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Can cats and dogs be friends?

It’s the season of goodwill – but does that extend to feline/canine relations? Do these two distinctly different species have the capacity to become great mates or, will they fight like, well, cats and dogs?

While they may both have fur, four legs and a tail, that’s where the similarities between cats and dogs ends. These two animal species aren’t natural companions, which is why dogs and cats tend not to get along – if you put two strangers together in the same room, it’s pretty likely that the fur will fly. Naturally solitary cats and social dogs are creatures with very different lifestyles and behaviours whose wild ancestors would have done their very best to keep out of each other’s way.


Happy together?

So, how come there are dogs that are good with cats and cats that have dog friends? Pet partners who get along well and live quite happily together in the same household – even sleeping in a shared bed, grooming each other and joining each other for playtime?

The answer, according to Israeli zoologist Joseph Terkel, is that through thousands of years of domestication, the two species have learned how to interpret each other’s body language. This is a key skill that gives each an insight into the other’s intentions, revealing whether they are up for a friendly interaction, are giving the cold shoulder, or are likely to be hostile.


Looks positive

Professor Terkel from the University of Tel Aviv carried out the first ever study of the behaviour of cats and dogs living under the same roof. He interviewed 200 pet owners, whose households included both cats and dogs, recorded the interactions between them and carefully analysed their behaviour. Nearly two-thirds of the homes they surveyed reported a positive relationship between their two pets. A quarter of the pets monitored treated each other with indifference, while aggression and fighting were observed in 10% of the homes.

One reason for the cat-dog fisticuffs may have been crossed inter-species signals. In this instance, the cats and dogs monitored may not have been able to read each other’s body cues, which, considering how differently they communicate, is not really a surprise. For example, a cross cat whips its tail from side to side while a dog with a wagging tail is normally pretty happy. Dogs will growl as a warning, while purring in cats generally indicates a contented animal. If a cat averts its head, it’s a sign of aggression, whereas in dogs, this is a show of submission.


Do you speak my language?

In more harmonious homes Prof Terkel observed a surprising behaviour, stating: “We found that cats and dogs are learning how to talk each other’s language. It was a surprise that cats can learn how to talk ‘dog’ and vice versa.”

What’s especially interesting, according to Prof Terkel, is that both cats and dogs in the study have appeared to evolve beyond their instincts – essentially that they can learn to read each other’s body signals. Once familiar with each other’s presence and body language, cats and dogs can play together, greet each other nose-to-nose, enjoy sleeping together on the sofa and, in some cases, groom each other.

Age can be an issue

Importantly, Terkel’s study showed that the age at which the two pets were introduced to each other is key. If the cat is younger than about six months and the dog is younger than a year at the first meeting, then they are much more likely to establish a warm relationship.

Both cats and dogs seem equally willing to make friends, although there is a better chance that they will get along if the cat arrives first. Perhaps, surprisingly, there was no difference noted between males and females in their ability to put ancient animosities to one side.

Getting to understand each other is a rather amazing achievement considering how differently the two species express themselves. Prof Terkel’s survey showed that the “majority of dogs and cats understood the particular body language displayed by one animal that has an opposite meaning for the other species; and that the earlier the age of first encounter between the two, the better this understanding.”


Helping a feline/canine friendship along

So, it seems that cats and dogs can be friends, but if you already have a cat and would like to have a dog – or the other way round – how should you go about it? The first thing to consider is the personality of the existing pet in residence. A dog with a high chase instinct or a particularly timid feline will not result in a happy pairing and it would not be fair on the existing pet to have to contend with a new arrival. However, a confident, friendly animal of either species means there’s a good chance of developing a successful pet partnership.

Instigating a successful introduction is essential. The two pets should be able to become accustomed to the other’s sight and smell while being kept physically apart by, say, a stairgate across a doorway.

Feline welfare charity Cats Protection advises: “By taking your time to introduce your cat to other pets you can improve their chances of getting on well. It's much easier to manage a controlled introduction than it is to repair a damaged relationship. Don't be tempted to let your pets manage their own introduction. While cats and dogs are often portrayed as natural enemies, the reality is that it's usually easier introducing a cat to a dog than to another cat. While cats may struggle to get along with other cats, they can often find it easier to share your home with a different species.”

Here are some more of Cats Protection’s top introduction tips:

  • Start by giving your cat a room that is not accessible to your dog. By introducing your pets to each other's scent, you can improve their chances of getting along when they first meet.
  • Stroke each pet with a separate clean, soft cloth and dab them around your home and furniture for them to sniff and investigate. Repeat the process until your pets show no reaction to the smell. If your pets avoid the smell, the scent swapping stage is going to take longer.
  • After going through the scent-swapping process, you should be ready to make the first face-to-face introduction. Keep your dog on a lead and keep them calm – it may help to take your dog for a vigorous walk first.
  • Train your dog to show relaxed, non-threatening behaviour around the cat, such as 'down' and 'stay' and ensure you are in control at all times.
  • Ensure your cat doesn't feel cornered. Your cat should have a safe escape route or a high ledge where the dog can't reach them. Close external doors and windows to avoid the cat bolting.
  • Ignore the cat. Your dog will feel that the cat is more important if you focus on it. Do some training tasks with your dog to keep their attention, using food treats and praise to reward their good behaviour.
  • Never restrain your cat or force them to approach the dog. Let the cat leave the room whenever they wish.
  • Don't allow your dog to chase your cat. Praise and treat your dog if they remain calm and then return the cat back to their own room.
  • Repeat short introductions until the dog shows little or no interest and the cat is not fearful of the dog. Progress to the dog being on a long line which can be picked up if necessary.
  • Give your cat treats so they associate the dog with something positive.
  • Once your cat and dog are unconcerned by each other's presence you can take your dog off the lead, but make sure your cat can still escape to a high ledge or furniture. Never leave the dog and cat unattended until you are absolutely sure that they are happy and secure in each other's company.
  • Remember that cat food and litter trays can be appealing for dogs, so make sure they are out of reach to allow your cat to eat and toilet in peace.

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Sources: sciencedaily.com, cats.org.uk

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