Language is not just the words we speak and write. Communication also involves expressions, gestures and voice tones. For humans, some of the understanding of this communicationis hard-wired from birth; babies understand smiles and frowns as soon as they can focus their eyes. Even though they may not know the words, they can tell happy and angry voice tones easily. While our pets don’t talk the same way we do, they do have their own set of gestures and tones, and sometimes things are “lost in translation.”

Puppies are notorious for this sort of miscommunication. When canines play and are happy, they often give high pitched yips. When they are scared, upset or angry, they give deep growls. This can lead to significant problems when training new puppies. With new puppies, veterinarians often hear from couples that “this dog only listens to my husband,’ or “this puppy spites me, when I try to fuss at it for peeing on the floor, it stares at me and wags his tail.” The real issue is more likely use to voice tones; puppies (and many adult dogs) don’t understand the words we are saying, so they rely mainly on voice tones. Many women when confronted with an unruly or disobedient dog become upset, and their voice becomes high pitched. This is “heard” by a puppy as happy, leading to a happy wagging tail during an attempted scolding. Conversely, baritone men can have problems rewarding their puppies, since their voice always sounds like an angry deep growl to them.

Cats and dogs can have a similar problem when dogs attempt to play. Both canines and felines, when interacting with each other, find direct eye contact to be intimidating and threatening. (Fortunately, most pets learn eye contact from people is okay.) Dogs have added a prefix called “play bow,” with their chest on the ground and rear in the air. The play bow means whatever they do next is in play; whether its barking, growling or staring, it is just kidding around. Unfortunately, cats threaten each other by puffing out their tails and making their rear end look bigger. The dog will “play bow” and then growl and bark, and say in dog language “let’s play wrestling,” while the cat sees an inflated tail, staring eyes and growling and barking, which in cat language is seriously threatening. If the cat then runs away to try to escape this horrible threatening monster, the dog “hears” this as “let’s play chase” and goes happily after his new found playmate.

The intimidating nature of a cat stare is why so many people who have multiple cats will report that everyone was laying calm and quiet, and suddenly two cats attacked each other. While it seemed peaceful, there was usually a staring and ear position “screaming match” going on for some time before the argument became physical. Since we don’t speak cat naturally, many owners miss the conflict entirely until fur is flying.

We should never forget that or four legged friends live not only in our world, but their own as well. Once you start looking, you may be surprised at the “conversations” happening that you entirely missed before.

Michael Rumore
Lake Seminole Animal Hospital