October 14, 2014
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!
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?
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.