6 min read


Can Dogs Smell Cats?



6 min read


Can Dogs Smell Cats?


American poet, Eugene Field authored the poem, The Duel. Some of the lines from this time-honored poem are, "The gingham dog and the calico cat, side by side on the table sat...The gingham dog went "Bow-wow-wow! And the calico cat replied, "Mee-ow!", The air was littered an hour or so, With bits of gingham and calico....". 

It seems there has been an enduring impression of the relationship between dogs and cats that they would not get along. What is it about the cat that would trigger the dog to pursue the fetching feline? Is it their scent? Might it be their sound? Or is a dog just willing to hunt and go after any little, furry creatures that are active?


Signs Your Dog Can Smell a Cat

Dogs have amazing noses. We work with dogs to use their scent to assist us in police and military work, service to persons with disabilities, hunting and even in the extermination of bed bugs. It is important to remember that dogs are naturally using their noses to interpret and understand their environment. 

Observers of dog behavior have determined that dogs will use different strategies to explore their world with their noses. Scents can arise from many sources. A scent might trail in the air, be found along the ground or be localized in one place. Our olfactory-oriented canine friend will place their nose in the best position possible to track, trail, and localize interesting smells.

When tracking, the dog will place their nose close to the ground to track the scents left behind by humans or animals. Their wet nose will be wiggling to take in and hold onto the smells. If the nose becomes dry, you will see the dog licking it to make it wet to help them smell. 

In tracking, the dog is following the scent of footsteps. In trailing, the dog is following the scent of cells left behind. If you remember the character, "Pig Pen" from Peanuts, he had a trail of dirt and dust. Humans and animals will similarly shed cells that carry odors detectable to the dog. If the particles are in the air, the dog will hold their head up and seem to sniff the air. Air scenting dogs will hold their heads high and run in a zig-zag pattern to search out the source of the smell.

Many households have a dog and a cat. When pets live together, it is important to look for signs as to whether or not the animals are getting along. Dogs and cats are both territorial with natural hunting instincts. There are factors such as age, size, and play style that will influence the interactions of the animals. 

In normal play between a dog and cat, it will look like exaggerated hunting. Both dogs and cats will go into the play bowing position with the front legs down and elevated behind. They will literally take turns with chasing, nipping, and wrestling. The cats will often fall on their sides and bunny kick. Sometimes, the cat may lick the dog and the dog may lick the cat. 

You will know the play went too far and is bordering on aggression if one of the animals is hiding, the dog is growling, the cat is hissing, or you hear screams.

Body Language

Signs that your pooch and kitty are getting along include:

  • Sniffing
  • Running
  • Nose Licking
  • Nose Wrinkled
  • Play Bowing

Other Signs

More signs to watch for during dog and cat interaction include:

  • Taking Turns In Play
  • Chasing And Wrestling
  • Licking One Another
  • Loud Noises Or Shrieks

The History of Dogs Smelling Cats


The dog has a phenomenal sense of smell. Scientists have demonstrated that the dog has 10,000 to 100,000 times the receptors as humans. The nose of the dog is developed to take in and hold the air for olfactory processing. 

While a human will breathe in and out, the dog will inhale the air into to pathways. Most of this air travels to the lungs but a percentage of the air travels far into the nose and is held there for more scent processing. In the back of the mouth, at the base of the nose, the dog has the Jacobson's Organ, a special zone for processing pheromones that assist the dog to locate hormones. 

The dog's incredible sense of smell assists them to intake information about the world, to hunt, find food, find mates, and to interpret their environment. Dogs rely heavily on their sense of scent to identify other dogs and animals. You may even watch them greeting other dogs, and you, by sniffing the crotch and behind.

What about the cat's sense of smell? Cats also have a strong sense of smell. No two cats have exactly the same nose and their nose coloration matches their fur coloring. A cat is very sensitive to smells and prefers familiar scent environments. The cat also has the Jacobson's organ and the cat will appear to be smiling in the Flehman Response when this organ is aroused by pheromones. 

Like dogs, cats will mark their territory, and they will use their noses for food, mating, and to warn them of danger. The cat's sense of smell is 14 times stronger than the human olfactory ability. No wonder they come running when we pour milk on our cereal!

Science of Dogs Smelling Cats


What is it about the cat that excites the dog? Is it the smell of the cat?Surprisingly, scientists have researched this very question. A team of researchers headed by Christy Hoffman of the Department of Animal Behavior, Ecology and Conservation at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York studied the reactions of 69 various breeds of dogs to a cat doll - a pillowcase that moved like a cat - with and without the smell of a cat. They also tested the responses of the dogs to recorded cat sounds beyond a door they could not enter. 

The dogs did not become more interested in the cat doll when they added the sense of smell to the doll. What the dogs paid the most attention to was the cat sounds that came from a place they could not access. The dogs with a history of being aggressive with cats paid the most attention to the cat sounds. It appears that dogs can smell cats but what will most get their interest will be the "Meow" and other sounds of the cat.

Teaching Dogs and Cats to Live Together


There are a number of ideas about why cats and dogs seem to go after each other. Some believe that the cat is a fast-moving, furry object and the dog is going after the cat the same as it would a squirrel. There is some truth to this. We have to always remember that the dog has basic predatory instincts. 

The dog is, by nature, a hunter. A cat is smaller and is very likely perceived as prey by the dog. Pet owners must be aware of the dog's instincts to hunt and the smaller size of the cat when working with the animals to live together. There are ways to introduce the animals to live in harmony. 

Start by going slow with introductions. Use desensitization. Keep the animals in separate rooms. At first, they may smell each other through the door. Then try using a baby gate (but the cat might jump it). The idea is that they view each other for limited periods of time. If the animals seem overstimulated, close the door between them and feed them each on their respective sides of the door. You can give them a turn smelling one another's blankets and toys. 

Another strategy is to introduce them face to face. Leash your dog. Bring the cat into the room and watch as they explore one another. You may want to put your dog in the "Sit-Stay" position. Praise your dog for ignoring the cat.

With this next strategy, the dog is leashed and gradually brought from a greater distance toward the cat. The owner will need to be observant of when the dog starts to go into a hunting pose to find the threshold of distance when the dog is less aroused. Using a clicker and treats, the dog is rewarded to look at the cat and stay calm. Over time, gradually reduce the distance between them. 

With patience, the animals should become comfortable with one another and adjust to sharing space. Some dogs are such hunters that they do not adjust to the cat and you will always need to keep them separated and under your supervision. You may need to get help from a trainer if your dog continues to be predatory toward the cat. With other dogs and cats, they become comfortable with one another, share the territories in your home, and even become companions. 

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Safety Tips for Dog-Cat Interactions:

  1. Understand your dog's breed and predatory instincts.
  2. Gradually introduce the dog to the cat.
  3. Do not leave the animals unsupervised.
  4. Keep the dog and cat in separate areas.

By a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel lover Pat Drake

Published: 04/03/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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