It’s no secret that we humans love our pets. Our obsession with pets knows no bounds— we’ve even created our own pet celebrities, like Doug the Pug or Maru the cat. We are endlessly fascinated by our furry family members, and humanize them in so many ways. And who can blame us? They seem to feed off of our emotions, can sense when we are upset, and can even be trained as therapy companions. They’re so smart, which is what can make it even more frustrating that we can’t simply talk with them! But what if we can? Before I stumbled upon the Christina Hunger’s Instagram account, @hunger4words, I thought talking dogs were a thing of the movies. It turns out we are a lot closer to conversing with our animals, particularly our dogs, than we think! A speech pathologist, Christina Hunger created a system of push buttons, each with a different voice recorded word, so she could teach her dog Stella to communicate. And if you’ve ever lost a couple hours scrolling through the videos on her account (guilty), you know that it’s been working.
Stella’s ability to think, press a certain button, and wait for a response is incredible, and got me thinking about how we can better communicate with our animals in general. Not all of us have the time or patience to train a dog to use Hunger’s method (if you do, I recommend buying her new book on the subject), but we can do a better job of listening to nonverbal cues. If anything, Stella’s success with language just confirms that our animals are as smart as we thought they were. Maybe not on the same level as an orangutan or elephant, but they still have something to say! Here are five ways you can be a better listener for your pets.
Learn Their Body Language
Body language is very intuitive, so most of the time you can probably sense when something is off with your pet. But it never hurts to brush up on some universal signals that might be helpful in determining what your animal is trying to tell you. It can also be a great safety tool for kids, as not every dog or cat out there wants to be approached. A few telltale signs can help you identify what an animal is feeling. For instance, if a cat’s ears are pointed up or relaxed, they’re probably in a good mood, and blinking slowly is a sign that they trust you, but ears pointed backwards or flattened against their head, combined with an arched back or defensive posture, means they’re feeling aggressive or scared. Likewise, a dog’s ears and tail can be great signals for determining their mood; a wagging tail means they’re feeling playful but ears that are down and back or a tail that’s curled between their legs are both signals that they’re not in the mood to be approached. This graphic on the body language of dogs, and this one for cats, can be handy for telling the differences in an animal’s moods.
Learn to Recognize the Signs of a Sick Pet
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own lives, that it’s easy to miss subtle signs from our pets that they may not be feeling too well. Below is a list of common signs that it might be time to take your pet to the vet for a check-up:
- Hiding (resting in concealed places)
- Loss of appetite
- Excessive licking or scratching of the body
- Overall decrease of energy
- Change in bowel movements
- Weight loss or gain
- Urinating more or less frequently
- Excessive drinking
Be Cognizant Of the Fact That Your Pet Has Emotions Too
Pets, especially dogs, feed off of our emotions. This is why they make such wonderful therapy animals! But, this also means that they can feel down at times as well. According to a People article with Dr. Brian Hare, a canine cognition expert, “It is very possible for dogs to become depressed. After 9/11 it was reported that many of the search and rescue dogs were suffering from depression-like symptoms because they could never find any survivors, only bodies. Their handlers would stage “fake” finds so that the dogs would cheer up and keep searching. Additionally, dogs do tend to become attached to their owners and will behave differently when that person is not around. Given their great capacity for empathy, dogs can also respond to their owners’ moods and feelings, like depression.” So, it’s important to be aware of your pet’s emotional state, because it’s your job to take care of them! Playing fetch might be all it takes to lift their spirits.
Make Sure Your Pet Has a Healthy Routine
Pets need routines with healthy diets, exercise, and play just as we do! And since we already know how attuned pets are to our own emotions, it’s no surprise that they need proper care to feel their happiest. Simply taking a short walk around the block with your dog, or carving out time to play with your cat, can benefit the both of you! It’ll give you and your pet necessary exercise, and a little endorphin boost. It’s also important to make sure that your pet is responding well to the food you are feeding it. If digestive issues are occurring, you might want to consider changing your pet’s diet. While we might think that pets have iron guts, they can actually be just as sensitive as we are.
Consider a Non-Traditional Method for Connecting With Your Animal
During my research for this piece, I came across many articles about alternative wellness methods for a happier pet. Energy work, reiki, and homeopathy are just a few of the options out there. If you’ve already been to the vet and feel like your pet could benefit from one of these services— go for it! You never know what kind of results they might yield. Even if your pet seems completely healthy, there’s always room to improve its quality of life. If anything, it might be a fun experience to share with your pet!
I hope these tips gave you something new to consider while taking care of your pet. It’s so easy to get caught up in the rush of everyday life and miss certain cues from our furry family members. Because as it turns out, they have a lot to say. And if you haven’t checked out the @hunger4words account yet, what are you still doing here?