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Understanding your pet’s body language and advocating for your pet’s veterinary behavioral health are important tools for pet owners.  Our pets communicate with us visually; whereas we typically communicate with other people verbally. When trying to read your pet’s body language, you should look at the entire animal to monitor its posture and 6 different body parts:  tail, hair, ears, eyes, mouth, and face.

A behaviorally comfortable dog would show the following signs:

  • Posture: Loose, without muscle definition or stiffness, maybe with a slight wiggly posture
  • Tail: The tail in a neutral position and held parallel or a bit lower than the spine
  • Hair: Flat – not standing up
  • Ears: Neutral, which would be that dog’s normal resting position
  • Eyes: Pupils normal to slightly dilated, white part of eye is not noticeable
  • Mouth: Closed, loose lips
  • Face: Relaxed and soft

A behaviorally comfortable cat would show the following signs:

  • Posture: Loose, without muscle definition or stiffness
  • Tail: Horizontal with a slight droop; flagpole (straight up) tails can also be seen
  • Hair: Flat – not standing up
  • Ears: Neutral – forward or slightly to the side
  • Eyes: Eyes may be half-open with a smaller pupil
  • Mouth: Closed, loose lips
  • Face: Whiskers to the side, relaxed and soft

There are different levels of fear, anxiety, and stress that your pet may experience at the veterinary clinic. Some pets may show more signs than others, and with each new sign, the animal is pushed into a different level.  The Fear Free Initiative has been extremely helpful in educating veterinary professionals as well as pet owners on these different levels.  Using a scale from 0 (lowest) to 5 (highest) can help us determine the level of fear, stress, and anxiety an animal is experiencing may be experiencing.  In dogs, higher levels of stress can include aggression, ears back and tail tucked between their legs, actively trying to escape, excessive panting, trembling, increased respiratory rate, and immobility. While cats may show high levels of stress with aggression, hissing, actively trying to escape, ears back, tail tight or tucked, and immobility.

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