What Predicts If Dogs and Cats Can Live Happily Together?

Dogs and cats can coexist in peace—but cats are not as happy with the situation.

Posted Oct 02, 2019

kitty.green66 (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Source: kitty.green66 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

"And then my wife says to me, 'I'd like to get a cat,' and I said, 'But we already have Charlie!'" 

I was having a cup of coffee with a former student from one of our beginner's dog obedience classes, and the Charlie he was referring to was a Labrador Retriever. He continued, "Charlie is such an active dog, and you know what they say about 'fighting like cats and dogs…' I'm really worried about what can happen if we allow a cat into our home."

Actually, having a cat and a dog in the same household is really not that unusual. A 2006 Gallup poll found that 6 in 10 Americans owned some type of pet. The breakdown was that 44 percent own a dog, and 29 percent own a cat; however, a finer grain analysis showed that among pet owners, 27 percent owned a dog, but not a cat, 12 percent owned a cat, but not a dog, and 17 percent owned both. This means you are more likely to find a cat living in a household with a dog than to find a cat living alone or with other cats.

Because of the widely held belief that cats and dogs usually have antagonistic relationships, a research team headed by Jessica Thomson from the University of Lincoln in the UK decided to look into how well cats and dogs living in the same household actually get along. This was done by conducting an online survey of 748 pet owners from the UK, the U.S., Australia, Canada, and Europe.

To be included in this data collection, individuals had to own both a cat and a dog. The global conclusion that they reached was really quite positive since 86 percent of the respondents felt that their canine and feline pets were comfortable with one another, and only 3 percent claimed that their cats and dogs seem to show real malice toward their housemate.

An interesting finding in this study was that the most important factor in a good canine-feline relationship seemed to be the attitude of the cat. Generally speaking, cats tend to be less comfortable around dogs than dogs are around cats. This shows up in more negative and aggressive behavior initiated by the feline.

Thus, pet owners reported that cats were three times more likely to threaten their canine housemates than vice versa. Furthermore, cats were 10 times more likely to injure the dog in a fight. However, the actual rates of injury are low, with a cat only ever injuring a dog in a bit less than 10 percent of cases, while the likelihood of the dog ever injuring the cat was reported by less than 1 percent of the respondents.

The researchers suggest that although aggression was most often initiated by the cat towards the dog, it was likely because the cat felt threatened. After all, dogs are considerably larger and more powerful, and in a knockdown, drag-out fight, it is much more likely that the cat's life would be in danger.

Dogs seem to be much more tolerant toward cats overall. For example, around half of all dogs are willing to share their beds with a cat, while cats are much less likely to share their bed with a dog. Also, one in five dogs has picked up a toy and shown it to a cat in order to initiate play, while only one in 20 cats have engaged in this same type of play seeking behavior directed toward a dog.

The authors believe that some of the differences in how cats and dogs accept living with each other may come from differences in domestication. They argue that because dogs have been domesticated for a longer time and are more easily trained than cats, they may be better able to control their behavior. They also suggest that cats might need more reassurance that they are safe living under the same roof with a bigger, more powerful animal. Perhaps, with their less complete domestication, cats may have more of a genetic fearfulness, since out in the wild, predators of different species seldom comfortably share the same territories.

There are factors, however, which can help make the amicable coexistence of cats and dogs more likely. One very powerful factor is the age at which the cat is brought into the house. The younger, the better, preferably before the cat is 1 year of age. On the other hand, the age of the dog when it is first introduced to the cat does not seem to be important.

It is also the case that cats and dogs get along better if the cat lives indoors. The authors suggest that this might be because the pets get to spend more time together and learn more about each other. There is a caution here that the animals should not be forced to interact, but should be allowed to choose whether to socialize with each other or not.

The general conclusions that can be drawn from these data are that in the vast majority of cases, dogs and cats can safely live in the same household. At the same time, it is clear that it seems that it is easier for dogs to be happy around cats than for cats to be happy around dogs. That has certain implications for people who own both a canine and a feline.

If your cat and your dog are not friends, it means that you should put extra effort into helping your cat feel more comfortable around your dog. The first response of most dogs to nearly anything which appears to be alive is to approach and try to socialize with it, so they won't need much encouragement to try to be friendly with the cat if given a chance. Cats, on the other hand, are more testy, fearful, and suspicious about social interactions with a canine housemate and may need help to learn peaceful co-existence.

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

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Jessica E. Thomson, Sophie S. Hall and Daniel S. Mills (2018). Evaluation of the relationship between cats and dogs living in the same home. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 27, 35-40.