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PAWS in Translation: Reading your pet’s faces

You’ve heard the phrase “puppy dog eyes,” as in, “He gave me those puppy dog eyes and I just melted.” When a person gives someone “puppy dog eyes,” it’s generally understood to be an intentional action designed to elicit an emotion from the other person. In short, it’s used to persuade someone to do what you want.

But do “puppy dog eyes” work from an actual puppy? If their eyes are always puppy dog eyes, how do you tell when they’re actually making a face to try and tell you something? Is it possible to read your dog or cat’s facial expressions?

It is. To a degree.

Emoting? Or reacting? Does it matter?

The biggest hurdle with reading your dog or cat’s facial expressions is that we tend to apply human emotions and facial expressions to pets, and that might be the wrong thing to do. Even though as pet owners we like to think we know our dogs and cats inside and out, we don’t really know what’s going in those dog and cat minds, and their faces…are different than ours. If your dog were to give you one of those big, toothy grins that human faces are so great at, you might run for the hills.

For instance, you know that guilty look your dog offers when you catch him or her doing something wrong? The “puppy dog eyes” with real puppy dog eyes? A 2009 study shows that your dog might not be showing guilt at all. Instead, they are reacting to your face, and expecting to be scolded. That guilty look might not be an emotion so much as a reaction.

Either way, it’s a facial cue that is telling you something, and that’s what this post is all about. Here are some other facial “expressions” that can help you better understand your dog’s mood, courtesy of Bash Dibra, “pet trainer to the stars.”

Aggressive — Flat ears, positioned either forward or back on the head, squinted eyes or an unbroken, challenging stare accompanied by bared teeth means that it is time to stand down and give your pal some space.

Curious — A wide-open mouth not showing teeth, big wide eyes and perked-up, forward ears mean that your dog is curious, even excited about something.

Afraid — Similar to the “aggression” face. Flat ears laid back on the head and narrowed, darting eyes with the teeth bared tells you that your dog is afraid of something.

Friendly — Perky ears and wide, alert eyes might be accompanied by a “smile,” that open mouth that isn’t showing any teeth. This means that this dog is down for some pats.

Playful — This face looks just like the “friendly” face, but the ears might be more relaxed and there might be some panting.

Flight — This face means that they’re beyond scared and in panic mode. The ears are back, the eyes wide and maybe rolling to show the whites. The mouth will be slightly opened and possibly drooling.

There are obviously a lot more “faces” your dog might make, but these cover the basics.

Cats earn their reputation for inscrutability

Cats are harder to read but not impossible. One study by postdoctoral animal science researchers showed 20 videos of cats who were either distressed or happy to more than 6,000 people from all over the world, then asked the participants to rate whether each cat was happy or content. They answered correctly more often than they missed, but not by a wide margin, as the average score was 12 out of 20. Only 13 percent of those quizzed were able to guess correctly at least 75 percent of the time. You can take a version of the quiz yourself here. (We got 7 out of 8!)

A cat’s facial signals might not be as obvious, but research does indicate that if you know what to look for, you can use facial expression to judge mood. A 1979 study proved that cats do have facial expressions that can be associated with human-like emotions. From the study:

“Facial actions associated with fear included blinking and half-blinking and a left head and gaze bias at lower intensities. Facial actions consistently associated with frustration included hissing, nose-licking, dropping of the jaw, the raising of the upper lip, nose wrinkling, lower lip depression, parting of the lips, mouth stretching, vocalisation and showing of the tongue. Relaxed engagement appeared to be associated with a right gaze and head turn bias.”

To simplify these small cues:

Happy — Looking up with a head tilted to the right

Afraid — Looking down and to the left

Frustrated — Licking and wrinkling the nose, possibly raising the upper lip

With cats, it’s mostly body language. That tail, that purr and that fur can more easily tell you what’s going on in that brain (and heart!) at any given time than the stoic face.

The same goes for dogs. Facial expressions can tell a big part of the story, but for any pet, it’s the whole package that tells the, ahem, tail. You know your pet better than anyone, and your first feeling about their emotional state is likely the right one.


RELATED POST: Debarking Pet Myths: Cats Purr Only When They’re Content

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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