Animal affection: Lost in translation

Interpreting ways animals say ‘I love you’

People often consider pets to be members of the family, but humans and animals have different ways of showing affection, which can get lost in translation.

If you’ve ever wondered if your pets love you and how they show that love, we have answers from experts. Phyllis Erdman, executive dean for academic affairs at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and Connie Fraser, a small-animal neurology and neurosurgery technician, shared their insights.


With dogs, Erdman said emotions go “up and down the leash,” meaning dogs can sense people’s emotions, just as humans can for dogs. A dog who senses his person isn’t feeling well will offer comfort, for example by putting his head in their lap as if to say “I’m here for you.”

“They make us happy. Some people question whether dogs smile, but you can see it in the expression on their face,” Erdman said. “You can see it in their eyes.”

Your dog might show you affection by:

  • Following you.
  • Wanting to play with you.
  • Greeting you at the door.
  • Sensing when you aren’t feeling well and comforting you.
  • Licking you — a lot. Those slobbery kisses are a sign of love, whether you like it or not.
  • Lying on objects that belong to you, like blankets, clothes and towels (it’s so he can be surrounded by your scent).

Don’t worry. Fido still loves you, even if he:

  • Doesn’t always like to be hugged (it gets into his personal space).
  • Doesn’t always like being patted on the head.

Some behavior can go either way:

  • Rolling over to show his belly. If a dog is kicking and squirming while showing his belly, he likes it. For other dogs, being on their backs might be uncomfortable and make them feel unsafe.
  • Leaning into you. For some dogs this can be a sign of affection. Herding dogs or more dominant dogs could be trying to get you to move a certain direction.


Cats aren’t vocal around other cats, Fraser said, so when they meow it’s to get their humans’ attention.

When cats rub on you, it emits a pheromone that marks you. Fraser said it means “That’s my person; they’re part of my tribe.”

One sign of affection you can test with a cat is the slow blink. A cat will look at its person and slowly open and close its eyes.

“It’s saying, ‘I’m OK with you’ and asking ‘Are you OK with me?’ ” Fraser said. “Then you blink back and see if they blink back.”

Cats show people affection by:

  • The head butt: pushing the top of their head against you.
  • Rubbing their face on you.
  • Licking you, to groom you, on your hands, face or hair.
  • Sleeping next to you or near (sometimes even on) your head.
  • The slow blink.

Also affection (really, we promise):

  • Bringing you dead animals (or toys they pretend are dead animals). Your cat is trying to share her prize with you.
  • Kneading. This behavior comes from when they were kittens to stimulate milk when they were nursing. (It can lead to unintended injury if claws are sharp — but they’re not trying to hurt you.)
  • Drooling. Some cats make a slobbery mess when they’re really happy.


With horses, Erdman said it’s important to remember they are prey animals, which means they startle easily.

“Prey animals are always aware of their surroundings, anything that gives them a warning that someone is coming,” Erdman said. “Don’t just jump up and startle them.”

A horse might show you affection by:

  • Nudging you, leaning toward you and following you.
  • People can show affection to a horse by:
  • Being gentle while petting. Horses have skin so sensitive they can feel a fly land on their back.
  • Respecting their space.


Some animal behavior is perceived by humans as being romantic affection; however, it might not always be the cute couple etiquette we think.

According to, sea otters hold hands with other otters, but it’s not always a public display of affection. Holding hands keeps otter couples and families together and protects them from predators. Sometimes it can be about displaying a relationship status as a male otter will hold hands with his mate to prevent another male from taking his significant otter.


Gentoo and Adelie penguins participate in a ritual that might be familiar to humans. Male penguins pick a smooth, shiny rock to give to a female penguin (although, being penguins, it’s hard for them to get down on one knee). If the female likes the proposal, she will use the rock to start a nest. Then the two will continue to build up a pebble nest for their future offspring, according to

However, it can turn into a soap opera: If a male penguin is unable to find the perfect rock on his own, he will turn to theft.

Brewster may be contacted at or (208) 848-2297.

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