Photograph by Matt Cardy, Getty
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Prince, an 18-month-old Coton de Tulear, poses at the Crufts Dog Show on March 10, 2017.

Photograph by Matt Cardy, Getty

Does Your Dog Know You’re Pregnant?

Decoding dog and cat is tough—we take a stab at figuring out your pets' behavior.

You can't talk to your pets—yet—but luckily, there are experts who can help us translate dog and cat.

National Geographic magazine writer Catherine Zuckerman came to us with a question about her house-trained Coton de Tulear, Zucco.

Zuckerman, who's pregnant, is confused why Zucco has started urinating in her daughter's playroom. She wondered whether the dog is aware of her pregnancy.

Her first task should be a trip to the veterinarian to rule out medical problems, such as a urinary tract infection, says Carlo Siracusa, a University of Pennsylvania veterinarian and animal behaviorist. (Related: "How Dogs Can Sniff Out Diabetes and Cancer.")

Barring a health issue, it's possible that Zucco can detect the hormonal changes caused by Zuckerman's pregnancy, and may be behaving differently in response. For instance, dogs whose owners begin hormonal treatments sometimes deviate from their normal behavior, says Siracusa.

In addition to their keen sense of smell, dogs are very intuitive, and can notice changes in their humans' actions and routines, notes Dennis Turner, of the Institute for applied Ethology and Animal Psychology in Horgen, Switzerland. (Read why dogs are so friendly.)

For instance, even seemingly small things like moving furniture for a nursery can disrupt a dog's daily pattern and cause resulting stress. Their responses may “remind us of jealousy in children,” Turner says.

Siracusa recommends these tips by Penn Vet's Ryan Veterinary Hospital to help pets deal with the changes a new baby will bring. Those include giving them a little extra attention each day and introducing new objects like cribs well before the newborn arrives.

A Little Nip

Catnip can be as amusing to owners as it is to cats, but why do some felines seem not to care?

Because some cats don't have the genes to detect nepetalactone, the intoxicating substance in catnip, Siacusa says.

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Catnip, also called catmint, has an intoxicating effect on many felines.

A stressed or nervous cat won’t respond to the herb either, says John Bradshaw, an expert in cat behavior at the U.K.'s University of Bristol. (Read: "No, Coyotes Don't Get High—But These Animals Do.")

All cat species, from tiger to tabby, respond to catnip, so the reaction must have evolved at least 11 million years ago, when the ancestor of all modern cats appeared in Central Asia, Bradshaw says.

Since cats are the only animals that respond to catnip, it's possible that they alone carry brain receptors for nepetalactine, Siracusa says.

The Science of Meow: Study to Look at How Cats Talk

There's a possible reason for this: Catnip also repels insects. So rolling around in the plant “might have been a behavior that has evolved and been rewarded” by thwarting fleas and other parasites.

Wanna Play?

Finally, my nine-year-old domestic shorthair, Wasabi, sometimes covers my mouth with his paw (though not as insistently as this kitty). I wondered, is he trying to tell me to shut up?

If he was, Siracusa says, he’d also be pushing away with his body, as if to say, 'You’re too close.'

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Domestic cats (pictured, a pet named Rocket) tend to repeat playful behaviors that get responses from their owners.

More likely, says Bradshaw, he covers my mouth out of playfulness because of the way that I, or his previous owner, responded to the behavior. Kittens will also invite a play session by tapping people with their paw, Siracusa says. (See surprising things you never knew about your cat.)

Like people, Siracusa says, cats have habits, and this one seems innocent enough.

But if I ever get fed up, Turney adds, ignoring it is the best response.

Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday. If you have a question about the weird and wild animal world, tweet me or find me on Facebook.