The subtleties of animal behaviour

29th May, 2023

Written by Nicola van Ass – Qualified Dog Trainer, Groomer and Feline Behaviourist

Many of us have heard of “reading your pet’s body language” in order to work on behavioural issues and to know how an animal is feeling at a specific time.

For example: A dog with his tail tucked between his legs, head low, eyes wide and licking or yawning means that he’s really uncomfortable with his situation. Ears back and growling is a warning to stop what you’re doing or to move away. Cats hiss when angry or scared, while horses flatten their ears and swish their tails in a fast movement when they’re about to tell you to get out of their space chop-chop.

But what about the more subtle behaviours? How well do you know your pet in reality?

As we watch our pets grow and develop their own little personalities, whether we’ve had them from birth, eight weeks or as adolescents and adults, we begin to notice behaviours that are specific to that animal, in that specific situation.

For me, that means my little Talia, who’s a foxy cross miniature pinscher, tends to get a sore tummy fairly often. Sometimes it’s serious, and other times it’s because she’s indulged in the disgusting habit of eating cat poop. When she has a sore tummy, she sits upright with her little back legs in between her front legs and if I move anywhere in the house, she’s literally sitting on my feet. As soon as she shows this behaviour, I know she isn’t feeling well and it allows me to keep an eye on her, give her the meds she’s been prescribed for her tummy, or take her to the vet.

Without knowing her usual manner and behaviour, I’d never know that she wasn’t feeling well.

While Talia’s mannerisms are subtle, some can be a bit more in your face. Such as a dog or cat peeing on your bed or your clothes when they normally never do that. It’s widely accepted that this means that your pet has a bladder issue and is trying to get your attention to let you know they need help.

When your pet reacts differently to something that they normally don’t have an issue with, see if you can determine what’s causing the issue. Most of the time it will require a trip to the vet to make certain it isn’t a medical issue. Other times it will be because something in their environment has changed. When you find your pet staring at a bush or a pot plant and they look like they have no intention of stopping, have a look at where they’re staring. It could be that there’s a frog in the bushes, a rat, a snake or even an insect. Notice their behaviour. Take note of the changes. Go to the vet if necessary or ask others who know about behaviour (like qualified animal behaviourists) about what the changes could mean.

Another few great examples of the subtle behaviours are when dogs can sense/smell when someone has cancer. Most animals can tell when you’re pregnant, sometimes even before you know it yourself! It’s why so many dogs get trained to react to their owners having heart issues, or insulin problems. They can sense anxiety, which is why they make such amazing service animals.

The other thing that’s vitally important is to trust your gut and your instincts. While animals can help us realise when we need help, they aren’t always able to tell us that there are problems that they’re going through. If you’re holding your little Chihuahua and you feel like her heart is beating in an erratic manner, take her to the vet. Get her checked out. Don’t let others tell you that you’re being “dramatic” or that you’re “overreacting”. You know your pet. You know what they should feel like and how they normally act. They can’t speak, so we need to be the ones who are aware enough to make sure our pets get the care they need.

Sometimes they come to you because they’re scared of something, or cold, or just want attention. Learn how to tell what your pet is telling you. Not only will this increase the bond you have with your beloved pet, but it could also save their lives.

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