Friction between cats and dogs is so common, people often assume it’s inevitable. In fact, cats and dogs can get along just fine with the right support. Most of the scuffles I see between dogs and cats aren’t down to aggression or ill-intent on the part of either animal, but rather a failure in communication.
Dogs and cats have very different communication styles and expectations, and it’s easy for them to get their wires cross. It’s completely possible for them to overcome this and co-exist — or even to become fast friends. Personally, I find the process of interspecies communication.
How do cats communicate with dogs? Communication can happen through vocalisations (yelps, growls, screams etc). They can show trust, fear or aggression with their eyes. Their muzzles can express emotion in similar ways. Both animals may communicate affection through physical closeness and mutual grooming behaviours.
It can be tough for cats and dogs to communicate. Even an initial greeting can be quite baffling for both animals. Cats often greet other cats with a nose-to-nose greeting, while dogs… well, dogs take a more fundamental approach, sniffing each others’ behinds.
Cats don’t like having their hindquarters sniffed, and dogs can be confused by a cat getting too close to their faces.
How Do Cats Communicate with Dogs?
Tail position can be another tricky signal to read. For a cat, a waving and lashing tail is a warning sign. A waving tail can mean that the cat is starting to get overstimulated and needs space; a lashing tail is a sign of agitation and a clear signal to back off. For a dog, of course, a wagging tail is a sign of enthusiasm and friendliness.
Ear position reads differently on dogs and cats as well. When a cat is angry and feeling aggressive, her ears will lie back flat against her head. If she’s fearful, her ears will flatten but lie forward and stick out to the sides (we call those “aeroplane ears”).
When the cat is happy and alert, her ears will stand up on her head. Dogs, on the other hand, hold their ears flat when frightened but swivelled stiffly forward when aggressive. This can mean that they’ll read aggression as fear, and possibly mistake a neutral mood in a cat for a hostile one.
Body language is very different for both animals. Take, for example, rolling over and raising a paw. A cat may do this as a preamble to grabbing, scratching and biting. A dog may do it as a sign of friendliness, showing his belly as a sign that he means well and just wants to play.
A raised paw in a dog is a playful overture, while for a cat, it can be a warning. A dog misreading these signals may well receive a swat across the nose, or worse.
This is not to say that communication is impossible between dogs and cats. There are areas of commonality which the animals share, and which can make it easier for them to understand each other.
Both cats and dogs may blink slowly and frequently to signal trust and affection, and neither likes direct staring. The mouth and whisker pads of their muzzles communicate their moods in similar ways; both may snarl when aggressive.
While cats and dogs obviously have very different vocalisations, there are a few that both species can understand. Growls are common to both dogs and cats and offer a useful way to indicate that things aren’t going well. Yelps and screams are also produced and understood by both species.
When they’re getting along, cats and dogs may both engage in mutual grooming. This can look a little different for a dog than for a cat, but it can be understood as a bonding ritual by both. If your dog and cat are grooming each other, that’s a really good sign.
Resting together is a universal sign of friendship for cats and dogs. It communicates trust and affection. The dog has accepted the cat into his pack, and the cat has accepted the dog as part of her colony. It’s a very cute thing to witness.
Choosing a Cat for Dog Owners
If you’re a dog owner and you plan to bring a cat into your home, it’s important to consider the animals’ temperaments first. If your dog is well-behaved and doesn’t chase or worry cats, that’s a great start, but you still need to make sure that the cat you introduce to your household will also be compatible.
Personality varies wildly between individual cats. If you’re going to rescue a cat from a shelter, you can ask how the specific cat you’re interested in gets along with other animals. You might even be able to bring your dog in and see how the cat reacts (as well as noting how your dog responds to the cats around him). In this context, the breed of the cat will generally matter less than her general disposition.
If you’re planning to buy from a breeder, you can look for a specific breed that’s known for getting along with dogs. Maine Coons, Norwegian Forest Cats, Turkish Vans and Abyssinians are all noted for being dog-friendly breeds. The American Shorthair and similar British Shorthair are both great cats for dog-owners.
Choosing a Dog for Cat Owners
A dog of any breed can learn to get along with a cat if they’re introduced properly. It’s a good idea to choose a smaller dog, as he’ll be less intimidating for your cat. If you’re rescuing your new pooch from a shelter, you can ask about training, socialisation, and any aggressive behaviours directed towards cats.
If you’re buying from a breeder, you can look for breeds that are loyal, patient and generally friendly. Beagles are often mentioned in this context, as they’re particularly accepting. The tiny Papillion can make a good friend for a cat, since their small size and pleasant disposition men’s that they’re less likely to make the cat feel threatened.
Popular family dogs like collies or golden retrievers are also popular among cat owners, as they’re highly intelligent and easy to train as well as being friendly and gentle. King Charles Spaniels have gentle personalities that are a good fit for a cat-owning household.
Introducing Cats and Dogs
Introductions between the cat and the dog need to be performed with care. It’s important to keep the pets separate at first, in order to avoid scary initial encounters that can make bonding more difficult. Keep the new pet in a separate room for a few days. When you first let them see each other, make sure there’s a barrier in the way (a fence, gate or secure crate works well here).
I like to perform this initial introduction over a meal; this ensures that both the cat and dog have something pleasant to associate with the other animal.
Initial encounters should be kept short and closely supervised, with the pets gently separated at the first sign of any tensions. Both animals should be praised and rewarded when they do well. Dogs in particular tend to be a bit over-eager about interactions, whereas cats will often just abscond.
It’s important to train your dog to ignore the cat as much as possible unless the cat interacts first. An overly chummy dog can come off as threatening for a cat, who may decide to claw first and ask questions later.
Whatever you do, make sure that any animal you bring into your home isn’t bought from a kitten or puppy mill. First of all, to do so is putting money into the pockets of breeders who are at best ill-informed and at worst cruel. These pets are more likely to have behavioural issues that can be tough to tackle, and thus more likely to fight or harass each other.
This means avoiding animals from pet stores, unfortunately, as many of the animals for sale come from mills or irresponsible breeders. While it’s perfectly possible to help such animals, they need a lot of extra care and you might struggle to ensure that they can get along.