Most owners have trouble understanding whether or not their pet is anxious, stressed, or fearful. Wouldn't it be so much easier if they could speak? Animals, especially dogs and cats are actually very expressive creatures! We just have to learn to understand their language. Most people can tell that if a dog's tail is tucked between its legs, it is fearful, and when it's wagging back and forth, it's happy! But what about its ears? Its eyes? Its mouth? Below I'll be outlining the basics of canine and feline body language so we can better understand how they are feeling.
Good indicators of body language include the ears, eyes, mouth, body, and tail. These features alone can be indicative of mood, however, it is much better to get a look at the whole picture. For example, ears standing up and forward tell us that the dog is alert. However, alert could mean alert and in danger, or excitement because we saw a squirrel, or concentration while balancing a treat on our nose. In general, we can tell that a dog is happy and relaxed by body language that is loose and relaxed. A fearful dog will appear as small as possible, ears pinned back, tail tucked, and body crouched. An aggressive/alert dog will have a stiff and forward body posture, intensely focused on its target.
In addition to posture, animals often show behavior that is indicative of their mood. Pacing, hyper-excitement, panting, shaking, and hiding are all common behaviors of anxiety. Urination or defecation may also occur under extreme states of distress. They may also exhibit displacement behaviors, a behavior that they would not otherwise naturally perform. This can include lip licking, excessive grooming, and excessive sniffing. With cats, you may notice that they try to stay inside of their carrier and crouch into a tight ball. Hissing and growling are also common feline behaviors of stress. While your pets may be friendly and gentle at home, it is not common for them to exhibit aggressive behaviors under duress. If someone was ignoring your signals of fear, wouldn't you want to bite too? Most animal lash out as a last ditch effort to protect themselves, especially if they feel you are not understanding their signs.
Now that we have a basic understanding of how to identify stress and anxiety in our pets, we can better address their fears. This will help to make appointments and travel much smoother and more pleasant for everyone involved. Keep an eye on your pet outside of the clinic too! Watching their body language is our first step to communicating with your pet. There are many steps we can take to reduce anxiety from medical management to behavioral training. I will be creating further posts that will outline as much as I can.