One of my favorite lines from Ghost Busters is a description of Armageddon, the End of Times – “dogs and cats, living together!” The stereotype is that that dogs and cats are fundamentally incompatible, born enemies. But dogs and cats can form communities – families – based on learned communication, play, and safety. To do this, especially with adult animals, requires a little help from their resident monkeys.
Tajji, our “new-to-us” retired seeing eye dog, lived most of her adult life in a household without cats. We assumed that at some point in her early socialization, before her intensive seeing eye training, she was exposed to them. When she came for a preliminary visit, we locked the cats behind closed bedroom doors. She was very excited when off-leash, checking out the house. We gave her a chance to calm down, then put up a baby gate so that we could open the bedroom doors, the cats could come out, and the animals could see and smell one another without undue risk to the cats. Tajji was very interested in checking them out, up close and personal. Shakir hid, but Gayatri came out and sat in the living room, being very polite with her back turned to the dog.
A word about our cats. They’re both rescue adoptees, so we don’t know their early history with dogs, but clearly each of them had had some exposure. The important thing for cats to learn is not to run, because a small critter moving swiftly away will engage the dog’s prey drive. Shakir (black male) was exceptionally friendly with our old dog, relentlessly pursing play behavior even when the dog was clearly not up for close contact with any creature that had razor blades on its feet. Gayatri (brown tabby and white, one eyed female) was more outgoing with our puppy, Darcy. So each of them had had the experience of living with a dog. Cats who are confident with dogs will teach the dogs how to behave, especially if their resident monkeys are careful to set things up so everyone stays calm and safe during the introductory period.
To facilitate safe introductions, we used barriers and escape places. We placed baby gates across strategic doorways (and a big one to divide the living room from dining/kitchen areas). We made sure that every room had high places for the cats to escape to. We transitioned from hello-across-gates, where the cats could determine their comfort distance, to placing the dog in her crate and then letting the cats loose in the same room. This involves a “foundational” skill for the dog – happily going into her crate on command. High-value (super extra tasty) treats and chew toys are useful!
After a few days, we saw the cats acting in a more relaxed manner and the dog moving more slowly. Dogs want to move quickly toward something small and furry and interesting-smelling. Rapid movement like that, especially in a straight line, is threatening to both species, as is direct eye contact. This is a good place to talk about interspecies communication.
Both cats and dogs use body language to communicate. Some things mean the same to both species, but some things don’t, leading to either the opposite message being understood or simple confusion.
Here are a few things cats and dogs share:
- Direct eye contact is menacing. Dilated pupils mean you are stressed and likely to react with fear aggression.
- Moving quickly toward you in a straight line is threatening. Moving slowly and on a curved path sends a calming signal.
- Looking away is polite, as is turning the entire body at an angle.
- Soft eyes (blinking or relaxing the muscles around the eyes) mean friendly intentions.
- Nose-touch is a greeting, implying a certain degree of trust has already been established.
Here are some behaviors that are typically misunderstood:
- Tail wagging/lashing.
- “Play bow” means nothing to cats. Nor does a lip-lick, a sign of stress.
- “Puppy ears” and “puppy licking” (below the mouth) are submissive gestures in dogs that have no equivalents in cats, as far as I know.
Cats and dogs can learn to live amicably with one another, even as adults, but they need time to adjust in small steps. For some, particularly those without prior experience, a week of sniffing through closed doors, with rotation through other spaces in the house, might be required. We expected to use barriers for a couple of weeks. As it turned out, once the flurry of a new animal in a new place had died down, both species started exhibiting signs of willingness to come closer.
Gayatri was the first to make overtures. She communicated her friendly intentions (from the other side of the baby gate) by moving slowly at right angles to Tajji, not looking directly at Tajji, and finally lowering herself to the ground, facing away. Within 10 days, Tajji was learning to move slowly around the cats and to look away. By that time, Shakir had emerged from his hiding place; in several on-the-floor encounters, Shakir let Tajji know that he wasn’t afraid of her and by gum, she was going to back off or he’d come after her, swatting and hissing (which he did on at least one occasion). Both cats have swatted at the dog, usually with sheathed claws – warning, not attack.
About 2 weeks into our pet-integration, the baby gates are gone, although the dog crate remains for other reasons. Shakir has begun initiating physical contact with Tajji, not only touching noses but rubbing against her muzzle and front legs. She holds very still. She knows who is boss.
This scene is from fairly early in the introduction process. Gayatri is in one of her favorite places, my shoulder, and she and Tajji are checking each other out. They are curious, but neither is relaxed. Gayatri’s tension shows in the tuck of her head, and Tajji’s around her mouth and eyes. Contrast this to the following encounter with Shakir:
The next moment, both animals execute a beautiful “Look Away” to indicate their friendly intentions. Compare Tajji’s relaxed mouth to the image with Gayatri. Shakir has half-closed his eyes in an additional gesture of non-threatening intentions.
Tajji lies down so that she and Shakir are now facing the same direction. Her body is at a slight angle to Shakir’s. Their heads are within a foot of one another, and both have “happy” sideways ears. They are well on their way to becoming best buddies.
If you want to learn more about reading dog body language, two excellent sources to begin with are:
Rugaas, Turid. On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals.
Aloff, Brenda. Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide. Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog.