Communicating with pets: body language versus speaking English

One of the biggest challenges for vets is our lack of ability to have conversations with our patients. This isn’t always a huge problem: for example, if a dog has a broken leg, or a cat has an abscess, the problem is very easy to identify just by examining the patient. But we could still learn useful information from a verbal discussion. I would like to ask “How painful is it?”, or “Which cat attacked you?”. Treatment would also be easier to give if we could give our patients verbal instructions, such as “You must not chew this plaster cast off” or “You must let your owner bathe the sore area twice daily”.

Pain is a specific area where communication would be particularly useful. An animal in pain does not usually yelp or miaow. This only happens if the sore area is touched. More frequently, pain just causes an animal to become dull and quiet. If you could ask them, they would certainly tell you about the pain, but in the absence of language, you need to learn to interpret the more subtle signs of pain. Dilated pupils, an increased heart rate and rapid shallow breathing are all indications that an animal may be in pain. A better understanding of the non-vocal signs of pain in pets has led to much wider use of pain relief for animals, especially after surgery.

Over the years, vets have learned to understand the body language of their patients. If a dog holds his head to one side, he may have a sore ear. If a cat spends more time hovering near her water bowl, she is probably thirsty and may be suffering from kidney disease. A dog who stops wanting to go up steps will often be suffering from back pain. Close observation of animal body language can give plenty of information.

Owners also become very tuned in to their own pets’ attempts at communication. I have often been told that an animal ‘would almost talk to you’. Dogs in particular learn that if they behave in a certain way, they will get what they want, and they can be very persistent.

I know a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel called Chloe who always sleeps in the kitchen. Mrs O’Reilly, her owner, had recently started to put a big floor cushion on the tiled surface, to give Chloe a softer bed. After a few weeks, Chloe had learned the routine, and towards the end of the evening, Chloe recognised the signs that bedtime was approaching. The television was turned off, the doors were locked, keys were hung on the hook and finally Chloe’s cushion was put on the kitchen floor. Last week Mrs Reilly was away and her husband was doing the evening routine alone. He forgot about Chloe’s cushion! Chloe did her best to tell him that she wanted her cushion. Firstly, she followed him around, deliberately getting in his way so that he would surely know that she wanted something. When he did not understand, she went over to the cupboard where the cushion was kept, and she pawed at the door. He still did not get the message, and so finally she barked repeatedly at the cupboard door. Only then did the poor man understand what his dog wanted. As soon as he had placed her cushion in its usual place, Chloe contentedly lay down on it, and slept.

Pets cannot speak but they are much better than humans at using body language. If my dog could talk to me, the first thing he might say would be: “Why can’t you humans understand the most basic body language?”

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