The Official Houston SPCA Humane Education Blog

Teaching us about our animal friends

Animal Behavior: How to Introduce Yourself to a New Cat or Dog

When meeting new people, you probably don’t walk right up and hold their hand or give them the biggest hug you can, right? That could be awkward or uncomfortable depending on the person you are meeting. The same rules apply when meeting new animals.

Learning the cues that animals give us before walking up and petting them is incredibly important and can determine the beginning of your relationship with that animal. Let’s check out some common animal behaviors that you can look for to help with your first interaction with a new dog or cat.

For both cats and dogs we will discuss vocalization and body language.

Why Do Cats Purr? (And Other Cat Sounds)

Cats vocalize in quite a few ways, all of which can give you a clue as to how they are feeling. Here are a few sounds that can help you determine if you can safely pet a new cat friend:

  • Purring is normally a sign that your cat is pretty happy. If your cat is purring, they probably wouldn’t mind some love and attention. For a new cat, you could introduce yourself calmly and start to pet them gently.
  • Chirrups are sounds that a mother cat would typically use towards her kittens. You may hear your cat use a ‘chirp’ to ask you for something or ask you to follow them somewhere. Sometimes it helps when meeting a new cat to practice making a small chirping sound so the cat can be more comfortable around you.
  • Hissing or growling (YES, cats can growl!)indicate a cat who is upset, angry or frightened. Stay away from this cat! They are definitely not safe to pet.

What is Your Cat’s Body Telling You?

A cat’s body language is incredibly indicative of how they are feeling at that moment in time. You have to keep a cat’s eyes, tail, ears and overall body posture in mind when determining if you can pet them or not.

The chart below (from artist Lili Chin -DoggieDrawings.net) is a great resource for visualizing what we are talking about:

NEW: Cat Language!A big thank you to the Training and Behavior Dept of Oregon Humane Society for their help with cat body language information. I have been a cat-less dog person for many many years, so some of this stuff was new to me! For example, I didn’t know that cats also emoted with their WHISKERS (relaxed = fanned out and horizontal; anxious = pulled backwards) Pupils, ear positions, body weight, and tails are the other indicators of how a cat is feeling. *As with dog body language, we look at the whole body and context *. And yes, cats feel and express DISGUST. I didn’t make this up. :)I will be selling 11″ x 17″ and 11″ x 14″ Cat Language prints at CatConLA this weekend, along with other cat-related stuff! I hope to see you there! Booth #333.If you cannot attend CatConLA, a print-resolution version of Cat Language will soon be available as a FREE DOWNLOAD from my website at www.doggiedrawings.net/freeposters   [Please feel free to share, download, print, distribute! As per the Creative Commons License terms on my website: please don’t crop, modify, or use these images commercially.]Donations are always welcome and appreciated. :)- Lili x

The best way to say “hi” to a cat you do not know is to turn your face or body sideways,  then hold out one finger, at right about the height of her head, so she can come up and give you a good sniff. You only want to do this if the cat looks relaxed and calm. You definitely don’t want to offer your finger towards a cat who is hissing at you.

Once the cat has sniffed you and possibly rubbed her head on your hand, you can go ahead and pet her gently behind the ears or on their back. You do not want to put your face near hers— she may like being pet, but you do not know if she will want to be that close to you.

To meet a cat who may be shy, remember to be calm and patient. Never try to force interaction with a cat. Oftentimes a cat will approach someone who is not paying attention to them at all because they feel less threatened. You can try to use toys or small cat treats as ice breakers for a shy cat. It may just take a bit of time for the cat to warm up to you.

Why Do Dogs Bark? What Are They Saying?

Dog vocalization is also diverse, just like cats, and can include barks, whines and growls.

A dog’s bark can actually mean quite a few things and learning to tell between the different types of barks can help make your first introduction to a new dog a bit smoother.

If the dog you want to pet has a high-pitched bark, that may indicate excitement and happiness. They may want to play with you or want you to give them a treat. Dogs also have a low-pitched bark that may be indicating or alerting you to something going on that you do not know about yet. They may or may not want to be pet if they are vocalizing with a low-pitched bark.

If the dog you want to pet is whining, they might be frustrated or want something they cannot get to. Whining may also sound very close to whimpering, which can indicate that the dog does not feel well. Definitely pay attention to the dog’s body language. He may be frustrated he is not being pet enough or might not be feeling up to being pet by a stranger.

And as you already know, dogs can growl. Growling is the way a dog tells people and other animals to back off and give him space.  Never pet a dog that is growling at you or any animals near you. And be sure not to punish a dog for growling- it’s actually a very important form of communication that dogs use, and punishing them for growling means they might not warn you before they bite in the future.

Reading Your Dog’s Body Language

When looking at a dog you want to pet, always be aware of their ears, tail, hairs on their back (hackles) and overall body posture. The chart below gives great examples of what a dog may be feeling based on their body language.

So how do we introduce ourselves to a new dog? First,  you do not want to stand directly over the dog. He probably doesn’t want to feel overwhelmed by having someone stand over him. Stand or sit next to the new dog and offer him your hand, palm down. Let the dog sniff your hand and if they look like they are comfortable, give them a gentle pet behind the ears or under their chin. Don’t go straight for the top of the head- this makes dogs very uncomfortable!

You always want to avoid the dog’s mouth on your first pet. That’s where the teeth are. If the dog you are meeting looks a little nervous, give him time. Some dogs do warm up to people really quickly, others may take some time and patience for them to give you a good sniff and feel comfortable with you.

This quick introduction guide is a great start for meeting new cats and dogs. If you are looking to adopt a new cat or dog into your family, this guide will help you when interacting with new animals at the Houston SPCA! Before taking an animal to your home to join your family, spend a good 10 to 15 minutes with them in our Meet and Greet rooms so you can see if the dog or cat’s personality matches that of your family.

To see all of our amazing adoptable animals, visit www.HoustonSPCA.org today!

Sources:
http://www.cathealth.com/how-and-why/greeting-a-cat
http://www.dogster.com/dog-training/dog-body-language
Humane Society of the United States
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