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Why Do Dogs React to Cats?

"They fight like dogs and cats!" is a statement which expresses the universal belief that there is something about cats which brings out aggressive behavior in dogs. The problem is that nobody knows what that "something" is.

Of course, there is one situation where we do know what the trigger is: When a dog encounters a cat outdoors. For many cats, the sight of a dog will cause them to run, and once the dog sees a fleeing cat, the canine's prey drive cuts in, and the dog begins an excited pursuit. However, this is not cat-specific behavior: The dog is simply reacting to the sight of something furry running. A squirrel, a rabbit, or a rat running across the dog's field of view will produce the same chasing behavior. It is the dog's natural instinct to run after fast-moving things. This can sometimes include kids on skateboards or skates and even cars, neither of which has the vaguest resemblance to cats.

One evening I was observing an advanced beginners dog obedience class. The instructor, a lighthearted woman named Shirley, had brought her cat to class, something she always did at about this point in the course. The cat was a big Siamese who lived in a house full of poodles and was very calm around dogs. The cat's purpose in the class was to serve as a distraction — to help in proofing the dogs' abilities to heel beside and pay attention to their owner, even when there was something interesting and exciting nearby. Although the dog owners were concerned about how their dogs might react to the cat, things actually unrolled in a quiet manner. The cat, in its carrying kennel, was placed near the edge of the mat and the dogs were to walk past it. The cat was attentive, but quietly watched the passing parade. Initially the dogs were interested, at least to some degree, and would stop and glance into the kennel and give a sniff. By the second or third time walking past, the dogs gave it very little attention.

At that point, Shirley picked up the carry kennel and placed it back on the table. Apparently she had done so a little bit too quickly for the cat's comfort, and she gave a startled "meow" sound. The dogs in the class, who had been rather indifferent to the feline visitor up to this point, suddenly looked intently in the direction of the cat, and two of them excitedly barked. I remember being puzzled observing this, asking myself what had changed to cause the dogs to react and suddenly direct their attention to the cat.

It has been several years since that incident, but I now have the answer.

A new study by a team of investigators headed by Christy Hoffman of the Department of Animal Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, looked at what it is about cats that catches the interest of dogs most strongly. Is it the sight of the cat, the sounds it makes, or the smells that surround it which trigger the interest of dogs most strongly? Their findings are published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

The study was fairly straightforward. It involved looking at the responses of 69 pet dogs of a variety of breeds, including mixed breeds. They videotaped the responses the dogs produced when they viewed a realistic-looking animatronic cat doll (which could wag its tail, move its head, and also move its paws, allowing it to slowly propel itself across the floor). As a non-cat-like visual control stimulus, they used a pillow case with a motorized ball inside. The pillow case moved and vibrated when the ball inside it was activated. The experimenters could alter these displays to smell like a cat by wiping them with a few drops of cat urine.

To provide sound stimuli, the investigators took samples of normal cat sounds and played them from speakers located behind a screen, which was seen through an open door that the dogs could not pass through.

Given this setup, I would have predicted (as did the experimenters) that the dogs would pay the most attention to the cat-like doll, especially if it were daubed with cat urine to make it smell like a feline. And although the dogs did look at the cat doll, it turns out that adding the cat smell to it did notincrease their interest. It was almost as though the dogs already recognized that it looked like a cat, and so making it smell like a cat did not do anything but verify their identification. (It is interesting to note that adding the cat smell to the pillowcase did increase their interest a bit, probably causing them to wonder where the cat might be in this thing which did not look the least bit cat-like.)

What the dogs paid attention to most were the cat sounds coming from some place out of sight. Hoffman noted, "As humans, our first thought was to test dogs' responses to the cat doll because it visually resembles a real cat. However, our findings suggest that dogs are relying more heavily on another sense, hearing. This was surprising since most behavioral assessments focus on dogs' responses to visual stimuli."

What is most interesting, perhaps, is the fact that it was the dogs who had a history of aggressive encounters with cats who paid the greatest interest to the cat sounds. This difference was large enough so that Hoffman suggested that "it may be possible to use audio recordings of cats to assess which shelter dogs are likely to fare well in a home with cats or other small animals."

There is also a take-home message from this study which should be of interest to cats (including Shirley's), and that is if they want to avoid unwanted attention from dogs, they should move slowly and stay quiet.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

What did you think about dogs and cats behaviours? We’d love to hear from you! Leave your comments below and let us know!

About the Author:

Stanley Coren is a psychology professor and neuro-psychological researcher renowned for his best selling and award-winning books on the intelligence, mental abilities and history of dogs. Through TV shows and media coverage that have been broadcast in Canada and the US as well as overseas, he has become popular with dog owners, while continuing research and instruction in psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He also writes for Psychology Today in the award-winning regular feature series, Canine Corner, where he discusses his research on dogs, dog behaviour, and the relationship between dogs and people. Stanley Coren is the author of many books - see


Canine psychologist Dr. Stanley Coren, author of numerous books and over 500 scientific publications on dog psychology, encourages others to participate in our petting events. Also read about the research on the impact our therapy dogs are making at the University of British Columbia.


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