Last month's article considered some general features of animal communication. This month's piece will focus on specific displays individual animals may use to communicate. Two points to keep in mind as you read about these:

  • these signals and their meaning continually evolve
  • companion animals may face communication challenges never faced by their ancestors

Animal signals are either discrete or graded in degree

For example, mammals belonging to multiple species use their ear positions to communicate their feelings about the intended recipient of the message at that time.

Erect ears communicate a positive greeting message, whereas ears back communicate that the animal considers the recipient a threat for some reason. In addition to these discrete thumbs up-thumps down positions, animals also may hold their ears at any location between the two to communicate a more nuanced message.

How clear these signals are to others in general is a function of the animal's ear conformation and haircoat, and the recipient's perceptual skills. Naturally erect ears are easier to read than those of an ungroomed, shaggy, old English sheepdog.

Or consider the plight of a short-coated Scottish fold cat with her genetically forward flattened pinnae. The immobile ears offer no clues regarding her feelings about a specific event. However, they do result in a generalized look that some people consider appealingly bemused and others believe communicates a constant state of apprehension.

These human interpretations may influence how the people who possess them interact with the animal, which may or may not support the message the animal attempts to communicate at that time.

Two additional factors may affect ear placement. Health issues, such as ear discomfort secondary to disease or injury, or the desire of some medically depressed animals to block auditory stimuli may cause animals in these groups to hold their pinnae in a flattened position.

In the bond realm, individual differences may arise based on human response to (or lack thereof) ear placement signals. For example, dogs of certain breeding — e.g., bull breeds, Dobermans, German shepherd dogs may elicit fearful human responses regardless of what position the dog's ears are in. How the animal responds to this depends on the kind and magnitude of the disconnect between the ear-message sent and the human response, and the animal's confidence level.

Animal communication also uses composites

Composites occur when animals combine two discreet signals to enhance the meaning of the display.

For example, changes in ear position may be combined with those of the mouth. An animal with erect ears and a wide-open mouth communicates a stronger greeting than one whose mouth is closed. Conversely, an animal with flattened ears and an open mouth communicates that the animal perceives the other as a more serious threat than if the animal's mouth were closed.

However, once again conformational features, health problems and individual differences based the animal's experience can alter the message a specific animal is communicating

The range and duration of signals also play an important role

A dog or cat who vocalizes to gain attention from those far away must vocalize more loudly than one who seeks to gain the same response from someone close by. How long the signal will persist depends on how long it takes any recipients to respond.

As people who have constantly or intermittently reacted to their barking dogs or "talking" cats quickly discover, these signals may continue for hours.

The meaning of animal communication similarly depends on syntax

Syntax refers to the creation of different meanings when signals are arranged in a different sequence. Consider these two canine behavioral sequences:

  • Stiffen, bark, wag
  • Wag, bark, stiffen

The first sequence typically communicates an increasingly relaxed state whereas the second that of an animal becoming more suspicious. But once again conformation, physical health and individual differences may alter the meaning of signal.

Context matters

Like words, we can't say anything about what an animal communication signal means unless we know the context in which it occurs.

When I first saw a dog pull back her lips and expose her teeth in a submissive smile years ago, I thought she intended to aggress. But when I looked at the signal in the context of whole dog's body language as well as my own and the owner's, I realized what was going on.

Although I was aware of the signal and its meaning in wolves and wild dogs, I'd never seen it in companion dogs before. But since then, the display has become more common as people positively reacted to it.

In some companion dog households, this has evolved to the point that the dogs use this signal to control their owner’s behavior as part of the canine passive aggressive behavioral line-up.

Animal communication also may involve metacommunication

Metacommunication refers to communication that is understood instead of directly communicated. Granted, there's not a lot of agreement what the term means relative to human communication.

However, the communication engaged in by group-hunting animals prehunt seems to fulfill this definition. In those animals, the overt prehunt communication determines the size and makeup of the hunting party, but implied in it is that those performing each role will accomplish their specific tasks in a timely manner.

But what about metacommunication in companion animals? Dogs living with other dogs may exchange signals that communicate messages about play tactics. For example, they may share a certain set of body language displays that apparently communicates, "Next time the cat comes by, let's chase him around the house."

When my dogs wander down the driveway, sometimes when they reach the lilac bush that marks their limits, they look at it and each other then turn and look at me. I interpret this as communication regarding the feasibility of moving into forbidden territory. In response to this, I say — verbally or via my body language — "Don’t even think about it." — and they wander back up toward me.

Then, there are all those wonderful nonverbal communications people share with their animals about all sorts of things like impending company, walks and car rides (including to the veterinary clinic) that may be consciously or subconsciously implied in the subtlest human and animal body language expressions.

Veterinary practitioners and their staffs are in an excellent position to recognize how the communications basics overviewed in this and the previous brief play out in the world of companion animals.

Just as learning to speak another's language (including its idioms and regionalisms) clears up a lot of misunderstandings, knowing how animals communicate with members of the same and different species can prevent human-animal breakdowns in communication that otherwise might undermine the animal's health, behavior and the quality of the bonds the animal forms with the owners and members of the veterinary team.