A dog with a happy facial expression.

Understanding Dog and Cat Facial Expressions

Dogs and cats use facial expressions to convey their mood and communicate with people and other animals. But it’s not always easy for the untrained human eye to interpret what our pets are trying to say. A good understanding of your pet’s facial expressions will help you with training, communication, and simply bonding with your pet. So, let’s take a look at some of the most common facial expressions in dogs and cats.

Dog Facial Expressions

Dogs often use non-verbal communication to show us how they’re feeling. And although you can tell a lot about your dog’s mood by observing their facial expressions, it’s also important to look at their overall body language and posture. When it comes to facial expressions, dogs use their mouth, eyes, ears, and facial muscles to communicate their feelings. Here are a few of the facial expressions you might see when your dog is experiencing different emotions:


If your dog is feeling happy and relaxed, they’ll usually maintain soft eye contact and an open, relaxed expression. Their ears may be up and forward or relaxed and hanging to the side. They might also have the corners of their mouth turned upwards into a smile.


If your pup is alert and on guard, they’ll usually have an intense stare with widened eyes. Their ears will be erect, forward, and rigid. They might also have their mouth closed or partially open with just the teeth visible.


A playful dog will have a relaxed, soft expression with gentle eye contact. Their ears will be up and forward or to the side. They may also be panting excitedly and have their mouth open with their tongue hanging out.


A fearful dog will have large eyes and a tense gaze. You may also notice a lot of white around the eyes (sometimes called “whale eye”). Your dog’s ears will usually be flattened backward against their head or to the side. Their mouth may also be open or panting with their lips pulled back and their teeth bared.


An aggressive dog will often have a hard stare and may be growling or snarling. You might also notice their ears pulled back and their teeth bared. Aggressive facial expressions can look similar to fearful expressions, so it’s important to look at your dog’s body language as well. An aggressive dog will often have a rigid body posture and a stiff tail.

Cat Facial Expressions

Just like dogs, cats use facial expressions and body language to communicate their mood and feelings. While it can be tricky to tell exactly what a cat is feeling based on their facial expressions, we know that they use certain features – like their ears, eyes, whiskers, and mouth – to express different emotions. Here are a few you may notice when your feline friend is in various moods:


A content kitty will usually appear relaxed and alert with a calm gaze. Their eyes may be half-closed, or they may look directly at you. Cats might also purr quietly when they’re content – but this isn’t always the case! In some cases, purring can be a sign of nervousness, fear, or other emotions.


A friendly cat will have a soft expression with relaxed eyes. Their ears will be up and either forward or to the side. They may also have their mouth closed or open with just the teeth visible.


If something has sparked your cat’s curiosity, you’ll usually see an intense gaze with their ears slightly pulled back. You might also notice them sniffing the air or sitting very still to observe the object of their curiosity.


An anxious cat may have a wide-eyed look and a tense jaw. Their ears will usually be pulled back and their whiskers may stand out straight from their face. You might also notice that they’re grooming themselves a lot or excessively licking their lips – both are common signs of anxiety.


An angry cat will often have a hard stare and an open mouth with their lips pulled back. Their ears may be down or pulled back, and they might also be hissing, growling, or spitting. But in some cases, anger in cats can be difficult to spot, especially if they’re not very vocal.

Is It Easier to Understand a Dog or Cat’s Facial Expressions?

Now that you know a little more about the types of facial expressions dogs and cats make, it’s time to compare the two. If you’re a pet parent, you may be wondering whether it’s easier to understand a dog or a cat based on their facial expressions. As it turns out, it’s much more difficult to understand a cat’s facial expressions than those of a dog.

Scientists have discovered that only 13% of people can accurately judge a cat’s mood from their facial expressions. But a separate study found that it’s relatively easy for people to learn how to read a dog’s facial expressions. This is most likely because dogs are humans’ oldest companions – so we’ve had plenty of time to learn how to read them!

All this means that you can probably tell how your dog is feeling (and what they’re thinking) by looking at their facial expressions. But you may need to spend lots of time observing your cat’s facial expressions and body language if you want to have a chance of understanding their feelings!

Improve Your Relationship with Your Pet

Taking time to understand your cat or dog’s facial expressions can be a great way of improving the bond between you and your pet. While it’s true that cats’ facial expressions are more difficult to read than those of dogs, you can still try to make an effort! By spending some time watching your pet carefully and practicing how to spot their different moods, you’ll be well on the way to becoming an expert in no time.