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Health & Wellness

Dog and cat body language: How to tell if my pet is mad at me

Sometimes their bodies do the talking

Do pets feel emotions? Specifically, do they feel anger?

The short answer is yes, but they do not express it in the same way as humans. Emotions like anxiety or fear that a dog or cat feels can be interpreted as anger by humans. Veterinarian and pet health advocate Dr. Aliya McCullough explains how to read cats’ and dogs’ body language to determine moods. 

Signs of aggression in dogs

Dog and cats both have obvious and discreet ways they can show aggression:

Obvious signs include: 
  • Staring
  • Snarling (lifting the lip)
  • Growling
  • Snapping
  • Biting
Subtle signs include: 
  • Stiffness
  • Direct eye contact
  • Ears back
  • Hairs standing up
  • Tail turned upwards (wagging doesn’t always mean happy)

How to calm your dog’s anger 

Check with your vet to make sure your dog’s aggression isn’t from an underlying medical condition like pain or dementia. Once their health is cleared, work with a veterinary behaviorist to implement a behavioral modification plan and make lifestyle changes to avoid any triggers. 

How to handle your dog being protective or territorial 

Make sure your dog always has a safe space (that includes a bed, rug, toy collection, water and food bowls) that they can retreat to — but never use this area as punishment. If your pup is territorial over their food, feed them alone in a quiet space at set times every day.  

How to ease your dog’s fear  

If there are strangers around or your dog is in a chaotic situation, put them in their safe space. If you’re walking your dog or are planning to be in an unfamiliar public area, you may want to consider basket muzzle training if they start to growl, bark or bite at strangers. 

How to discourage play aggression 

End play when a play session is getting out of hand by calmly walking away.  Focus on training your pup basic commands such as “sit” to refocus their attention. Reward spontaneous calm behaviors like laying quietly. It can also help to make sure they have a predictable schedule of enrichment, like interactive toys, sniff walks, lots of exercise and attention. 

How to avoid redirected aggression 

If your dog spots something outside that upsets them, they may turn that frustration back onto you or another pet. Close the blinds or shutters and move them away from the window.

Signs of aggression in cats

Cats’ moods can be harder to detect, so pay close attention to any changes in their body language.  

Signs include: 

Reasons why your cat may be mad

As with dogs, be sure to check with your vet to make sure your cat’s aggression isn’t stemming from pain, trauma or a medical condition. Take hyperthyroidism, for example. An overactive thyroid gland can cause behavior changes in your cat including aggression. 

How to ease your cat’s fear

If your cat is afraid, identify the trigger and avoid it if possible. Pheromone sprays and collars may help calm them. Also, talk to your veterinarian about medications and behavioral training methods that can help your cat cope. 

How to discourage play aggression 

Sometimes playtime can become a little too rough. Ignore the aggressive behavior and calmly end the playtime. 

How to avoid stimulation from petting

If your cat gets angry while you’re petting them, stop and avoid further contact. Pay attention to your pet’s body language to avoid unwanted handling and respect their boundaries.

How to stop your cat from redirecting their aggression

Keep windows covered if your cat is upset by what they’re seeing. Move your cat out of rooms with lots of windows or doors to keep them from spotting something that may trigger them.

End the feuding with other cats in your home

Keep your cats separated with their own food, water and litter boxes, especially while you’re away. Gradually and slowly reintroduce the cats. If there are any signs of aggression during reintroduction, separate them and try again once they’ve cooled down.

Managing aggression is something that needs constant practice, but we know that you’d do just about anything for your pet. Consult with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist as early as possible to discuss medications and desensitization strategies. Steps like behavioral training, avoiding triggers, educating your family members (especially kids) and knowing what their body language is telling you can help your pet navigate this behavior. 

The Dig, Fetch's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

Photo by by MusicFox Fx on Unsplash

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