan, she is also fluent in Mandarin Chinese. Her veterinary interests include preventative medicine, animal behavior, and surgery. When not practicing medicine, Dr. Chen can be found camping, hiking, eating, or traveling with her husband and Formosan Mountain Dog, Tuna. They also share a home with their two feline overlords, brown tabby cats Cairo and Khaleesi.