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Animal Behaviourists tend to be called in as a last resort, often when a pet has become aggressive or unmanageable, or when the relationship between pet and family (or other animals in the home) has broken down completely.  At this point, a lot of hard work is required to get everybody on track and, sadly, it may be too late and the situation may be irrevocable.

We asked Twisted Whiskers’ consultant behaviour experts, Samantha Walpole and Julia Davies-Carter, what they would like people to know about interacting with animals in order to PREVENT PROBLEMS before they arise.


Regardless of the fact that dogs and cats have lived alongside humans in a domesticated context for millenia and, as a consequence, have evolved into very different beings to their wild ancestors, it’s vital to remember that they are still predators.  They will always revert to fight or flight behaviour when placed in situations where they feel compromised, and this can (and often does) result in trauma.  Understanding animals’ body language is key to ensuring that you and your loved ones (both humans and other pets) are safely interacting with the dogs and cats you encounter.  These handy infographics (click to view full size) show the common canine and feline ’amber lights’ that alert us to the fact that the animal is communicating distress.

Look at these signals as a whole, rather than in isolation.  If you see an animal showing a “closed off” stance rather than a “soft”, open, receptive one, beware!  You (or your child or pet) have overstepped and are setting up a situation where a frightened, overwhelmed animal may behave unpredictably.



We all fall into this trap.  Think back to the last time you saw a cute fluff-ball of a puppy, a mischievous kitten, or a gorgeous silver-muzzled senior.  What did you do?  Most likely stormed the animal with kisses and cuddles and, chances are, completely missed a bunch of the signals listed above…. Truth be told, most of us are lucky we still have our faces in place!  It’s a testimony to the patience of animals that we do.  Imagine taking your child into Sandton City and allowing every person in the place to grab and kiss him or her.  It would take but a few seconds for the child to become overwhelmed, fearful and anxious.  The same goes for our fur-children.  It’s disrespectful and downright dangerous to expect every animal to love you and enjoy receiving attention from you.

Possibly the most important rule any behaviourist would have us remember is DON’T APPROACH AN ANIMAL.  Ask the owner’s permission to interact and “ask” the animal by watching his body language and allowing him to approach you.

So, how do we know an animal is receptive to interacting?  As far as both dogs and cats are concerned, UNLESS YOU SEE A RELAXED, WIGGLY, “SOFT” DEMEANOR, LEAVE THEM ALONE!  If the animal comes up to you with fluid movements, soft eyes and weaving body, they are showing you that they’re open to a chat, a cuddle or a game and it’s safe to proceed in a gentle and respectful manner.  A wagging tail isn’t always a green-light so look out for big circular wags, as if the tail is wagging the dog.  With cats, a raised S-shaped tail is a good sign.



Social media is filled with videos of children bouncing on dogs, “carrying” cats and tiny puppies around, etc. and they get thousands of likes and “How adorable!” comments…. Until a child or animal is injured.  Kids take a while to get to grips with the nuances of person-to-person interactions and cannot be expected to pick up on the subtle cues shown by animals as well.  It’s up to adults to firmly monitor all interaction and ensure that both the children and the animals in the situation feel safe and comfortable.  Follow our behaviourists’ tips to prevent tears and trauma.

  • Children should be taught how to interact with animals safely and appropriately. Young kids tend to squeeze and can do serious damage to little critters – don’t allow them to handle animals until they have learned to do so with care and consideration.  Rather than children picking animals up, have them sit on a chair or stand quietly, depending on the size and disposition of the pet, and allow the animal to come to them for gentle interaction, always supervised by an adult.  And by supervised, we mean that the adult should have a clear understanding of the body-language cues mentioned above and be able to step in immediately if the animal shows signs of anxiety.
  • When kids play with animals, there should be NO ROUGH-HOUSING, as this teaches animals that it’s okay to be rough. Cats should only ever be engaged in play with dangler-type toys, not twiddling fingers or toes, as this encourages unwanted scratching and biting behaviour.
  • No child (or adult) should ever hug a dog or cat. Wrapping your arms around an animal’s neck is seen by the pet as a restraint and is almost always unwelcome.  Children also love to kiss pets and this should never be allowed.  A lovely idea is to teach kids to kiss their own hand and wipe the kiss onto the pet’s body, or rather to blow a kiss to their doggy or kitty to show him or her love.
  • Don’t approach a sleeping animal. In the wild, animals are at their most vulnerable while sleeping.  Waking them from slumber is very much a case of poking the proverbial bear and is unlikely to result in a positive experience.
  • A fantastic website to check out for more helpful info on teaching kids about pets is https://www.familypaws.com/



Inter-dog play is a very important part of social interaction, with both parties taking turns to be the initiator (I chase you, you chase me).  There should be plenty of “mini-breaks” in between bouts and no-one should ever be bullied or exhausted.  It goes without saying that no dog should ever be set upon and dominated by a group of dogs.  The same body-language signals discussed earlier apply in animal-to-animal interaction and this should only be allowed to continue if both animals are in a soft, playful, receptive frame of mind (and body).

Animals who meet for the first time and display stiffened stances, rigid faces, etc. are not simply “sussing one another out”.  Dogs straining at the ends of their leads, “shouting” at one another are also not interested in a friendly How Do You Do.  In both instances, remove the animals from the situation.  They do not like each other and encouraging further interaction may end badly for all concerned.

Animals are individuals too – in the same way that we as humans don’t get a kick out of every other person we meet, dogs and cats don’t either.

Playing for cats is practice for hunting.  Remembering the cat’s natural HUNT-EAT-GROOM-SLEEP cycle, which is repeated throughout the day, will go a long way towards helping you to interact positively with them.  Eg. The best time for play (HUNT) is before a meal, and the best time to get the brush out (GROOM) is after food (EAT) and before a rest (SLEEP).  When playing with cats, always ensure that there’s a yummy food reward at the end of “the hunt”, or kitty will be left feeling frustrated.

When dogs and cats interact, the safety of the cat is always paramount.  When introducing a dog to a cat, allow the cat to see the dog outside through a window or sliding door to start.  Her body language at this early stage should already give you a clue as to whether she’s interested and keen to know more about the dog, or completely put off.  If, based on this first reaction, you feel that face to face communication can be initiated, ensure that the cat always has a choice to leave the room.  The dog should be on a lead and the cat allowed to freely exit if she feels threatened.  If the dog shows inappropriate behaviour eg. barking, lunging, whining, do not reprimand!  Quietly remove the dog from the area and call a professional.  Once a dog has been allowed to bounce all over a cat, any chance of a healthy relationship between the two has been ruined forever.  Similarly, if a cat goes into hiding after being introduced to a dog, know that there isn’t much hope of the relationship working out.  If you persist, your cat will most likely leave home and move in with someone else.

We are legally responsible for our pets’ behaviour and it should be our goal to always facilitate positive interactions between people and our animals.  We set everyone up for success by understanding how dogs and cats show their feelings and by ensuring that children and others who may not have had the privilege of enjoying a healthy relationship with animals are taught to respect them and interact safely with them.

Twisted Whiskers recommends ABCSA – and SABCAB – accredited Animal Behaviour Consultants, Sam Walpole (dogs) and Julia Davies-Carter (cats and dogs).  Feel free to contact these ladies for advice on choosing the ideal pet for your household and lifestyle, support for aggressive or anxious pets, introducing new animals to an existing fur-family and any other behavioural questions you may have.

Sam  Mobile: +2783 775 1400  email: sam@bethedog.co.za

Julia  Mobile:  +2783 367 6649  email: madkid101@icloud.com


© Written By Twisted Whiskers

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