How Cats And Dogs Communicate

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Despite working with dogs for a living, I’m actually a “cat person” too. I’ve always shared my home with both species, and for the most part, life together is peaceful. I haven’t experienced much of the “fighting like cats and dogs” stereotype. Still, the interaction between species is fascinating to me. Do they understand each other? Is conflict caused by misinterpretation of signals?

As a trainer, I believe I’d be doing a disservice to my clients who share their home with the two most popular household pets if I didn’t know about cat behavior too. Based on my research, I’ve come up with 5 common ways our pets communicate similarly, and 5 common misunderstandings. Of course, individual personality, breed, and experience are all factors that can affect communication greatly. My hope is that you will be able to look at your own pets’ interactions a little differently!

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5 ways our cats and dogs get signals crossed:

1. Tail position – We all know a loosely-wagging dog tail is an indication of friendliness, but it looks strikingly similar to an agitated cat tail whipping back and forth. Watch out, pooches!

2. Meeting and greeting – Cats use a nose-to-nose touch to greet other cats, where as dogs go, you know, nose-to-butt. Both often find the other’s greeting style to be quite rude.

3. Barks, meows, hisses, and purrs – Dogs bark and cats meow, particularly when looking for attention. Barks and meows don’t really translate across species, and dogs have no equivalent for hisses and purrs. However, there is evidence that dogs find a hiss noise to be intrinsically unpleasant, so they tend to understand this means to back off from kitty!

4. Rolling over and lifting a paw – For dogs, rolling over indicates in some way that they mean no harm. They’re exposing their vulnerable bellies, after all. For a cat, though, rolling onto their back often means they’re about to grab, scratch, kick, and bite. Similarly, a cat raising a paw might seem like an invitation to play, deference, or attention-seeking to the dog, until they’re met with a smack on the nose! A cat’s raised paw is a warning.

5. Ears – This might be one of the more subtle signals, at least for us humans to recognize. Cats normally hold their ears forward, up and to the side when fearful, and back and flat when aggressive. Dogs hold their ears back and flat when fearful, forward and stiff when aggressive. If a dog can’t read the other feline signals, the dog may mistake aggression for fear or neutrality with aggression.


5 ways cats and dogs understand each other:

1. Shrieks, yelps, and growls – These vocalizations are fairly universal across species. Our cats and dogs should at least recognize these signals of pain, fear, and aggression. Thank goodness for that, right?

2. Eyes – Both species blink often and softly to communicate that they mean no harm or are friendly, and both stare intently as a challenge or threat. When fearful, both cats and dogs show the whites of their eyes, often called “whale-eye.”

3. Whiskers and mouth – Canines and felines both have tension in their mouth area when they’re aggressive. Humans often do this too! When threatened or aggressive, whiskers are pushed forward.

4. Grooming – If your cat and dog groom each other, you’ve got a pair of best friends! It’s called allogrooming, and it’s just about the pinnacle of affection.

5. Resting – Lying down and relaxing near each other indicates comfort. The closer together, the more comfortable your dog and cat are with each other. I used to have a cat and a dog that would spoon each other. How sweet is that?

Time for some participation!
How do your cats and dogs get along?
What signals do they give each other?


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Lynda manages our dog walking team at Rover-Time. Her career focus is on dog training and behavior and her approach is based on science, positive reinforcement, and humane methods to improve relationships between humans and their pets. She’s also an assistant trainer at Animal Sense in the evenings and co-parents her own cat and two dogs, Surf and Ryan, with her other half Mary.

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Comments (4)

Anne Omland

I don't have a cat but I do have a dog and am fascinated by how he communicates with us. We just watched something on 60 minutes about how when I dog holds eye contact with you lovingly, he's hugging you with his eyes. This has resulted in my husband making intense eye contact with him all the time...hilarious! Thanks for sharing!

Nickole Hoyt

I have 2 cats and a. Small dog.. We got the cats as one day old kittens & decided to keep them because we couldn't bare the thought of sepertiing these two best friends who had been thru so much at such a young age. .. Well my dog did the dirty work, she would clean them and alert us if they would cry.. But she didnt like to cuddle or like when they would try to nurse off of her.. So they learned quickly how to handle one another. My female cat now has a litter of 4 babies of her own.. She is an amazing mom and luckily all of her natural instincts kicked despite never having a natural birth mommy cat of her own. Yet for some odd reason since about a week before birth she attacks her brother very very aggresivley if she's even sees him.. Forgot leaving them alone for 2 seconds she corners him instantly.. Mind you he is twice her size & never fights back.. Which is not normal for the two of these cats.. They usually rough house and play all day.. However MOMMA kitty has no problem with my dog.. She let's her help clean them and I'm pretty sure they have this like babysitting thing they do.. If momma gets up to go to the bathroom or eat my dog will poke her head just over he edge of the bed so she can watch the kittens.. If my dog gets off the bed the mommy comes running to make sure everything is alright. Its actually a pretty cool thing to see & makes all of it worth it .. My male cat is not happy he's not allowed in the bedroom at night but we make sure to give him lots of love and treats during the day so he knows we dont forget about him.. And of course my dog still cheese the male cat around.. So he still has at least one friend to play with ❤❤

How Do Cats Communicate With Each Other? – Lovin My Pup

[…] certain signals from one another. Though, cats and dogs will likely understand at least the basics of communication when they yelp, growl or make eye contact with each other. They may not be able to have deep […]

Patricia Genereaux

We had cat brothers when we adopted our female dog. They lived well together for 4 yrs, then within 6 months both my cats passed. I noticed Molly was slightly lost and sad, so we adopted another male cat. He was a yr old tabby with spots and only a few stripes. Eddy's dominance is ignored by molly, but there are times he bullies her. I have seen him go up to her, groom her, then disturb her until she gives up her spot. I have watched them play together, and then lay together. I am worried lately because Eddy won't stop the bullying. I have taken to separating them, but the Eddy howls while Molly isn't in the house. Any advice?

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