As a loving pet owner, it’s easy to think your best friend would never harm you, but scratches and bites happen all too often, when a person fails to detect a pet’s warning signals. Our pets put up with a lot of our unnatural behaviors, from tight hugs and kisses on the face, to haircuts, and nail trims. Many of our behaviors with our pets make them uncomfortable, as that is not how they act in the animal world, but they tolerate it because of their close bond with their families. Unfortunately, this leads to the common misunderstanding of a “bomb-proof” pet, who will allow anything without snapping, and is the reason why young children are the highest population segment of dog bites, often from familiar dogs. Parents may believe their pet would never harm their child, but after repeated, ignored warnings to leave ears, tails, or prized resources alone, the pet escalates to a snap or bite. 

Body language cues of an uncomfortable pet

After a bite occurs, the family often wants to rehome the pet, since the bond has been ruined. By learning to read your pet’s warning signals that indicate they are uncomfortable with the situation, you can avoid such a heartbreaking event. Many bites that people claim happened out of the blue were preceded by ample warning signals, but without knowing what to look for, the subtle cues were missed. To pick up on the signs of an uncomfortable pet who is asking for space, and may be pushed to snapping or biting, you should learn the pet’s body language cues.

Facial features of a nervous pet

A pet’s face is highly expressive if you know what to look for—especially the eyes. If a dog is uncomfortable, you may notice any combination of the following anxiety signals:

  • Yawning
  • Panting
  • Lip licking
  • Whale eye, where the dog turns their head away, but continues to look at the perceived threat, showing the whites of the eyes
  • Furrowed brow, or curved eyebrows
  • Tense jaw
  • Drooling
  • Head turned away from the perceived threat
  • Ears pulled partially back, or flattened

Cats display their nerves more subtly than dogs, so keep a sharp eye out for their following stress indicators:

  • Ears flattened, or turned sideways, or back
  • Dilated pupils, when scared, surprised, or stimulated
  • Constricted pupils, when tense or aggressive
  • Twitching whiskers

Since many facial warning signals last only a second or two, watch your pet closely in potentially frightening situations, to intervene or back away when necessary.

Body posture of a nervous pet

A nervous pet’s body posture often provides a big clue on how they are feeling. One or more of the following signs clearly indicates that your pet is stressed:

  • Tense body
  • Weight shifted away from the perceived threat
  • Body freezing, where a pet will freeze in place, until deciding whether to fight or flee
  • Shaking
  • Raised hair along the spine

Happy pets tend to have loose, relaxed bodies, with a natural sway as they walk or run. 

Tail position of a nervous pet

A pet’s tail is one of the most commonly misinterpreted body language signals, as many people believe a wagging tail is a sign of a friendly animal. A dog who is nervous tends to have a low tail carriage, or may tuck their tail between their legs but, occasionally, a dog who feels threatened or uncomfortable will also wag their tail. However, instead of the wide, loose, circular, or back and forth motions of a happy dog, an upset dog will only move their tail back and forth slightly. Always keep in mind that a wagging tail may not mean your dog is happy, and read the rest of their body language cues to determine their emotional state. 

Nervous cats portray similar tail signals when they’re nervous, and may include the following signs:

  • Tail down
  • Tail moving slowly back and forth, meaning the cat is trying to make up their mind how they feel about a threat, and may lead to aggression
  • Tail moving rapidly back and forth, which clearly indicates agitation, and you should back away
  • Tail standing straight up, with the fur puffed out, which is a sign the cat is about to attack

At the first sign of your pet’s anxiety or stress, assess the situation for the cause of the fear, and calm your furry friend by removing the trigger, to avoid a nip, snap, scratch, or bite.