Exploring Animal Idioms: A Comprehensive Guide for Students

Here is a list of common English idioms and phrases related to animals. If you wish to learn the English language and improve your vocabulary, then learning these phrases, called idiomatic expressions, can help.

As the meaning is different than the meaning of the words, these expressions are difficult for students to learn.

But broaden your knowledge by listening to songs, movies and TV programs to understand what it is like to speak like a native speaker. 

Animal Friendly Idioms & Phrases

If you would prefer to use phrases that do not contain or negatively refer to animal characteristics then visit this page – animal friendly idioms, sayings and phrases.

Animal Idioms in English with Meanings and Example Sentences

idiom, definition, example sentence

   A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

  • It’s better to have something that you already possess than to risk losing it by trying to get something better that you may not actually get.
  • I was thinking of selling my old car and buying a new one, but I decided that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, so I decided to keep it instead.

   A leopard can’t change its spots

  • People can’t change who they are.
  • Even though he promised to study more, a leopard can’t change its spots, and he continued to lay around.

   A little bird told me

  • Keep the source of some information a secret.
  • I didn’t hear it from her directly; a little bird told me she’s planning a surprise party.

   All bark and no bite

  • Someone who talks tough but doesn’t follow through with action.
  • He threatened to punch me, but he was all bark and no bite.

   Ants in your pants

  • To be restless or fidgety.
  • I couldn’t sit still during the movie, I had ants in my pants.

   Barking up the wrong tree

  • Take a mistaken or incorrect course of action, or to assume something that is wrong
  • The police were barking up the wrong tree when they accused the wrong person of the crime. The real culprit was someone else entirely.

   Bats in the belfry

  • Someone who acts like they are crazy.
  • People think she has bats in the belfry because of her strange behavior.

   Bee in your bonnet

  • To have an idea that is annoying you.
  • She’s had a bee in her bonnet about the TV show so much she made a complaint.

   Bee’s knees

  • something or someone excellent or outstanding.
  • The new restaurant in town is the bee’s knees.

   Big fish in a small pond

  • Someone important in a not important and small group.
  • In their hometown, he’s a big fish in a small pond, but he might struggle in the city.

   Bird’s eye view

  • A viewpoint that allows you to see the overall picture of a situation.
  • From the top of the mountain, we had a bird’s eye view of the entire city spread out below us.

   Black sheep

  • An embarrassing or disliked family member.
  • He was always the black sheep of the family, choosing a different path.

   Blind as a bat

  • Unable to see well.
  • Without her glasses, she’s as blind as a bat.


  • Someone who spends a lot of time reading books.
  • My sister is a real bookworm; she finishes a novel every week.

   Bull in a china shop

  • Someone who is extremely clumsy or careless, often causing damage or chaos in their surroundings.
  • John was like a bull in a china shop when he knocking over a display case.

   Busy bee

  • A busy bee is someone that is always doing something, keeping busy
  • During exam week, students are busy bees studying.

   Butterflies in your stomach

  • Feeling nervous about doing something, perhaps for the first time.
  • I always get butterflies in my stomach before a job interview.

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   Camel’s nose in the tent

  • Allowing a small problem to occur, which then leads to larger problems
  • I agreed to let my friend stay for a few days, but now he’s taken over the whole apartment. It’s like letting the camel’s nose in the tent.

   Can of Worms

  • Opening a can of worms means creating more or many problems.
  • Talking about her past opened a can of worms.

   Cat among the pigeons

  • Someone or something that upsets the calm.
  • The rumor about layoffs was like a cat among the pigeons in the office.

   Cat and mouse

  • A close situation changing from one side to another.
  • Their relationship felt like a cat and mouse game, with constant ups and downs.

   Cat burglar

  • A burglar who is skilled at entering buildings without being detected.
  • The stolen jewels had the mark of a cat burglar.

   Cat got your tongue

  • When someone is silent or at a loss for words.
  • Why aren’t you saying anything? Has the cat got your tongue?

   Cat nap

  • A short sleep.
  • I’ll just take a cat nap before the party starts.

   Chicken out

  • To back out of something because of fear or lack of courage.
  • I was going to bungee jump, but I chickened out at the last minute.

   Clam up

  • Suddenly become silent and refuse to talk.
  • Whenever the topic was mentioned, he would clam up.

  Cold Turkey

  • To suffer from suddenly stopping doing something such as a bad habit such as taking drugs.
  • John was going cold turkey, throwing away his last ever pack of cigarettes. 

  Crocodile tears

  • Fake tears.
  • She cried crocodile tears when she got caught stealing from the store.

