A little understanding of your pets goes a long way toward improving their lives
By Ruthanne Johnson
Do you ever wonder if you’re doing right by your pets, if you truly understand their needs and are giving them the best life possible? Dogs, cats, turtles, birds and horses are unique species with their own needs and ways to communicate. Yet we often bring these animals into our lives without knowing much about them.
We see the neighbor’s puppy and suddenly want a dog. Our kid’s classroom turtle or tiny frog inspires them to beg for pet reptiles. “We are used to seeing these animals kept in very small cages,” says Anne-Elizabeth Nash, founder of the Colorado Reptile Humane Society in Longmont. But even small reptiles can use an enormous amount of space. Colorado’s ornate box turtle, for example, uses two to five football fields of space in an average summer.
Dogs and cats are the most ubiquitous household pets. But how much do we really know about them, even? Why does our cat quiver her tail? Why does the dog duck when we pet him?
For those of us who truly love our animals and want to better understand the species, the Internet has brought an abundance of knowledge. Just search “cockatoo care” or “dog natural traits” and let the Internet be your oyster. The best information on species-specific care is typically found on the websites of rescues, shelters and animal-welfare organizations. If not, these sites can usually direct you to credible resources. And books are available on just about every pet species.
In the meantime, we’ve put together a short list of tidbits about dogs, cats and a few other species. We hope it opens a window into their perspectives, and inspires you to discover more about what makes your companion tick.
Dogs see the world in hues of yellow, blue and gray.
When buying toys, look for ones your dog will notice, like bright yellow or blue. Also think about contrast: Red, for instance, can be difficult for dogs to see against green grasses and dark carpets. Yellow, blue, black and white may be easier to spot, depending on the background.
Dogs and cats have a sense of smell many times more powerful than that of humans.
Can you imagine, then, how much they’re irritated by secondhand smoke, heavy perfumes and household cleaners? Even aromatherapy oils can be overwhelming. Provide your pet with an exit route in case strong smells become too much for them.
Cats are typically quiet creatures, seldom communicating with sound.
They’re chattier around humans than with each other because they hear how humans communicate and want to be included in the conversation. Start observing your cat’s silent language—his gestures, postures and actions. A thrashing tail indicates excitement, irritability or anger. A raised, quivering tail means “Great to see you!”, while a tail carried in a low, graceful arc is more casual, writes cat expert Anitra Frazier. The slow eye-blink conveys contentment, says animal behaviorist Jackson Galaxy, host of Animal Planet’s My Cat from Hell and a former Humane Society of Boulder Valley worker. During his cat consultations, Galaxy gains trust by using blinking and other simple gestures that you can learn in his YouTube video “4 Ways to Tell Your Cat ‘I Love You.’”
Dogs can laugh and get jealous.
The Nobel Prize–winning ethologist Konrad Lorenz suggested that dogs appear to laugh during play, with their jaws slightly opened, their tongue revealed, and tilted mouth stretching almost from ear to ear. Later research confirms that a dog’s exhalation pattern when playing—that sort of hhuh-hhuh-hhuh you hear—could be akin to laughter. Keep an eye out for these moments to understand what makes your pooch happy.
In a 2013 study, dozens of dogs acted jealous when their owners petted animatronic dogs that barked, whined and wagged their tails. In a “Hey, dude. That’s my person!” kind of moment, the real dogs pushed away the fake dogs and wedged themselves between the bogus dog and their human. So it might not be a bad idea to provide evenhanded love and lots of confidence-building activities, like brushing, play and training.
Cats are physically and emotionally sensitive.
They’re fascinated by a light, featherlike touch along the tips of their hair. Your cat will probably respond by arching her back against your hand and purring, Frazier writes in her book The Natural Cat: The Comprehensive Guide to Optimum Care, considered the holistic bible for cat caregivers (Galaxy touts the book as important in opening his eyes to the cat’s world). The touch technique is great for frightened, ill and arthritic cats, adds Frazier.
A dog’s yawn could mean your dog is anxious about something or indifferent toward an aggressor.
(It could also mean he’s bored, tired or just waking up.) Pay attention to the situation and you could learn a lot about what upsets your dog. Yawning from anxiety also helps him expend nervous energy, and can pacify the potential aggressor. But cat yawns contain no secret messages; they’re mainly out of exhaustion from all that power lounging.
Cats consider it rude for you to tromp over and sit beside them without asking permission.
If you have more than one cat, watch their polite ritual when sidling up to each other, Frazier suggests. The one who jumps up typically licks the sleeping cat, which is the equivalent of asking, “May I?” The other cat may return the grooming with a casual lick, indicating acceptance. Or he could ignore the gesture, showing basic neutrality, or lift his head and growl, indicating rejection.
Dogs pant to regulate their body temperature, and when they’re nervous, frightened or in pain.
Cats pant as a last resort in extreme heat and also in conjunction with myriad health problems. Provide a way for pets to warm or cool themselves: beds that soak up the sun, a water source, etc.
Geriatric pets cannot regulate their body temperature as well and need more options, like a heating pad or cool rag on the paw pads and forehead. Just like elderly humans, they need other accommodations, such as ramps for easier access to the backyard; carpet runners along their pathways to prevent them from falling on hard floors; and elevated bowls for better eating and drinking ergonomics.
Dogs don’t like being petted on the top of their head.
You may think your dog has grown accustomed to head patting, but if your dog licks her lips, yawns, puts her head down or turns away, it’s probably because she’s uncomfortable. Instead of continuing the potentially disagreeable act, come in low and from the side, stroking the chest, shoulders or base of the neck. Chances are your dog will respond positively.
Animals have their own languages.
It’s up to us to crack the code by observing and taking note. Animal behaviorists have found that dogs greet people they like with a stretch. They bow with their butts in the air when ready to play, and lean on us to show affection.
Paying attention opens the door to better understanding and communication, and a better relationship with your animal companion.
A Word About Other Pet Species
Read up on their personalities, natural habitats and care before adopting. The more you know, the more likely you’ll do right by them. Rescues and shelters are great resources to learn about the species, such as how the fumes from common household cleaners, newly applied paint and even candles can quickly kill a bird. Anne-Elizabeth Nash, with the Colorado Reptile Humane Society, advises adopters to pick up salamanders and frogs with gloves, as human body oils can harm them.
With less-familiar pet species, people need to pay close attention to the animal. This
especially applies to prey species, which are adept at hiding weakness. Rabbits thump their back legs, grunt and tooth-click to convey messages.
Horses have a subtle language that’s difficult for humans to discern. “They use their ears, eyes, head, neck, shoulders, and even direction and speed of travel,” says the horse trainer Monty Roberts, who has been featured in PBS specials and written seven books, including the New York Times bestseller The Man Who Listens to Horses. “If you read their language properly, it’s predictable, discernible and effective. It is a bona-fide language.”
Ruthanne Johnson is an award-winning journalist and a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States. She loves promoting animal welfare and environmental conservation, and discovering unique destinations.