Fighting like Cats and Dogs

Actual fighting is rare

Published: August 27, 2018
Spencer and Lucy. Photo by Dr. Teri Ann Oursler.

Many comparisons annoy me: “Throwing like a girl,” “acting like a thug," "take it like a man." Not just because they're incredibly cliched (I like a good cliché as much as the next guy); they're also often just plain wrong, both in a factual and a moral sense. "Fighting like cats and dogs" is making me particularly twitchy at the moment.

I hear it most often in the context of family squabbles: “My kids were fighting like cats and dogs by the end of the road trip,” or “He and his girlfriend have been fighting like cats and dogs since they started building a house.” We're meant to picture people yelling and screaming, maybe throwing things, even coming to blows, then sinking into glares and grumbles before erupting into another loud argument. You know what actual cat vs. dog fights look like? Silence, a flurry of noisy motion, and then back to silence because somebody has run away or is lying in a bloody heap. There's usually not a repeat fight because one is quite afraid of the other and keeps its distance from then on or because one is dead.

Another reason I hate that cliché is because it ignores the majority of the dog/cat relationships I've witnessed; they range from "avoid and ignore" to "tolerated existence" to "bestest friend ever." Actual fighting is rare. If this is not your experience, let me offer a few suggestions.

Don't expect that dogs and cats will just get along. Not only are they different species with different innate communication styles, each animal comes with its own personality. Dogs bark and bounce and wag their tails to play. Cats wag their tails to indicate that some serious s**t is about to go down. Dogs and cats can learn to speak each other's language if you give them the opportunity to do so safely and calmly. They can also learn to respect each other's personality  when and if it's time to play and when it's time to give each other space. However, you can't just toss a dog and a cat in a room and expect them to know how to behave with each other.

And there's that whole size differential. With exceptions such as a teacup poodle meeting a Maine Coon, the dog is usually going to be significantly larger than the cat. This means the cat has to deal with the stress of encountering a giant. (How would you feel if you were minding your own business and Bigfoot comes running at you? Is he grinning because he wants to be your friend or baring teeth in anticipation of gnawing on your skull?) This also means anything that goes wrong can go quickly and severely wrong. (If Bigfoot does want to chew on you, there's not a lot you can do about it if car keys are the only weapon you have at hand.)

If you want to set a dog and cat up for success, consider the situation from both of their perspectives. Is it a new place or well-known home? How young or mature are they? Have they encountered other species before and how did that work out? Are they both healthy or is one sick or painful? Ideally, they're meeting on neutral territory, have had positive prior experiences with the other species, and have the ability to approach or retreat at any time. But life is often not ideal so you need to make adjustments. Go slowly and realize that multiple attempts are often required before a dog and cat get on good "speaking terms."

I like to introduce kittens to adult dogs that have been around other cats. The dog is usually calmer and knows what body language means "let's play" and "back off" in both species' languages. Keep the dog on a short leash and let the kitten wander up to sniff around the odd fuzzy giant. The worst damage a kitten should take is a knock-over from a wagging tail or wounded dignity by sloppy tongue to the face. And a mature dog isn't going to take playful kitten pounces as an attack to be met with aggression.

Diamond and Drifter. Photo by Dr. Teri Ann Oursler

I like to introduce puppies to adult cats that have lived with dogs before. Depending on the puppy's age, they may or may not be leashed, but the cat should always have some good vertical space nearby if they want to get away. The puppy is usually fascinated by the cat and the cat is curious about the new interloper. Cautious sniffing ensues, puppy gets just a bit too pushy, cat hisses, puppy fails to back off adequately, cat delivers single hard swat to puppy nose. There's a short timeout while cat hops up in cat tree to groom off the dog cooties and puppy comes to terms with its stinging nose. At some point later, we all try again and the puppy comes to learn that cats have finger-knives and should be treated with due reverence rather than chew toys or runts to be bullied.

Manage your expectations. Tolerance is sufficient; friendship is a bonus. If the dog and cat are content to ignore each other and stay in their own territories, maybe that's as good as it's going to get. Maybe someday five years from now, you'll find them curled up on the couch together; maybe it'll be the silent treatment forever. Whatever you do, don't force the issue. Shoving two reluctant animals together when they clearly aren't interested will only breed resentment.

Keep in mind that relationships are often situational. Dogo may treat Kitty like his best pal inside the house, but move the party outside, and Kitty may become just another prey species. Dogo and Kitty may get along when it's just the two of them, but chaos ensues when Fluffy comes to visit.

Repeated controlled encounters with other dogs and cats will help your pet become "bilingual" and able to get along with other species and other personalities. Not every cat will get along with every dog — you might do everything right and still wind up with problems — but there are usually good results if you work at it safely and patiently.

So enough with the "fighting like cats and dogs" already. Most dogs and cats can share a household without fighting. And we've all seen examples of other cross-species friendships -- dogs and horses, cats and bunnies, horses and goats  even cats and toddlers! 

1 Comment

December 17, 2019

Love it ! Well said.!. My 11 year old English Bull Terrier, 85 lbs, lived with my 18 year.old cat until kitty died 1 year ago. Recently I introduced a new,young stray cat, a female scrapper and more than a little bit lacking in socialization. She is so hyper and edgy, Willie quickly figured out she is boss and that she needed her space. It helped that the other elderly cat was also the boss. Willie did not forget his place, although he can play charge for a couple of seconds....just to see what happens ! The young cat scrambles quickly.

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