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Body Language: Dogs vs. Cats

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Our pets communicate with us every day through body language, from tail wags to tilted ears. Understanding what these signals mean will help you determine how your pet is feeling, whether happy, frightened, or aggressive.

If you know what your pet is feeling, you will be able to approach your pet appropriately in any situation. However, many pet owners don’t realize that dogs and cats have quite different ways of expressing themselves. For instance, a tail-wagging dog is happy and content, however, a tail-wagging cat may be unhappy or irritated. It’s important to understand your pet’s particular body language so that you can best respond to his or her needs.

Dog Body Language

Tail: A wagging tail usually does mean that a dog is happy or excited, but keep in mind that it can also be a warning of attack. A dog that’s ready to attack may hold its tail high and wave it back and forth. You can tell that a wagging tail is a warning sign by looking at the dog’s body posture. If a dog is tense and pulling back its lips to bare its teeth, it is prepared to attack, whereas a dog with a relaxed body and a wagging tail is happy to see you!

Ears: When a dog moves its ears back slightly, it means that the dog is happy to greet you. Moving the ears back farther is a submissive gesture, meant to appease the person or another dog that your dog views as dominant. A dog with its ears pressed back is usually fearful or distressed. This dog may attack if pressed, so proceed with caution. On the other hand, if a dog tilts its ears forward and shows other aggressive signs, such as curled lips and visible teeth, he is prepared to act aggressively. Leave this dog alone.

Eyes: A stressed or frightened dog’s eyes may be closed slightly and appear smaller. Watch for squinting; if there’s no sun in your dog’s eyes, squinting may be a sign that your dog is in pain. If a dog stares you directly in your eyes, it’s a threat; don’t stare back. However, if your dog blinks while looking you in the eyes, it’s a friendly gesture. Try blinking back to show your affection.

Mouth: When your dog is relaxed, his mouth will be closed or slightly open with the tongue hanging out. If your dog closes his mouth tightly and pulls back his lips at the corners of his mouth, he is probably stressed or frightened. And while everyone knows to avoid a dog with its lips pulled back and teeth bared, this behavior might actually be a sign of submission. Some dogs bare the ‘submissive grin’ to show their inferiority to their owners. You can tell whether bared teeth are an aggressive or submissive sign by looking at the dog’s body posture. If the dog’s body is relaxed, he is most likely not a threat.

Body Posture: A dog’s body posture tells a lot about how he is feeling. An aggressive dog will try to make himself look as big and scary as possible. His legs will be stiff and he may rise up higher on his toes. A frightened and submissive dog will make himself as small as possible to show that he is not a threat. He may drop to the ground, lower his head, or curl his tail between his legs. If your dog is panting and moving and then suddenly freezes, this is often a sign that your dog feels uncomfortable; proceed with caution because he may act aggressively if he feels threatened.

Cat Body Language

Tail: A friendly, happy, and relaxed cat will hold its tail high and straight. A tail raised high with the fur puffed out indicates that a cat feels threatened and is ready to attack; cats puff out their fur to seem larger and scarier than they are. If your cat’s tail is curved at the tip like a question mark, they want to play! Take a break from your busy day to spend some time with your feline friend. If a cat moves its tail from side to side, the faster the tail is moving, the more upset the cat is. A tail down is a sign that a cat feels nervous or afraid. However, some breeds, such as Persians, commonly sport a low tail for no reason at all.

Ears: A friendly, comfortable cat holds its ears forward and alert. If your cat’s ears twitch, it often means they are highly observant. If the ears are tilted horizontal and out to the sides or pinned flat back, your cat is upset and may act aggressively.

Eyes: Similar to dogs, a staredown with your cat is a sign of a challenge, but if your cat blinks slowly while looking in your eyes, it shows that your cat feels safe and comfortable with you. Try returning the gesture by slowly blinking back! If your cat’s eyes are half-closed, they feel at ease and trusting. This is because closed eyes are the ultimate sign of trust in the feline world! 

You can also tell a lot from your cat’s pupils, but deciphering this form of body language is tricky! When a cat feels nervous or provoked, the pupils expand and the eyes get glassy because the pupils are dilated. However, this may also indicate that your cat simply wants to play! Dilated pupils are also a sign of over-stimulation, so try giving your cat some space. Constricted pupils may also be a sign to back off, meaning your cat is feeling tense and potentially aggressive, but it can also be a sign of contentment.

Mouth: A relaxed cat has a closed mouth. A panting cat may be highly stressed or frightened. If your cat is not interacting with another animal or in any kind of stressful situation, panting may indicate a serious health condition and you should contact your veterinarian immediately. You can also look at a cat’s whiskers for cues on how she’s feeling. Whiskers that are forward and relaxed are a sign of a happy cat, whereas whiskers that are forward and stretched out indicate that a cat is excited or ready to pounce.

Body Posture: Like an aggressive dog, a cat that’s primed to attack will try to make themselves look as big and threatening as possible by arching their back and puffing out their tail. A cat that feels afraid will flatten their body to the floor and drop their ears to the side in order to appear as tiny and harmless as possible. Either way, it’s best to give this cat some space until they feel comfortable again. If a cat’s back is arched with the fur flat, he is trying to tell you he wants to be touched. Cats that are lying on their back and showing their bellies are showing trust, but do not rub a cat’s belly! This is one way cats and dogs are very different.

Kneading: If your cat is ‘making biscuits’ by moving their paws on a soft surface, they are letting you know they are really happy! This is a trait that begins when they are kittens.

Rubbing: If your cat rubs his body and chin against you, he is technically marking his territory. But, this also shows affection! Cats may also rub their gums against you; this is not an aggressive act, but a sign of love.


Body language is not always easy to read, but you know your pet better than anyone. Give it a shot!