Sunday Story Time

What our pets are trying to tell us

When your cat lies on its back and shows its tummy, does it want it stroked? Why does your bunny tremble all the time? And is there something about the way Fido wags his tail?

A bayby guinea pig ‘popcorning’. Photograph: Alamy

We are – or so we like to tell ourselves – a nation of animal lovers. And like most lovers, it turns out that we are perennially obtuse and perpetually baffled by what the objects of our affection are trying to tell us. A plethora of recent studies have attempted to explain what various types of pet are trying to tell us:



The latest research – from the University of Trento, Italy – claims that dogs wag their tails slightly more to the left when they are sad or apprehensive and slightly more to the right when they are happy. You may not be able to pick up on this without a protractor or video film that you can then slow down – as the researchers did – to make the difference visible to the naked eye, but other dogs can. Of course, dog owners have always felt that their canine companions are as subtle, complex and sensitive as any human – if not more so – and not the slavering, witless, genital-licking beasts they seem to be, but now they know.



A video put together by the Cats Protection charity (it wastes no funds on apostrophes) unmasks the true meaning of a cat showing you its tummy. It doesn’t want it scratched – it’s just a way of showing trust. Repay that gift by rubbing the cat’s head instead. This may lessen by some infinitesimal fraction the almost infinite contempt in which your pet customarily holds you. Then again, the video also says that four out of 10 people believe their cat intentionally sheds hair to mark its territory, meaning that at least 40% of cats are entirely correct in their disdain.


So cute! So fluffy! So quiveringly lovely! Yes, well – they’re quivering because somewhere deep in their primal brains, they are aware that they are prey animals and are programmed to assume that everything, everywhere, is out to get them. So when you or a well-meaning child looms over them, they fear the worst and react accordingly. Better, according to rabbit experts, to interact with them at ground level and resist petting them too much.

Guinea pigs


No recent studies on these, but I take any excuse to remind you of my favourite fact from our resident guinea pig expert Emine Saner: the term for when these freakish fur lozenges run around and twist up into the air is “popcorning”. You’re most welcome.


Nobody knows. There was a study ages ago that claimed goldfish are quite happy swimming around in a tiny bowl with just a plastic castle and some blue gravel for company because they only have a three-second memory. It sounds too good to be true and probably is. As with life, so with fish.