While every pet owner wishes they were Dr. Dolittle and could better understand their furry pal, we often have to rely mostly on body language to communicate with pets. Occasionally, pets may vocalize to “talk” to their owners, but they mostly communicate among themselves using subtle body-language cues. A little-known fact: Cats usually don’t meow to each other—they reserve that for talking to their people, often to signal an empty food dish or a desire for attention. Many other misconceptions and myths abound about pet body language, and most pet owners struggle to pick up on elusive signals. Here are five common myths that are frequently misunderstood about pets and their communication methods.

Myth #1: It’s always safe to approach a dog who is wagging her tail

Fact: Tail wagging is one of the most frequently misinterpreted body-language signals in dogs. Most people believe a wagging tail means a happy dog, which is often true, but a wagging tail can also indicate other emotions. Some dogs wag their tail to show arousal, overstimulation, or frustration. To correctly identify a dog’s mental state, you must look at each body-language signal, and not focus solely on a wagging tail. For example, a dog who is wagging her tail, but barking and leaning forward, with a hard stare and tense face, is likely overly aroused and frustrated, and should not be approached until she relaxes. 

A happy dog is much easier to identify than an overstimulated one. Excited, happy dogs often display a “helicopter” tail, wagging around and around in a circle, with a relaxed, fluid movement, and a wiggling hind end. 

Myth #2: A purring, kneading cat is always content

Fact: Many people believe a cat purrs and kneads only if she is content. But, as with a dog wagging her tail, you need to consider the situation, and the rest of the cat’s body language. For example, a cat may purr when she is sick or stressed, so if your cat is purring out of a normal context, she may be ill or in pain. Cats have also demonstrated that their purrs have healing power, because the frequency range is consistent with vibration that has been associated with bone growth promotion and fracture healing. 

Kneading is also a comfort mechanism for cats. While we would love to think that your kneading cat is enjoying her physical exam during her wellness visit to our clinic, she may be kneading to relax and reduce stress. Kneading can also serve to mark territory, as scent glands that exist in the paws can be used to spread pheromones, to leave messages for other cats. Keep all these tips in mind when looking at your purring, kneading cat, and you may realize she is not as content as you think.

Myth #3: A dog on her back is submissive

Fact: People commonly believe that a dog on her back is showing her vulnerable abdomen to a dominant dog or person, indicating submission. But, this is often an appeasement behavior used to de-escalate another dog or person’s negative intentions. A quick flip over onto her back can indicate a dog is trying to defuse the situation, and withdraw from the interaction. On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, a relaxed, happy dog will roll onto her back to convey trust and invite social contact, asking for a belly rub. As with all body-language cues, evaluate the situation and your pet’s other signals, before coming to a conclusion.

Myth #4: A dog yawns only when she’s tired

Fact: Dogs, like people, yawn when they are tired, but are much more likely to yawn when they are nervous. Dogs who are stressed and nervous exhibit many different behaviors that help relieve stress, or appease a perceived threat, attempting to avoid confrontation. Yawning is often used as a distraction, to shift the focus away from the dog, and to help calm the situation.

Myth #5: A cat who is wagging her tail is happy

Fact: A wagging tail can be a good sign in dogs, but it is almost always a red flag in cats. A cat who is whipping her tail back and forth is clearly signalling you should back away, as she is likely to attack if pushed. A slight twitch to the tail essentially helps a cat think and make up her mind about the situation, and she may calm down, or escalate, which she will indicate with the speed of her tail movement. A moving tail can also demonstrate the cat is ready to pounce, for play or attack, and you should evaluate the rest of her body language, and the situation, before deciding whether to retreat or toss a toy.

Do you need help understanding what your furry friend is trying to say? Give us a call to schedule an appointment with our own “Dr. Dolittles”—Dr. Hutson and Dr. Bivens-Meinders.