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By Alyssa Mages, BS, CVT,
Education and Development Coordinator, Metropolitan Veterinary Associates

As we’re transitioning over to hopefully warmer weather, there are many of our canine companions that are going to be anxiously awaiting longer walks, curious cats enjoying sun baths, and that likely means they’ll be coming into contact with… humans!

While the bond between us and our furry family members is unconditional, that isn’t necessarily the case with people that your cat or dog either doesn’t know or isn’t familiar with. Being aware of body language and the non-verbal ways our pets communicate will not only increase your bond with them but will also ensure that they and the people they meet have an enjoyable encounter.

Before getting into too much detail about what to be aware of, the basic rule of thumb when approaching an animal (dogs in particular) is to follow the acronym – W.A.I.T. W – Wait to see if the dog is with their owner & if she/he appears friendly. A – Ask the owner for permission to approach and/or pet their dog. I – Invite the dog to sniff you. Do so while standing with your arms at your sides, and your hands balled with fingers in. T – Touch the dog gently along its back or sides, NOT on its head, face, legs, or tail.

If any animal appears afraid or your uncertain, do not approach them, and when addressing their owners please also consider the volume & the tone of your voice as loud/shrill noises can be upsetting. If the owner of the dog asks you to not approach or touch their pet, please respect this – service dogs in particular should not be bothered, and if any animal does not respond to your initial invitation to interact, don’t force the issue. Please also relay to your younger family members that they should also ask for YOUR permission to pet an animal, and they should NEVER approach an animal they don’t know if they’re alone, and not to put their hands/arms over top of fences!

When we picture a happy dog, there’s usually a wagging tail in that imagery. Generally, this is true that a wagging tail is a good sign, but there is more to this picture that is helpful to know. When a dog’s tail is horizontal and wagging from side-to-side this is a safer/happier pup. If the wagging tail is vertical and ‘stiff’ in appearance, use caution. A straight up or straight out unmoving tail is an indicator that the dog is ‘on point’ in a more defensive stance, and a tucked tail is a sign that the dog is either scared or getting ready to make a more aggressive move. Cats’ tails when upwards in the shape of a question mark are telling us that they’re alert, curious, and approachable. Any rapid flicking of the tip of the tail, thumping, or a ‘puffed’ appearance should relay a warning to you to stay away.

We’ve all heard the expression that the eyes are the window to the soul, and that’s not only poetic, it’s applicable for cats and dogs as well! Check them out when they’re relaxed at home with you – do you see any ‘white’ surrounding their amber/green/brown/blue irises? Probably not as this is only visible when an animal’s eyes are widely opened and is an indicator of stress or anxiety. Is their brow furrowed? Again, not likely when they’re home & relaxed, so if noted this may indicate hyper-focusing or vigilance – your pet is on the alert and is uncomfortable.

Your cat & dog’s sense of hearing is incredibly heightened, and those lovely ears are also an indicator of their present mood. Please take a moment to note what the position of their ears is when they’re at home and relaxed with you. It’s different for pets with ‘floppy’ ears versus those that are always upright, but they can all move and dependent on how they’re feeling the position of them will change. Forward facing, relaxed = happy and relaxed. Out to the side – “airplane ears” in cats – are an indicator that they’re getting agitated. Flattened down & pulled back – WATCH OUT!

Say cheese! Some dogs ‘smile’ because they ARE truly happy, but others only show their teeth when they’re on the defense, and cats generally don’t open their mouths to pleasantly greet you. Any raising of lips, baring of teeth, open mouthed hissing, etc. are a very clear indicator that this meet & greet is heading south! Relaxed dogs may have an open mouth, but their tongue will be gently lolling out, and their overall demeanor will also appear calm.

It’s so tempting to want to pet and/or snuggle these furry friends but keeping in mind that any interaction we have with an animal needs to be on their terms. We want you to enjoy every moment with your cats & dogs, and meeting one another should be a moment of happiness, not of concern. Here’s hoping that Spring is truly Marching in, and should you have any other questions, please remember that
we’re here for you and your pets 24/7/365.

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