The Contrasting Communication Styles of Dogs and Cats

By Dr. Karen Becker


Dog barks and cat purrs couldn’t sound more different, but they do share one thing in common, which is that they can serve as a form of communication with you, their owner. Your cat may use a special “solicitation purr,” which is more urgent and “less pleasant” than a typical purr, as a tool to get you to feed her.

You may hear the solicitation purr — a low-pitched purr with a high-frequency voiced component that sounds almost like a cry or meow — early in the morning when your cat is hungry.1 Dogs also use barking as an effective form of communication, both with humans and other dogs. Yet, this natural and beneficial vocalization is sometimes perceived as a nuisance, especially if it’s persistent or takes place at inopportune times.

Like cats’ purrs, dogs also use different types of barks in different situations and for different reasons, which you can become more in tune with to develop a deeper bond with your pet.

Different Types of Dog Barks

Generally speaking, dogs use longer, lower frequency barks in response to a stranger approaching and higher pitched barks when they’re isolated.2 Your dog’s voice is also capable of communicating in a variety of nuanced tones beyond barks, including huffs, growls, whines, whimpers, howls and more. Each will be unique to your dog, and if you have multiple dogs, you can probably easily distinguish one dog’s bark from another’s.

Dogs bark for a variety of reasons, ranging from distress to trying to attract your attention. The key to understanding why a dog is barking lies in looking at the context, as although dogs make an incredible variety of sounds, comparatively little research has been done to uncover what individual barks mean. Examples of why dogs bark include:3

Excitement — A high-pitched yip or yowl is often a sign that something exciting is happening in your dog’s mind, and may be accompanied by an alert body position, wagging tail, spinning in circles and feet tapping.
Attention — If your dog looks at you and barks, then pauses and barks again (then repeats and repeats again), he’s probably trying to get your attention. He may want food, a belly rub or a game of tug-of-war; he’s trying to tell you something about what he wants.

One word of warning before giving in, especially if your dog is barking for treats — if you give your dog a treat in response to the barking, it will teach him to bark more to get more treats.

Boredom — A bored dog may bark because he’s got nothing better to do, or because he’s trying to get your attention to play with him or take him for a walk. If your dog barks due to boredom, increase his physical activity and provide outlets for mental stimulation.
Fear/Anxiety or Territorial — If a strange dog or person is approaching your home, or your dog feels threatened, he may use defensive barking, which tends to be deep, persistent and may have a growl tone to it as well. A fearful dog will have a low tail, possibly between the legs, and a low head posture, while a territorial dog will have a straight tail and more alert posture.
Stress — Dogs may also bark due to stress, such as due to a change in your household. In this case, consider talking with an animal behavior specialist about desensitization and counter conditioning exercises for a stressed-out pet. Basic obedience training may also help.
Surprise — If you startle your dog, he may let out a single, high-pitched bark because he’s surprised, similar to the way you might say “Oh!” when startled.
Pain — A dog in pain may bark a higher pitched bark with a staccato quality. If your pet does this when you touch him in a certain area or suddenly starts barking at unexpected times of the day or night, it’s time for a trip to your veterinarian.
Canine Dementia — If your dog barks into a corner or a wall, barks unusually at night or in response to nothing, cognitive dysfunction could be behind it. You should have your dog checked out for canine dementia.


Why Your Cat Purrs

Cat purrs have been described as “opera singing for cats” and involve a neural oscillator sending messages to laryngeal muscles, which causes them to vibrate during inhalation and exhalation, similar to vibrato.4 Domestic cats, some wild cats and other animals, including hyenas, guinea pigs and raccoons, also purr, so why do they do it?

It’s been suggested that purring may have developed to keep cats healthy as they spent long hours silently, and stilly, in wait of prey. Cats purr with a frequency between 25 and 150 Hertz, a sound frequency that is beneficial for improving bone density and healing.5

“Because cats have adapted to conserve energy via long periods of rest and sleep, it is possible that purring is a low energy mechanism that stimulates muscles and bones without a lot of energy,” Scientific American reported.6

Purr frequencies also correspond to vibrational and electrical frequencies used to treat bone fractures, pain, muscle strains, wounds, joint flexibility and more, adding more credence to the theory that purrs may be a form of self-healing.7 While humans often associate the soothing sound of a cat’s purr as a sign that their cat is content, cats also purr when they’re injured or frightened, while they’re in shelters and at the vet.

They may use purrs as a form of stress relief or to calm down, and cats may also use purrs after giving birth to lead their kittens, which are born blind and deaf, toward them.8

Since cats also often purr when they’re cozy on their owner’s lap, getting a good scratch, it could also be a sign of happiness or a way to encourage you to keep doing what you’re doing. Purring is normal and natural in cats, but if your cat is acting unusually, it’s a good idea to contact your veterinarian, even if he’s also purring.


