Critter Culture
How Pets Communicate with Each Other

How Pets Communicate with Each Other

Critter Culture Staff



Animal behavior is fascinating, especially for a pet owner. You can pick up on your pet's cues and understand what they're trying to communicate with you, but what about with other animals?

Whether you have another pet in your home, see your cat interacting with other pets in the neighborhood when on the prowl, or wonder what your dog is communicating to other dogs when you take him for a walk in the park, understanding how pets communicate with each other is not as difficult as it sounds.


Facial expressions

Two funny dogs sniffing smelling scent noses in park on leashes looking at each other pedigree street cute krblokhin / Getty Images

Just like people, our pets communicate with each other using facial expressions. Cats can show aggression by narrowing their pupils, fanning their whiskers, and perking their ears. They show fear by dilating their pupils, bunching their whiskers, and flattening their ears to their heads. When cats make eye contact and don't blink, it's a challenge; when they do blink, they're showing love.

Dogs lick their lips and yawn to show they're anxious and smile with their front teeth to show they're happy and peaceful. Eye contact with another dog usually signals aggression, and whoever breaks eye contact first is showing submission.



cats staring at each other Tuul & Bruno Morandi / Getty Images

Cats and dogs both release pheromones, chemicals that trigger a response in other members of the same species. If you've ever seen your cat licking the air, she is likely picking up on another cat's pheromones. Pheromones are also why dogs sniff each other when they meet as they try to determine the sex, age, and health of the other dog, and male dogs will often pee in the same spot they smell a female dog's pee because of pheromones.

These chemicals can give specific messages, mark territory, act as a greeting, or signal a warning.



dog barking at other dog K_Thalhofer / Getty Images

Your pets may also communicate with each other using various sounds. For example, cats purr to say they're happy and content and make aggressive howls, growls, and snarls to show aggression toward other cats.

Dogs bark for many reasons. They can happily bark at one another to indicate that they want to play and may actually growl playfully at one another, but if a dog growls at another dog as they approach, it's a warning and should be seen as a sign of aggression.



two dogs licking each other May-lin Joe / Getty Images

Dogs and cats lick each other for various reasons. They can lick each other's heads and faces to show affection or groom one another. Some dogs lick other dogs' nether regions as a sign of greeting or to groom them. When a dog licks another dog's mouth or teeth, it's a sign of appeasement, as if to stay, don't worry, I'm here in peace.



cat with arched back Mark Liddell / Getty Images

Posture and body language are huge ways that pets communicate. For example, dogs flattening against the ground is a submissive gesture that can be caused by fear, but it is also a way for dogs to show that they are not a threat.

Cats can arch their back or crouch low and thump their tail on the ground to show aggression or roll onto their back to show contentment or submission.


Tail position

dog with tucked tail RadekProcyk / Getty Images

Tail position can be a giveaway to other animals about your pet's feelings. For example, dogs will tuck their tail between their legs or lower it to indicate worry or anxiety and wag it when they're happy to see another pet. Cats also tuck their tails between their legs to show nervousness or submission.

For a cat, an upright tail shows other cats that they're approachable, and it's an even better greeting if it's moving from side to side slowly and gracefully. When a cat's tail is up but puffed out or lashes back and forth quickly, it signals fear or aggression.


Urine and feces

Male poodle urinating pee on tree trunk to mark territory ThamKC / Getty Images

If you have a dog, you've probably noticed it smelling another dog's leavings. Believe it or not, dogs can get a lot of information this way, including information about the other dog's diet, home environment, emotional state, and health. Dogs also mark their territory with urine, often peeing on top of where another dog has gone in a behavior called "overmarking."

Cats also leave scent markings in their urine that can pass on multiple messages to other cats, including sending information about their territory. All cats and dogs can communicate with their urine, but you'll see this behavior most often in intact males.


Meeting rituals

Two friends cats meet on the street Natalia Baran / Getty Images

When two animals meet, they are usually expected to exhibit some routine behavior. For example, when two cats meet, the more established cat will hiss first. Then the new cat will hiss back. If one backs down, this might not lead to anything, but if it escalates, it can lead to an altercation.

Dogs have meeting rituals, too. They may sniff one another or lower their upper bodies and raise their hindquarters to indicate they're happy and ready to play. When two dogs don't know one another, they act more distant and are not as relaxed initially because they're waiting to see how the other dog responds.


Playful signals

Dogs playing in the park Orbon Alija / Getty Images

Animals can also communicate when they want to play. Cats may roll onto their back when they want to play. Playing cats are generally quiet and take turns, continually assessing how comfortable their playmate is with the interaction.

When dogs want to play with other dogs, they stretch their front paws down on the ground with their bum in the air. They may growl and show their teeth, but if the interaction begins with a playful gesture, it's all a part of the game.


Showing their teeth

Meowing Cat FatCamera / Getty Images

Cats show their teeth as a sign of aggression, as if to say, "Don't make me use these." For dogs, showing their teeth is a little more nuanced. Dogs can smile, showing their front teeth, but when they bare all of them, it's a warning, usually accompanied by snarling and a growl.


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