Pet facial expressions are a good way to know what your pet is thinking

As a pet owner, you’re familiar with your pet’s unique personality traits. Through their body language and vocalizations, it’s easy to tell when they’re happy, annoyed, excited, angry, fearful, curious, etc. In fact, many of these communication styles can seem almost human-like.

The way a pet expresses themselves can be extremely nuanced, such as in the case of pet facial expressions. What do they mean, and how can they help us gain a better understanding of what our furry family members are trying to tell us?

Pet Facial Expressions

Knowing your pet is key to knowing what their facial expressions mean. Although each pet is different, there are some fairly universal pet facial expressions:

  • Ears – The position of a pet’s ears can communicate a great deal about their current emotional state. Ears that are up and forward generally indicate interest or excitement. Flattened ears in cats are a sign of fear or anger; in dogs, this could communicate either submissive happiness or fear.   
  • Eyes – The saying “the eyes are the windows to the soul” is just as true for animals as it is for people, but deciphering what your pet’s eyes are saying can be tricky. Although many dogs gaze lovingly into the eyes of their human, a direct stare from a canine could also indicate aggression. In cats, wide eyes and narrowed pupils tend to communicate relaxed interest, whereas narrowed eyes may mean anger.
  • Mouth – For both dogs and cats, snarling is an obvious sign of anger or aggression, but knowing your pet well is key to deciphering the other emotions their mouths may be communicating. A relaxed dog tends to have a relaxed mouth, with no wrinkles forming around the lips. A cat’s open mouth may mean they’re exploring a new or exciting aroma (a special sensory organ on the roof of a cat’s mouth aids in identifying scents).

The Big Grin

Whether it’s our own sweet pet or a funny video on YouTube, we’ve all seen the image of a “smiling” dog with lips pulled back and teeth exposed. Animal behaviorists call this expression the “submissive grin,” and the theories behind it vary widely.

Dogs are masters at detecting human emotions, and some studies have shown that dogs are also capable of mimicking human expressions. Not surprisingly, a study published in Scientific Reports has found that dogs tend to utilize facial expressions more readily when a human is looking at them.

Some uniquely canine ways of communicating through facial expressions include:

  • Yawning – Although this may signal tiredness, exaggerated yawning in dogs may also indicate stress or excitement.
  • Head tilt – This is your dog’s way of showing you that they’re listening intently.
  • Raised eyebrows – Raised brows convey excitement or surprise.

At Oakhurst Veterinary Hospital, we’re always looking for ways to communicate more fully with our wonderful pet patients. We welcome any questions or comments you might have about pet facial expressions, and we look forward to seeing your expressive pet during their next wellness appointment!