   Cry wolf

  • To give a false alarm.
  • After several false alarms, nobody believed him when he cried wolf.

   Curiosity killed the cat

  • Being too curious can get you into trouble.
  • Don’t ask too many questions about their surprise party; you know, curiosity killed the cat.

   Dark horse

  • Someone or something little-known that surprises everyone.
  • In the talent show, she was a dark horse, but her singing amazed everyone.

   Different kettle of fish

  • Completely different.
  • Writing an essay is one thing, but giving a presentation is a different kettle of fish.

   Dog eat dog (dog-eat-dog)

  • A competitive situation where everyone is trying to be the winner.
  • The business world can be dog-eat-dog, with everyone trying to outdo each other.

   Dog’s dinner

  • A mess or something that is poorly done.
  • He made a real dog’s dinner out of that project.

   Dog’s life

  • A difficult or unpleasant life.
  • Living in the crowded city can be a real dog’s life for some people.

   Donkey years

  • A very long time.
  • I haven’t seen her in donkey years; we should catch up.

   Don’t count your chickens before they hatch

  • Don’t assume something will happen before it actually does.
  • I’m not counting on getting the job, I know not to count my chickens before they hatch.

   Drink like a fish

  • To drink a lot of alcohol.
  • At the party, he drank like a fish and ended up feeling terrible the next day.

   Dropping like flies

  • People or things increasingly falling, such as falling ill or dropping out.
  • With all the technical issues, the project team members were dropping like flies.

   Eager beaver

  • Someone who is very enthusiastic and hardworking.
  • She’s always the first to volunteer for projects; such an eager beaver.

   Eagle eye

  • Sharp and keen observation.
  • With her eagle eye, she noticed the mistake in the document right away.

   Elephant in the room

  • A big problem or issue that no one wants to talk about.
  • We need to address the elephant in the room and talk about the budget cuts.

   Every dog has its day

  • Everyone gets their moment of success.
  • Don’t worry if you didn’t win this time; every dog has its day.

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   Fat cat

  • A wealthy and powerful person, especially one in business or politics.
  • The CEO is living like a fat cat while the company struggles.

   Feather your nest

  • To make money and use it to improve your living conditions.
  • Working hard to feather your nest is a good idea.

   Fight like cats and dogs

  • To argue or fight fiercely.
  • They may fight like cats and dogs, but deep down, they’re good friends.

   Fish for compliments

  • To try to get someone to say nice things about you.
  • She kept asking how she looked, fishing for compliments.

   Fish out of water

  • To feel uncomfortable or out of place in a new or unfamiliar situation.
  • I grew up in the city, so being on a farm made me feel like a fish out of water.

   Flew the coop

  • To leave home.
  • Once she turned 18, she flew the coop and moved to the city.

   Flog a dead horse

  • To waste time on a useless effort.
  • Trying to fix that old computer is like flogging a dead horse.

   Fly on the wall

  • To observe something without being noticed.
  • I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during that meeting to hear what they were really talking about.

   Fox in the hen house

  • A dangerous or disruptive person or thing in a peaceful or vulnerable environment.
  • I’m worried that the new manager is going to be a fox in the hen house and disrupt our team’s productivity.

   Free as a bird

  • Completely free.
  • After finishing exams, students feel as free as a bird.

   Frog in your throat

  • Having difficulty speaking due to a tickle in your throat.
  • I can’t give a speech today, I have a frog in my throat.

   Get the monkey off your back

  • To rid yourself of a problem that has been troubling you.
  • After six failed attempts the want-to-be taxi driver finally passed his driving test.

   Have kittens

  • To become very nervous and worried about something
  • Mary’s parents are going to have kittens when they find out she failed her math exam..

   Hold your horses

  • To be patient and wait.
  • Hold your horses! I’m almost ready to leave, but I still need to grab my keys.

   Horse of a different color

  • A situation or topic that is different to the current discussion.
  • I know we’re talking about the budget, but that’s a horse of a different color compared to our marketing strategy.

   In the dog house

  • In trouble and not in favor.
  • After forgetting their anniversary, he found himself in the dog house.

Kangaroo court

  • A mock or ‘not real’ court that lacks proper authority or fairness.
  • I didn’t get a fair trial, it was more like a kangaroo court.

   Kill two birds with one stone

  • Accomplish two tasks with a single action
  • By combining our tasks, we can kill two birds with one stone.

   Lame duck

  • An ineffective or powerless person or thing.
  • He’s just a lame duck in this company, he doesn’t have any real authority.

