Reading Language to Understand Emotional States and Intent of Dogs and Cats
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2019
M. Herron
Veterinary Clinical Sciences, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA

Understanding how to read and interpret the body language of the patient is the first step in recognizing and reducing stress, as well as keeping handlers safe. Animals communicate with each other, as well as towards humans, through changes in body posture, eye contact, movement, and vocalization. This is vastly different from inter-human communication and understanding the difference requires experience and skill. Human caretakers must recognize the intent of the animal and react appropriately in order to effectively handle them, minimize their fear and anxiety, and remain safe.

Canine Body Language


This patient feels safe, is relaxed in the environment, and is safe to proceed with handling.

  • Posture
    • Weight carried evenly between all four limbs
    • Muscles are soft and relaxed throughout the body
    • May see a play bow or a loose body “wag” or “wiggle”
  • Tail
    • Held in a relaxed, neutral position May see a loose wag of the tail
  • Eyes
    • Steady, relaxed gaze without intense focus
    • Pupils are normal size for the light level of the room
    • Eyebrows and eye lids are soft and neutral, may be partially closed
  • Ears
    • Soft and neutral without being pressed or flattened back
    • May be facing different directions without alerting to anything specific
  • Mouth
    • Long, loose lips
    • Mouth may be open with a loose tongue relaxed and lolling
    • Mouth may be closed with lips relaxed over the teeth
  • Vocalization
    • Typically none


This patient perceives danger, is alert, on the defensive, and would prefer to retreat rather than progress to a fight. This patient may proceed to aggression if provoked further. Note that the displacement behaviors may occur prior to other postural changes and are good early indicators of stress. Make a handling plan to mitigate the threat this animal perceives.

  • Posture
    • Muscles tense, weight shifted towards the back limbs
    • May crouch low to ground, holding one paw up
    • May roll over slightly to expose belly with or without urination
    • Postural displacement behaviors—“shaking off” and interaction (a.k.a. “wet dog shake”), holding one paw up, hind-end checking
  • Tail
    • Stiff, held lower to the ground or tucked up against the body
    • May have a low wag* which can be fast or slow
  • Eyes
    • Fully open, alert and scanning or darting
    • Pupils are dilated; may see whites of eyes (a.k.a. “whale eye”)
    • Eyebrows furrowed and shifting, may be averting gaze to avoid eye contact
  • Ears
    • Pressed back and flattened against the head
    • Floppy ears may be pinched and tense
  • Mouth
    • Lips pulled back to expose teeth or tensely held over teeth
    • Oral displacement behaviors—excessive or harsh panting, lip licking, chewing, yawning, grooming
  • Vocalization
    • Excessive whining or whimpering
    • Low growl


Patient perceives a life-threatening danger and is ready and willing to use an offensive aggression to protect itself with little additional provocation. This is not a safe animal to proceed with handling. Consider chemical restraint if procedure is essential, or send the animal home and create a handling plan for the next visit if it is non-essential.

  • Posture
    • Muscles are hard and with stiff movements
    • Weight shifted to the front feet
    • May “freeze” or shut down entirely
    • Frantic attempts to escape, such as climbing walls, rolling and flipping when handled (a.k.a. “gator rolling”). Sudden release of urine, feces and anal gland secretions.
  • Tail
    • Raised high above the back
    • May be wagging* in a slow and stiff manner
  • Eyes
    • Hard, direct stare with eyelids wide open or squinted
    • Pupils fully dilated
  • Ears
    • Held erect and forward Little movement
  • Mouth
    • Top lip retracted showing front teeth only
  • Vocalization
    • Growling, snarling, barking


Speaker Information
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M. Herron
Veterinary Clinical Sciences
The Ohio State University
Columbus, OH, USA

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