Understanding someone who is speaking a foreign language can be difficult. Understanding pets can be more challenging, as they do not use words with familiar meanings. Instead, we have to rely on subtle body language to understand their thoughts and emotional states. And, although pets do vocalize to “talk,” they depend on their body-language cues to get their point across, especially when conversing with their own species. As a pet owner, learning to read your furry friend’s signals is essential for detecting pain, discomfort, stress, anxiety, fear, curiosity, or happiness. Read the following facts on your pet’s body language, and interpreting her feelings and health status will be a cinch.

Body language of a happy, healthy dog

You likely know when your pooch is feeling well—she has a bounce in her step, a gleam in her eye, and a wiggly hind end. Dogs who are happy and healthy will have loose, fluid body movements, almond-shaped eyes, and a fast-wagging tail that is likely spinning around in a helicopter motion. Happy dogs may keep their mouths slightly open, with a relaxed tongue, while stressed or painful dogs may pant, regardless of weather conditions or recent exercise. 

Body language of a happy, healthy cat

Cats’ body language can be more challenging to interpret. As both a prey and predator species, cats are masters at hiding their thoughts, feelings, pain, and illness. A healthy, happy cat will engage in normal grooming behavior, avoiding overgrooming that may be caused by pain or stress. Some healthy cats are naturally shy and do not interact much, but outgoing cats will seek attention and companionship when they feel well, rather than hiding. When relaxed and happy, your cat’s eyes will likely be heavy-lidded and she’ll blink slowly at you, but if she becomes anxious or fearful, her eyes will widen and become much rounder. Purring can also be misleading, because your cat will likely purr as she falls asleep on your lap, but cats also purr to comfort and heal themselves when stressed, sick, or injured. Research has discovered that the frequency of feline purrs has been associated with bone growth and fracture healing. When trying to understand what your cat is telling you through her body language, look at the big picture—she may be purring because of pain, not happiness. 

How to identify a sick pet’s body language

It’s no secret that pets are excellent at hiding signs of pain or illness. Because of this highly honed defense mechanism, learning to identify subtle changes in your pet’s behavior and body language, to pick up on illness before it progresses and lands your furry pal in our animal emergency hospital, is critical. 

  • Change in body position or stance — An injured or ill pet will likely protect the affected area, demonstrated by a change in overall stance. For example, an arched back can indicate your pet is experiencing abdominal or back pain, and the two can easily be confused without additional diagnostics. Identifying subtle hints of pain in pets who are stoic and reluctant to show discomfort can be challenging, especially if their other behaviors are normal. Keep an eye out for a weight shift from a painful limb or joint, a change in sitting or lying position, or a difference in walking, running, jumping, or standing.
  • Change in mental state or cognitive function — Many pet owners are highly in tune with their furry friends, and can identify differences in their mental or emotional states. If your pet is ill or injured, you may notice increased anxiety, indicated by the following signs:
    • Panting
    • Pacing
    • Hiding
    • Wide open eyes
    • Lowered tail
    • Quick, darting movements

  • Change in activity level — If your pet is unwell, you’ll likely notice a change in activity level, as well as in her movements. Most sick or injured pets are lethargic, slow to rise, and reluctant to perform their daily activities. Refusing to go on a walk or play a favorite game is often a key indicator of a pet’s health issue. And, while pets naturally slow down as they age, a minute change in your pet’s activity level may be a sign of an underlying disease process, so monitor your pet closely, to catch problems early on.
  • Change in eating, drinking, and elimination habits — Differences in your pet’s eating, drinking, or elimination habits are often the easiest to identify, unless you have multiple pets who share resources. Vomiting, diarrhea, or excessive thirst and urination are clearly more likely clues that your pet is ill, rather than a subtle body-stance change.

While these changes in your pet’s normal behavior, body language, attitude, and activities may be difficult to identify, they are key indicators of an underlying health issue. Remember—pets are highly skilled at hiding pain, illness, or injury signs, so spotting a variation from their normal appearance or behavior requires close monitoring. 

Is your pet displaying odd body language, or vocalizing differently? She may be injured or ill, and signaling for help. Don’t wait until morning—contact us for assistance in deciphering your furry pal’s cry for aid.