by Eleonora Vaiana
Dogs and cats: enemies to the bone?
What would you say if I asked you the opposite of a dog? A bit of an odd question, to be sure, but most would say a cat. The inverse is true as well: few would disagree with the statement “the opposite of a cat is a dog.” In all likelihood, those few would be the ones who see cats and dogs living side by side every day, not constantly fighting, but cuddling, affectionately playing together or, in the worst case scenario, peaceably ignoring each other. How can this be?
Obviously, the differences between these most excellent pets, which every day fill our hearts with love and our sweaters with hair, are there. In fact, they’re hard to miss. At the most basic level, canis lupus familiaris -better known as the domestic dog- is a canid. Felis silvestris catus, our favorite feline friend, is a felid. This simple, obvious distinction already creates a great divide: a series of wonderful, species-specific characteristics which can undermine happy, friendly cohabitation from the get-go. Let’s explore them, shall we?
The main differences between dog and cat
The primary and most profound differences between dogs and cats are often the triggers of a tense cohabitation.
- Dogs are intrinsically social animals, which needs a pack structure to function. While cats do form social groups, they are also perfectly fine as solitary animals.
- A cat cleans itself, whereas dogs will have to be bathed by the owner.
- The cat, while for from a wild animal, has not been subject to the same extensive domestication process as the dog; thus, their behavior is tied much more tightly to their natural instincts. Dogs, on the other hand, have been bred over millennia to coexist with humans and can be trained to be obedient in specific ways depending on the situation.
But that’s not all: the main problem in disastrous dog-cat relationships is in how they communicate. Their languages, despite being very similar in some regards, fundamentally differ in key ways. Consider the use of the tail: a dog wags its tail to convey happiness, while if a cat’s tail is restless, it is trying to tell us that it’s nervous. However, there are very important common points, as well: in case of discomfort or concern, both the dog and the cat bend their ears backwards; when they feel threatened, both growl and show their teeth, but both prefer to avoid conflict. If caught red-handed, both will even look away from the scene of their crime. You can use these shared behaviors as easy reference points when monitoring their interactions.
So can it be done?
Let’s start with the good news: yes, it is absolutely possible for dogs and cats to live together in peace. First, cats are arboreal creatures and instinctively seek out high places for shelter when threatened. Thus, it is critical to provide the cat with an elevated and difficult to reach place to which they can escape if needed, starting as soon as first contact is made. A shelf, a tall scratching post, or a high table will suffice.
This lofty refuge will also become the place where the cat will eat, as they prefer to do so alone and undisturbed. A simple rule to keep in mind is this old saying: a dog will always eat the cat’s jam, but a cat won’t touch it if the dog can. In addition to being more appetizing, most cat food is harmful to dogs (while the reverse is not true for either point). The dog will also be very interested in the cat litter: the poor cat, besides wondering what he did to deserve such an invasion of privacy, will likely be made uncomfortable by the unexpected extra scents in his litter, and finding dirty litter smell spread around the house.
The key to peaceful coexistence between a cat and a dog is to be familiar with the behavior patterns of each one well. This will allow you to intervene accordingly when conflict arises and give them all the time they need to become comfortable with each other’s presence. And finally, if you’re still unsure, consider contacting a dog trainer. They can be a very useful resource for learning to manage these types of situations and setting up your furry friends’ adventure together for success.