Dog and Cat Body Language

Adopted on September 26, 2018

What I’ve Learned About Dog and Cat Body Language

by Brandon Mustful

For starters, I need to make it clear that I am not an expert on dog and cat body language. At the same time, I have learned a lot about the topic since becoming Director of this organization in 2012. The main thing that I have learned and wish to convey regarding the topic, is that it is important. When I took this job, I only knew what came naturally for me to know about dog and cat body language. Basically, I knew that if a dog or cat was growling or hissing at me, I needed to stay away. I had no idea about the subtleties and intricacies of their attempts to communicate though. Over time, I learned some things the hard way. I remember needing to take a scared cat to the vet and accomplishing that feat, but only after getting my hands ripped up. In fact, during my first year, I probably got my hands torn up by cat claws three or four times. I am proud to say that now I don’t remember the last time I had that experience.

At Great River Rescue, we strive to educate the public in general, and specifically youth, about animal welfare related topics including understanding dog and cat body language. In working to educate others, I was forced to learn more about the topic myself. Experience, coupled with the need to educate myself, has taught me a lot. I see things I never saw before. I respond proactively to the cues I see and am better able to communicate to others what I’m seeing. In the end, I am much better able to meet the needs of the animal because I understand him so much more.

One of the main things I’ve learned over the years, is that many people are like I once was – they don’t know what to look for. They might now know what it means when a cat has its tail up or down, or what it means when his ears are forward, back, or sideways. Additionally, even if someone knows what some of those signs mean, they aren’t looking for them. Sometimes we will make judgments about an animal, without being able to provide any useful information. For example, a potential adopter might see a dog at our shelter jumping up at them and barking and decide, “That dog doesn’t like me.” However, when you ask the person how they know the dog doesn’t like them, they can’t tell you.

In the shelter world, observing animal behaviors and cues is really important. We need to be able to communicate what we see from an animal and respond accordingly. Telling someone that a certain dog, “doesn’t get along with kids” is ultimately not helpful. What does help is telling someone exactly what we observe when a dog is introduced to a child. For instance, a dog that tucks its tail and tries to hide in the corner is very different from a dog that bares its teeth, growls, and tenses its muscles when around a child. Yet, you could say for both dogs that it “doesn’t get along with kids.”

Knowing how a dog or cat reacts in certain circumstances can really affect how we help the animal and avoid difficult situations. Plus, it helps us track an animal’s progress. Sometimes, we’ll observe a dog growling at other dogs as we walk him by other kennels. With that in mind, we’ll make a plan to help him with that issue and learn that he is safe around the other dogs at the shelter. If we are noting his behaviors, we can see how he improves over time. This is a much better way to determine how the dog is doing. Instead of first saying, “he doesn’t get along with other dogs, but now he does,” we can say, “he used to growl at dogs when walking by their kennels, and now he doesn’t.” Being able to communicate what we observe helps staff, potential adopters, volunteers and others get a better picture of what’s happening, and what they can expect from the animal in the future.

Like I said at the beginning of this article, I am not an expert on animal body language. But, I do know that it is helpful to understand what to look for. Therefore, I’m adding some links to good information about dog and cat body language. I encourage anyone to check these resources out and get educated about the topic.

A Guide to Cat Body Language from 

Recognizing Cat Body Posture from the ASPCA

The Definitive Guide to Cat Behavior and Body Language from Tuft and Paw

7 Tips on Dog Body Language from the ASPCA

How to Read Dog Body Language from the American Kennel Club

Examples of Real World Dog Body Language

If you are a group leader for youth and would like your kids to learn more about dog and cat body language, we would be happy to set up a presentation for you. We often go to schools and after school programs to teach kids how to be safe around animals. We also offer tours to church groups, boys and girls scouts, and other youth programs. Please contact me at and we can set up a time for a presentation.

Thank you for reading my little article about dog and cat body language. I hope that you will be encouraged to learn more about the topic and apply it to your interactions with dogs and cats. It is amazing how much animals tell us if we just learn to observe.

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