Many of us wish that our animal friends were capable of human speech.
How much easier would our lives be if Fluffy could just walk up and say, “My belly hurts,” or “I want to go outside,” or even “What was that scary noise?!” It would prevent so many misunderstandings and hard feelings!
Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. But the good news is that our animal companions often do have ways of expressing their thoughts and emotions, even if their meanings aren’t immediately obvious!
The Tell-Tale Tail
When a dog wags its tail, that means it’s happy, right? Actually, the truth is a little more complicated. Dogs use their tails to convey a wide range of emotions, and while these signals are often intended for other dogs, humans would be wise to recognize them, too.
• When her tail is held high, she’s in high-energy mode. A dog with a tail pointing straight up is confident in herself. If this tail position is paired with a “play bow” posture, then it’s a sign that she’s feeling good and wants for someone—usually a human or other dog—to come romp with her. You might also see your dog wagging a high-held tail from side-to-side (or in a circular motion) when she’s excited to see you, another family member, or a friend. However, if a high tail is paired with rigid posture, perked up ears, and/or raised hackles, then she’s asserting her dominance and showing aggression. In this case, a tail wagging back-and-forth is not conveying happiness. She just wants other dogs to see her high tail and know that she’s the boss!
• When her tail is horizontal, she’s intrigued. Perhaps she heard a noise that warrants investigation, or maybe she smelled something worth searching for. An unusual or unexpected sight may have caught her eye, too. Whatever it is, something has her attention. And unless you redirect her focus, she’s probably going to go investigate!
• When her tail is relaxed, she’s relaxed. This one’s fairly self-explanatory. A content dog that is happy and laid back may give a few gentle tail-wags when she notices you looking her way or sees someone approaching. But overall, her tail will be “at rest.”
• When her tail is hanging very low or tucked between her legs, something is wrong. Dogs lower their tails as a sign of submission, so if you see Sparky doing this, she’s probably stressed out or frightened—regardless of whether or not her tail is still wagging. Be especially wary if you notice her tucking in her tail in while she’s in public (she might be overwhelmed by unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells) or around other dogs (she may be feeling threatened by them, even if they’re just trying to be friendly). Keep in mind that a scared dog can easily lash out if pushed too far, so make sure that other people (especially children) and other dogs are kept away from your pooch when she’s on edge.
Slow Blinks are “Kitty Kisses”
Cats are (in)famous for their ability to stare at people, objects, or seemingly nothing for extended periods of time. And if you’ve ever been stared down by a cat, you know that it can be a little unnerving. That’s understandable, since for cats, direct eye contact often signifies aggression or serves as an intimidation tactic to other cats or animals. So, even if you love your cat and can’t help but watch him, try not to stare directly into his eyes—he might be left wondering what the heck your problem is!
On the other hand, if a cat feels at ease around you, you might notice him do something else with his eyes: blinking very slowly, as if he’s nodding off to sleep. It’s certainly subtle, but it’s easy enough to spot if you know what you’re looking for. A cat blinking in a slow, deliberate manner is conveying that he trusts you enough to close his eyes around you—he’s confident that you’re not going to turn on him if he drops his guard. Cats blink at each other to signify friendliness, and this behavior carries over to their interactions with people. The next time you catch your cat doing a slow blink, try returning the favor with a slow blink of your own. In a sense, you’ll be saying to him, “I love you, too.”
Do Your Ears Hang Low?
Horses are so large and powerful that it’s easy to forget that they’re “prey” animals. And like rabbits, small birds, and other prey critters, they live their lives constantly high on alert for predators, ready to flee if they sense danger. If you own a hose, one of the best things you can do for him (besides providing nutritious, high-quality food to eat and plenty of room to exercise) is to make him feel safe. And to get some insight into your horse’s psyche, take a look at his ears:
• When his ears are facing outward, he’s feeling content. He’s minding his own business, or he might even be taking a nap. While this ear position usually bodes well for approaching the horse, do not sneak up on him—that’s a recipe for getting kicked or stepped on. Instead, call the horse’s name or make some kind of friendly noise (whistling, teeth-clicking, etc.) until he notices you. If you get his attention and he still seems relaxed, then it’s probably okay to come closer.
• When his ears are turned back, he’s focused on something. This isn’t always a bad thing; he could just be curious about a sound he hears behind him. However, if he pins his ears back and shows other signs of distress (frequent tail swishing, flared nostrils, elevated head), he might be afraid. Time to reassure him or redirect his attention!
• When his ears are swiveling back-and-forth, he’s anxious or stressed out. A strange sound (especially one that he can’t find the source of) or smell is bothering him, or he’s overstimulated in his current environment. A frightened horse is liable to bolt or kick, so if you notice that Midnight is agitated, you need to get him under control or get out of his way!
Regardless of what kind of pet you have, it’s critically important for you to know what’s “normal” for her. The aforementioned behaviors are all guidelines, but no two dogs, cats, or horses are completely alike. If you’re aware of your pet’s individual quirks, likes, and dislikes, then it will be easier for you to notice when your pet is acting unusual—and odd behavior can often be a sign of illness or distress. Don’t assume that a normally friendly or social cat that suddenly becomes standoffish is “just being a cat.” Investigate the matter, and talk to your vet if you’re concerned.
Remember: just because your pet can’t talk doesn’t mean that they don’t have anything to say!