8 Things You Think You Know About Your Pet That Are Totally Wrong

J Danielle Wehunt

Caring for a pet is a rewarding experience, allowing you to develop a close bond that defies the limits of language. You may not be Cesar Milan, but you're pretty sure you've got a decent understanding of how your cat or dog is feeling at any given time.

Unfortunately, the truth is, pets are only slightly easier to read than significant others. As with all the other relationships in our lives, our relationships with our pets are full of misunderstandings, confusion and pure ignorance.

For example...

1. Your dog doesn't like being hugged.

Hugging is one of the most basic displays of affection for humans, to the point that “Your parents must not have hugged you enough” is shorthand for “You're crazy.” As such, plenty of us have decided that dogs are just as into hugging as we are.

Well, hate to break it to all you excessively needy dog owners out there, but despite your best intentions, according to the experts, dogs enjoying being hugged by you about as much as you enjoy being hugged by your drunk new “friend” at the bar.

See, dogs evolved to be good runners, because that was how they tended to deal with danger: escaping it quickly. When you hug a dog, it feels restrained, leading to an increase in stress. Some dogs will even get agitated enough to bite you if you hug them for too long.

I look forward to your angry emails.

2. Cats are not into tummy rubs.

Cats are known to lie down beside their most trusted humans and reveal their stomachs, as if demanding attention. They're practically begging you for belly rubs. So why do they insist on clawing at your hands when you try to actually do as you're told?

People who study cat behavior (which is kind of like studying serial killer behavior) have an explanation. Basically, when a cat is showing you its stomach, all it's doing is showing that it trusts you. Petting it around the head is an appropriate response, but going for the tummy feels like a threat, as if you're betraying your cat's trust.

Anyone who has ever owned a cat knows that the punishment for this betrayal is swift and painful.

3. Cats aren't giving you a gift when they bring home dead mice.

Dog owners tend to insist that dogs are inherently more loving than cats, showing their owners more affection in one minute than a cat can muster up in its entire lifetime. But, like an absent father from a '90s family movie, cats make up for this emotional distance with gifts, returning from their outdoor excursions and presenting you with the finest dead rodents your backyard has to offer.

In truth, these may not be tokens of their gratitude. Cats generally have an evolutionary instinct to hunt, and to teach their babies how to hunt. They do this by killing prey and bringing it home, giving their young an idea of how this whole “being part of the food chain” thing works.

Without any kids of its own, your domesticated cat will instead use you as a substitute, patiently showing you its hunting skills so you can learn from its expertise.

Apparently cats haven't heard of mouse traps.

4. Dogs aren't always happy when wagging their tails.


A wagging tail is universal dog language for “I'M SO EFFING HAPPY YOU GUYS, YOU HAVE NO IDEA!,” right? Well, not exactly.

Basically, a wagging tail is just a communicative gesture, and like any other communicative gesture, it can mean different things based on certain details. For example, a tail that's held nearly vertically while wagging expresses a dominant, don't-mess-with-me-attitude, while a lower, tucked tail means your dog is frightened. If your dog's tail is wagging very quickly, it's probably about to do something, and if your dog's tail is wagging very quickly and held vertically, that something is probably “attack you.”

Yes, some tail wagging is a sign of pleasure, or of friendliness. But assuming that's always the case is like assuming that every single time a person makes a gesture with their hand, they're waving hi.

They could just be giving you the finger.

5. Cats aren't always happy when purring.

If a wagging tail has a feline equivalent, we assume it's purring: that gentle signal that your cat is totally blissed out.

As you may have guessed, though, that's not always the case. True, cats may purr when happy. But they can also purr when they're injured, in pain or just experiencing a general sense of unease. The purr is your cat's way of telling you that it wants you to stick around and comfort it, but it doesn't guarantee that it's enjoying itself. It just doesn't want you to go anywhere.

I'm no expert, but experience tells me cats can also give you this “stick around” signal by sitting on your lap for three hours and getting crazy irritated if you try to move.

6. Dogs aren't tired when they're yawning.

Although scientists haven't completely determined exactly why we yawn, it is pretty clear that it's something we do when we're tired, bored or listening to NPR. It makes sense to assume that it's the same for dogs.

Once again, though, we're reading this situation all wrong. Experts in this subject have determined that for a dog, yawning is actually a sign of stress. Ever notice how sometimes a dog will yawn right after being scolded? That's not its way of giving you the whole apathetic teenager treatment. That's actually a sign that it's really not happy it got in trouble.

7. Cats aren't tired when they give that long, slow blink.

Cat owners know exactly what this is: that drawn-out blink coupled with a totally blank expression, like your cat just smoked a bunch of weed and listened to “Dark Side of the Moon.” We generally think it means the cat is tired, or bored. Either way, we don't see it as a sign of love.

Maybe we should. Researchers have determined that when cats do this, it means they are completely relaxed and comfortable in your presence. They've actually let their guard down – something cats aren't exactly known to do that often – and decided that you're pretty cool.

Enjoy the approval while it lasts.

8. Goldfish totally have long memories.

While the life of a pet goldfish may seem like a twisted horror story – kept captive in a tiny bowl, swimming in circles until the sweet release of death – we justify this by telling ourselves that their memories only go back three seconds. Their entire lives are really just a string of new and amazing experiences!

Well, not quite. Fish have been taught to complete an obstacle course, and can remember how to do it a month later. They've been trained to associate meal time with the presence of a red Lego brick in their bowl, making the same association three weeks later. They've even been taught to remember the difference between a John Lee Hooker song and a Bach piece, because science is weird sometimes.

In other words, the main character from “Memento” had worse memory than your pet fish.

Now, it's probably time you apologized to your pets.