Why Do Dogs & Cats Yawn? 6 Reasons Why (Beyond Being Sleepy)
Humans. Dogs. Cats. Our yawns all look the same. A wide-open jaw—showing lots of teeth—accompanied by a big deep breath. All these yawns may appear simplistic in nature; the subject in question is merely tired or perhaps even bored. While these suppositions may be true (especially for the human!), a yawn also speaks volumes as to how a dog or cat feels about a given interaction or situation. And a dog's yawn may provide clues about her emotional connection with you.
1. A Boost to the Brain & Body
Just like us, a dog or cat may yawn when she's sleepy or bored to move her body into a more wakeful state. Yawning causes the lungs to expand and a deep breath to occur, which increases oxygen levels in the brain and releases excess carbon dioxide. The result is an instant energy boost and increased alertness.
2. An Expression of Empathy
Dogs join a short list of species (humans, chimpanzees, and baboons) that display their capacity for empathy through contagious yawning. Studies show that dogs sometimes respond to a human's yawn with a yawn of their own, confirming what dog-lovers already know to be true: Our dogs DO understand how we feel! Dogs also display the deep emotional connection they have with their human guardians through their increased likelihood to return a yawn from their owner—as opposed to one from a stranger.
3. Creating Inner Calm
Similar to how humans may bite their nails when nervous, a dog or cat may yawn when she's feeling ill at ease. Because yawning causes a dog or cat to take a deep breath, it helps to calm her down. Pet owners often misinterpret yawning in such contexts as meaning that their dog or cat is suddenly becoming sleepy. But, when interpreted within the context of other body language cues, the yawn might be saying that the dog or cat feels anything but chilled out and relaxed.
4. A Call for Peaceful Resolution
A yawn can serve as a "white flag" communicating the dog's or cat's willingness to disengage and not pursue further conflict. In these cases, the yawn delivers a polite request to the other animal for increased space and an amicable end to the stressful interaction. It's a sign of pacification rather than one of submission. For example, a Great Dane may turn her head and yawn in response to being barked at by a corgi being walked across the street. The big dog's yawn is a cue to the other dog that she's not a threat—a message intended to deter the corgi from further barking.
In a similar way, a cat may yawn as a means to end an impasse with another feline. But keep in mind that cats use their whole bodies to communicate. So when a yawn is accompanied by whiskers positioned sideways or slightly forward, it's just a yawn. If the whiskers are positioned backward or downward, that cat is probably agitated.
5. Dealing with Inner Conflict
Yawning may indicate that your dog or cat is experiencing an internal dilemma and faced with incompatible options for how to respond. For instance, a dog may yawn after being told to "leave it" when faced with a sandwich on the coffee table. The yawn may allude to her internal struggle to decide between two opposing options: moving away from the food in response to her owner's requestor diving nose-first into a sandwich exuding an intoxicating smell. The yawn may be further fueled by underlying stress. If the owner uses an intimidating voice to tell the dog to back away, the yawn may indicate both internal conflict and emotional distress.
6. Taking it Up a Notch
When subtle stress signals like yawning are missed, the dog may resort to louder communication signals—like a growl or snap—to make herself heard. If a dog yawns after being hugged by a stranger, for instance, and her signs of stress (such as turning her head away, showing the whites of her eyes, or licking her lips) are overlooked, the dog may escalate from her polite request for space to a louder demand that's finally heard and acted upon.
So the next time your pet yawns, rather than ignoring it or explaining it away, consider if your dog or cat might be saying more.
A version of this article first appeared in Happy Paws Fall/Winter 2019.