Solutions For Dog Barking

Solutions For Dog Barking

by Sandra Murphy

Does your dog explode into barking whenever someone knocks at the door or rings the bell? Here are 6 ways to help him simmer down.

Ding dong! Chaos erupts as Molly skids barking down the hallway to get to the door before her human, Pat. “She’s such a sweet dog, but why does she act like we’re under attack when someone comes to the door?” asks Pat.

To answer that question, Pat needs to think like a canine, says Eileen Proctor, dog lifestyle expert and author of Relief for the Latchkey Dog. “When a dog sees people walk down the sidewalk, he barks and the people go away. The mail carrier comes to the door, rattles the mail slot, the dog barks and he goes away. It’s a dog’s job to protect the pack. When intruders leave, he’s successful.”

“The doorway is a high intensity location,” adds dog psychologist Linda Michaels. “There’s an unseen person on the other side, a human who needs protection on this side, and often, it’s a cramped space. This is the line a stranger crosses that can increase the dog’s desire to protect.”

In other words, when your dog is barking at the door, he’s only following his natural instincts. That doesn’t make it any less nerve-wracking for you, though. Luckily, there are ways you can help train him to stop treating the doorbell or a knock as a trigger for hysterical or aggressive behavior.

1. Acknowledge his efforts

Since a dog believes barking is in his job description, praise him for doing it – but set limits. A warning bark or two is fine to let you know someone’s at the door. Extended barking is not. Retool his job description to “alert” rather than “make the stranger go away”. It’s easier than you think…read on.

2. Choose a command, and don’t shout

Yelling doesn’t help. Already in a frenzy, the dog may hear “Save me, save me!” instead of “Knock it off” or “Quiet!” when you raise your voice. Choose a verbal cue like “That’s enough” or “No bark”. Use a firm voice rather than a loud one. Eileen uses a simple, “Thank you, good dog.” That says to the dog, “Stand down while I check the threat level.” He then knows the two of you are working as a team and the responsibility is not all on him.

“Consistency is the key,” adds Eileen. “Make sure all the people in the house use the same phrase. Practice makes perfect for both the human and the dog.” Have everyone in the family work with the dog so he doesn’t think the lesson applies to only one of his humans.

3. Make it more satisfying not to bark

Barking turns into its own reward because it gets attention, good or bad. To make it more rewarding for the dog to alert and then be quiet, pick a high value treat or toy that stays by the door. Its only use is as a reward for alert/quiet. The goal is to change the meaning of the doorbell or knock from “Danger!” to “Somebody’s here! Gimme a treat.” Linda concurs: “Teach the dog: ‘I can bark at the door, or I can get cookies.’

“Safety first is always a good rule,” she adds. “To diffuse the dog’s heightened emotions, have him move away from the door to a spot where he can see what’s happening but not be between his person and the visitor.” A baby gate works well as you train for calm behavior. “A handful of tiny treats scattered over the floor will distract him from territorial guarding,” says Linda. “His guarding instincts won’t disappear. He’ll just have better control.”

4. Do some practice runs

Friends who have the willingness and patience to stand on your porch and ring the doorbell while you train are priceless. Another option could be a neighborhood kid with time on his hands. If all else fails, knock on the inside of the door yourself. When the dog rushes to see what’s going on, show the reward, use the verbal cue and take him to the chosen location where he has more space to move around and time to calm himself.

Several ten or 15-minute sessions are better than 30 minutes of continuous training. End on a successful note. If you or your dog begin to get frustrated, have him do something different, such as a few sits and downs, then reward him and take a break.

5. Open the door

Once he knows the routine – alert, move to the calm spot, get the reward – it’s time to let the person come into the house. If your dog remembers the new division of labor – he alerts, you check it out – the visitor can talk to him from a distance.

If it’s still peaceful, bring the dog closer while he’s leashed. A leash gives you control over sudden jumps, inappropriate sniffs, or a body slam greeting. If he walks nicely, let him approach the visitor. If he gets excited or pulls on the leash, stop where you are to see if he remembers that only good behavior gets a reward. Is he still overly excited? Go back and start again from the calm spot.

Watch for a wagging tail. Give your guest tiny treats too. Your dog needs to see company as a good thing. If he’s relaxed, sit down and talk to your visitor for a few minutes. Take the dog back to his calm spot, scatter treats and then escort your visitor back to the door.

6. Praise good behavior!

Whether it’s a practice run or the real thing, remember to always praise or treat your dog when he does what you want him to. “The best way is to use positive reinforcement for wanted behavior,” says Eileen. “Don’t punish bad behavior.” Friends, relatives, the UPS driver or mail carrier – the number of people who have occasion to come to your door can be legion. And each one can be a learning experience for a happy human and a well-mannered dog!