Can Dogs Understand Cats?

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Introduction

Dogs and cats are, by nature, very different types of creatures. The dog is a pack animal - social and highly trainable. The cat is independent and territorial. They have different body languages. They make different sounds. Both hunters, the dog is the predator inclined to chase and hunt the cat. 

The expression, "Fighting like cats and dogs" came from the long-held belief that the two species could not get along. But many pet loving families do bring cats and dogs together to live in harmony. How do these relationships work?  Do they manage to communicate? Do our affectionate and social dogs have the capacity to understand the cat?

Signs Your Dog Communicates with Cats

Dogs and cats communicate with people and animals of their own species with body language. When trying to observe and interpret what the dog and cat are feeling, it will be important to consider the context in which the behavior is occurring and to understand the personality of the animal. 

While observing their tails, ears, body postures, mouths and heads you will see that they are sending different messages. A tail wag of a cat has a completely different message than a tail wag of a dog. What can be even more remarkable is the notion that cats and dogs who live together may have the potential to read one another's signals.

We can understand our dog's thoughts and feelings by watching their bodies. When a dog holds their tail high, it signals aggression. The dog will flick the tail back and forth when about to attack. Unlike the cat, when the dog is relaxed and confident, the tail is relaxed also and extends out from behind. When dogs wag the tail to the right, that is sign of being friendly. 

A relaxed dog will have a slightly open mouth with their tongue hanging out. The dog will have the ears back when approachable. The ears are up when the dog is alert. We like to think of our dogs as affectionate. They stay near, snuggle, and give us comfort.

The cat holds their tail high when feeling confident. The high tail is sending a message the cat is feeling relaxed and confident. Not unlike the dog, when the tail is high and puffed out, it could be signaling the cat is about to become aggressive. The cat's tail will be lower if the feline is feeling tense. 

There are no friendly tail wags with the cat. If you are petting a cat and their tail is wagging, better back off and let the cat be. A relaxed cat will have a closed mouth. Opposite to the dog, the cat's ears are up when acting approachable with you. The cat will flatten their ears when upset or angry.  Your loving cat will give a head bump, knead on you and even give you cat licks to snuggle up and show you affection.

Body Language

Some signs that your dog may be communicating with your cat include:
  • Wag tail
  • Low tail carriage
  • Tail up
  • Ears back
  • Tongue hanging

Other Signs

More signs to watch for when your pup and kitty are having a conversation are:
  • Tail movements from both animals
  • Body freezing
  • Sniffing each other
  • Crouching
  • Low noises

The History of Dogs Communicating with Cats

According to veterinary neurologists, mammals across the board have similar brain structures. The hemispheres, lobes, and parts of the brain have the same names and functions. In MRI studies with dogs, the same parts of the brain will light up as with humans. 

For example, dogs process language in the left hemisphere, the same way as humans. Fears, memories and spatial awareness are processed in the same parts of the brain by humans and dogs. But there are ways that our brains differ. 

The human brain has more folds and a more developed frontal cortex. Dogs are the oldest domesticated species and they are thought to consciously work at understanding human signals. Dogs have been shown to have feelings of optimism, anxiety, happiness, fear, and depression. They have been shown to respond emotionally same as humans, for example, they will respond to the sound of a crying baby. 

With these amazing cognitive powers, dogs have evolved to understand human emotions. It may not be so surprising to consider they may pick up on the signals of the animals with whom they live to understand them, as well.

The Science of Dog-Cat Communication

Researchers under Professor Joseph Terkel at Tel Aviv University have been studying the relationship between cats and dogs. Most of us no longer live in nature, but in cities. Because of close proximity, the scientists believe that dogs and cats are evolving to better communicate with one another. 

The team interviewed 200 owners of cat and dog households. Two-thirds of the homes reported a peaceful home environment. In 25% of the homes, the dog and cat were indifferent to one another. Aggression and fighting were observed in 10% of the households. 

Dogs and cats have different signals for communicating their feelings of friendliness and aggression. A surprising finding was that the dogs and cats who lived well together seemed to have developed their own communication signaling system. 

For example, cats will greet each other while sniffing noses. While dogs typically sniff rears, in the cat compatible homes, the dogs would greet the cat with nose-sniffing. They also were able to identify the ideal conditions for bringing a dog and cat together for a harmonious home. If the cat is adopted before the dog and they are both young, less than 6 months for the kitten and less than one year for the dog, there is a high likelihood the animals will live well together.

Training Your Dog and Cat to Live Together

If you are in the position of getting young pets, the ideal situation is one in which you would acquire the kitten first and then the dog. Many pet lovers are not in this situation. You may already have a dog and want a cat. It is still possible to create a harmonious home. 

First, consider the breed, age, and temperament of your dog. If your dog is predatory and has a history of being aggressive with cats, it will not be a good idea to bring a cat into the environment. Use common sense and clear judgment about the safety of both animals. 

To introduce the dog and cat, start slowly by first allowing them to get acquainted with one another's scents. You may start by keeping them in separate rooms. They will smell one another through the door. You may have them smell one another's toys. 

Another suggestion is to introduce them through a baby gate - but a cat and some dogs may hop the gate. You will want to keep the dog on a leash at the first meeting of the animals to maintain control of the dog if a hunting or chasing instinct starts to take over. Have your dog in a "Sit-Stay" during the introduction. 

Always supervise the dog and cat when they are together until you are confident they will be peaceful with one another. Make sure each pet has their own food dish, water and a safe place to sleep. 

How to React to Your Dog Interacting with Your Cat:

  • If your dog cannot take their eyes off the cat, chases it or ignores your commands, it's not a match.
  • Any sign of dog aggression toward a calm cat is a warning this is not going to work.
  • A cat that is attacking a calm dog is also a poor match.
  • Cats will hiss and growl when meeting a new animal, but the behavior should subside in a few days
  • If the cat stops eating and acts unhappy, reconsider the match.
  • If the animals are having difficulty with the adjustment, get professional help from an animal behaviorist.

Tell Us How Your Dog and Cat Communicate!