   Let sleeping dogs lie

  • Not interfering in a situation, especially if doing so may cause trouble or conflict.
  • Although Jane was tempted to confront her coworker about a mistake they made, she decided to let sleeping dogs lie to maintain a peaceful work environment.

   Let the cat out of the bag

  • To reveal a secret.
  • I can’t believe you let the cat out of the bag about the surprise party!

   Like a duck to water

  • To do something very easily and naturally
  • She had never played tennis before, but she took to it like a duck to water.

Lion’s share

  • The majority or largest portion of something.
  • The CEO took the lion’s share of the profits, leaving very little for the employees.

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   Mad as a hornet

  • Very, very angry.
  • When he found out about the prank, he was as mad as a hornet.

Monkey business

  • Untrustworthy behavior.
  • I don’t trust him, he’s always up to some monkey business.

   Monkey see monkey do

  • Someone is likely to copy the actions of another person, especially if they look up to them or see them as a role model.
  • My little sister always copies everything I do. Monkey see, monkey do, I guess.

Night owl

  • A person who is awake and active during the night.
  • I’m not a morning person, I’m more of a night owl.

Pecking order

  • A ranking system, typically used to describe the social order among animals.
  • In the workplace, there’s a clear pecking order with the boss at the top and the new staff at the bottom.

Pig out

  • To eat too much food.
  • I always pig out on junk food when I’m stressed.

   Pony up

  • Contribute money or pay a sum, often reluctantly.
  • If we want to go on the class trip, we all need to pony up some cash.

   Put the cart before the horse

  • Spending money before you receive it.
  • Ian thought he was getting paid, but he put the cart before the horse, as he became ill and didn’t get anything.

   Quiet as a mouse

  • Making little to no noise.
  • Sneaking into the house, she tried to be as quiet as a mouse.

Rat race

  • A competitive, fast-paced lifestyle focused on career success.
  • I’m tired of the rat race, I want to take some time off and travel.

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   Slippery as an eel

  • Someone or something that is evasive, elusive, or difficult to pin down or capture.
  • Trying to get a straight answer from him is like trying to hold onto a slippery eel. He always avoids giving a direct response.

   Slow as a snail

  • Very slow or sluggish.
  • The internet connection is slow as a snail today.

   Snake in the grass

  • A bad, untrustworthy person who appears to be trustworthy.
  • I thought he was my friend, but it turns out he’s a snake in the grass.

   Straight from the horse’s mouth

  • Information from a reliable source.
  • I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth that the test is postponed.

   Stubborn as a mule

  • Extremely stubborn and unwilling to change.
  • He’s as stubborn as a mule and won’t listen to anyone’s advice.

   Take the bull by the horns

  • To face a problem or challenge directly and with confidence.
  • I know this project is going to be tough, but I’m ready to take the bull by the horns.

   The early bird catches the worm

  • The person who arrives first has the best chance of success
  • I always wake up early so I can start my day early and get things done. The early bird catches the worm, after all.

   The lion’s den

  • A dangerous place.
  • Standing up to the school bully is like entering the lion’s den.

   The straw that broke the camel’s back

  • The final, seemingly minor event that causes a big problem.
  • The bad grade was just the straw that broke the camel’s back; she had been stressed for weeks.

   Ugly duckling

  • a person or thing that initially appears unattractive but eventually becomes beautiful or successful.
  • At first, the startup seemed like an ugly duckling, but now it’s growing rapidly.

   Until the Cows Come Home

  • For a really long time.
  • He can talk about his favorite game until the cows come home!

   When pigs fly

  • Something is unlikely or impossible to happen.
  • I’ll lend you a thousand dollars when pigs fly, because I know you never pay me back.

   White elephant

  • A possession or project that is expensive to maintain and has little or no value.
  • The old building was a white elephant, it was too costly to renovate and nobody wanted to buy it.

   Wild goose chase

  • A fruitless or pointless pursuit or search. It implies chasing something that is elusive, difficult to catch, or simply does not exist.
  • We spent hours searching for the lost keys, but it turned out to be a wild goose chase. They were in my pocket all along.

   Wolf in sheep’s clothing

  • Someone who appears harmless but is actually dangerous
  • I thought he was just a friendly stranger, but it turns out he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

   You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

  • it’s difficult to change someone’s habits or behavior when they are set in the way they do things.
  • My grandfather refuses to use a smartphone, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

   Zebra crossing

  • A place for people to safely cross a road painted with black and white stripes resembling a zebra.
  • Be sure to stop for pedestrians at the zebra crossing.

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