Pet owners often claim their pets have distinct personalities. Is this the result of familiarity, the same way people tend to connect an emotional state with a nervous tic or habit? Or can pet owners actually interpret a pet's emotional state via body language? According to some experts, yes they can. By focusing on their pet's tail, along with some other signals, pet owners and strangers can get a good sense of how the animal is feeling.
Veronica Sanchez, a trainer and behavior consultant for Cooperative Paws with credentials from multiple dog-training organizations, stresses that every dog is unique, and "the specifics about the dog, the context and the dog's behavior history matter."
"Most dogs carry their tails in the middle and move both their tails and their bodies when they are relaxed," Sanchez says. "A dog carrying his tail higher than usual generally means the dog is excited or on alert." Sanchez warns that this state should be considered a "red flag," signifying that the dog is overexcited or possibly aggressive. "Fearful dogs tend to lower their tails and may wag them very low or simply tuck them if they are very afraid," adds Sanchez.
But a person should not focus on only one part of a dog's body language. Ideally, a dog's body should be in a Goldilocks-like, relaxed state: "Their mouths are slightly open, their ears are not too far forward and not held back, their tails are held in the middle, and they are wagging them, but not too fast and not too slowly." Pay attention to deviations from this state.
"Dogs that are excited or nervous will often move much faster, may pant more than usual and vocalize. Fearful dogs often move more slowly and have a crouched posture," notes Sanchez. When confronting a dog displaying these traits, Sanchez advises giving the dog space, standing off to the side of the dog and avoiding eye contact.
Similarly, Dr. Fred Jones, a cat owner and veterinarian at Arlington (Va.) Animal Hospital who has been practicing for 14 years, says that cats' tails can also reveal a lot about a their emotional states.
"Generally speaking, when a cat's tail is up, it means they are relaxed. It means they are comfortable with their surroundings," Jones says. And when a cat's tail is down, it "can be an indication that it's under the weather or not wanting to be bothered at the time. More often than not, when a cat's tail is down, it's a cautionary sign."
Unlike dogs, which tend to wag their tails out of excitement, Jones says that when a cat "swishes its tail from side to side or lightly thumps it" against something, it "usually means the cat is severely irritated. If I have a cat start to swish his tail back and forth, it means my time to finish the exam is limited." But for kittens, Jones says the swishing "can indicate playfulness and that the kitten is about to pounce on something."
People can look at cats' ears, like dogs', for a secondary clue about their emotional state. "If a cat's ears are straight up or slightly forward, the cat is good. If the ears start to fall back and flatten, that's an indication that they are scared, and that can lead to aggression," says Jones. "Of course, some cats can be generally aggressive, but generally, aggression in cats is fear-based." And like a dog, cats that are feeling fearful should be approached indirectly. Jones suggests approaching from the side or even from behind. Additionally, he reported that at a recent continuing-education event, an expert said a chirping or purring -- "or some nonaggressive, high-pitched, neutral or friendly repetitive noise" -- could help put a cat at ease.
Every animal is unique, but by studying these signals, pet owners and those meeting cats or dogs for the first time can have a better sense of how an animal is feeling and act accordingly. And that can mean safer, happier interactions for all concerned, animals and humans alike.