Finding Out if Dogs Like Cats - Or Not

A new study investigates the best way to find out if a dog will get on with cats.

Finding out if dogs like cats or not, like this Australian Shepherd greeting a cat

By Zazie Todd, PhD

When dogs are waiting for adoption at a shelter, a common question is “what is the dog like with cats?” But at the moment there’s no validated way to test dogs to see if they will be friendly to cats.

Some dogs become good friends with cats, but other dogs want to chase and kill them, so it would really help if shelters knew if a dog is cat-friendly.

Sometimes the person who surrenders a dog will provide information, but typically this isn’t available. So staff may walk the dog past one of the shelter cats to see how it responds. This is potentially very stressful for the cat, and we don’t know if the dog’s response is typical of how it would behave away from the shelter environment.

A new study by Dr. Christy Hoffman (Canisius College) et al sets out to investigate what a cat-friendliness assessment might look like. They tested pet dogs with a realistic-looking cat doll, recordings of cat sounds, and the smell of cat urine.

Lead author Dr. Christy Hoffman told me in an email,
“We had several cool findings. For one, dogs sniffed our control object (a stuffed pillowcase) more when it smelled like cat urine than when it did not; however, when our cat-like doll smelled like cat urine, the dogs did not invest any additional time into sniffing the cat doll than when it did not smell like cat urine. Our interpretation of what was going on in the dogs’ heads: “If it looks like a cat and smells like a cat, so what? If it doesn’t look like a cat but smells like one, that’s interesting!” To me, the finding suggests dogs perceived the cat-like doll as actually being cat-like. We thought that was interesting.

The other main finding was that dogs that had a history of killing/injuring cats or other small animals spent significantly more time orienting to the cat sounds than dogs that did not have such a history. While we did not develop a shelter-based assessment tool that could predict which dogs are cat-appropriate as part of our study, we think the findings could contribute to the development of such a tool.”
69 pet dogs of a variety of breeds and mixed-breeds took part in the study, which took place in a lab at Canisius College. 54 of the dogs happened to live with a cat.

The study separated visual, auditory and olfactory information. The visual cat stimulus was an animatronic Persian cat doll manufactured by Hasbro. A control visual stimulus was made by sticking eyes on a pillow case and putting a motorized ball inside (so it still had eyes and moved, but was not cat-like).

The auditory stimulus was a recording of cats miaowing, with a couple of growls too. The control was the sound of coins dropping.

Half of the dogs took part in the olfactory condition in which the items smelled of cat urine, and the other half had no odour added.

Finding out if dogs like cats or not - like this Golden Retriever saying hi to a cat through a window
Photos: TN Photographer; top, shubbel (both

The dogs were video-taped to see how they responded to the inanimate cat toy vs control, the animated cat toy vs the animated control, and the cat sounds vs the coin sounds. The videos were analysed to see how much time each dog spent looking towards, focussing on and sniffing each stimulus.

The dogs spent the same amount of time orienting to the cat stimulus, whether it was animated or inanimate. For the control visual stimulus, they spent longer orienting to it when it was animated (i.e. the balls were moving inside the pillow case).

Dogs spent longer orienting to the cat sound compared to the control sound or the visual cat stimulus. They also spent more time orienting to the visual cat stimulus than the visual control, and to the control sound than the visual control.

In other words, they were prioritizing the auditory information over visual, and they were most interested in the cat sounds.

Dogs sniffed the cat doll more than the pillow case, whether or not they were in the olfactory condition in which both items smelled of cat pee. So this suggests they did find the cat doll to be cat-like, in much the same way dogs seem to find stuffed dogs dog-like.

Whether or not the dog lived with a cat did not significantly affect the results.

However, 4 of the dogs had previously killed or injured a cat, and 14 had previously killed or injured a small furry animal. So the researchers looked to see if there were any differences in behaviour between these dogs and those with no such history.

They found the dogs with a history of killing/injuring a cat or other small furry creature spent longer orienting to the cat sounds than the other dogs. There was no effect for visual or olfactory information. This suggests that a test based on cat sounds might be a good way to separate out the dogs that would not be safe with cats.

Future research on olfaction could use scent collected from cats’ scent glands (e.g. when the cat rubs on something) instead of urine, which might be more realistic.

Developing assessments for shelter dogs is difficult. This study takes the first steps in finding out how to evaluate dogs to see if they get on with cats, without stressing any cats in the process. The results suggest focussing on auditory information could be a good way to find out.

This is important research because a validated test to see if dogs are feline-friendly would be very useful for animal shelters.

How does your dog get on with cats?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

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Hoffman, C., Workman, M., Roberts, N., & Handley, S. (2017). Dogs’ responses to visual, auditory, and olfactory cat-related cues Applied Animal Behaviour Science DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2016.12.016

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  1. We have (had) both shelter cats and shelter dogs - and they get along very well. One of the cats spends more time with the dog than with anyone else. The dog is very friendly to the cat, and will lick and groom it. The cat will return the favour.

    When we brought a new dog into the household, we observed him/her to see how s/he would react to the cats. If chases (in the garden) occurred, the dog was reprimanded immediately. The cats also learned to approach the dogs more slowly, to not be chased. Behaviour towards the cats in the house in the introduction phase was also monitored, but in general, they were friendly. The cats were rather hissing at the dogs than the dogs threatening the cats.

    When the dogs heard our cats fighting with non-household cats, they would rush out to find out what was happening, and to help 'their' cats.

  2. This is such a toughie, because it's not just "cats," the behavior, appearance and previous experience with dogs of each individual cat can matter. So can location. Dogs that live in a house with known cats may chase or even kill unfamiliar cats that run from them (had that happen down the block a few months ago--the owners of the dog were shocked because the dog did fine with his own cat.) Anecdotally and not always practical, at the shelter where I worked, we had a feral colony in our parking lot and we usually had one or more dog-savvy "office" cats, and they seemed to be extraordinary at judging the dogs. If the dog was friendly or neutral, the cats would approach or ignore; if the dog was likely to chase, they would either hold their ground and stare or retreat (usually slowly) to a safer distance, but didn't seem to take them too seriously. With dogs that were genuinely predatory, the parking lot would be full of sun-bathing feral cats one moment and we'd bring the dog out and the cats would magically not be there anymore--they'd just quietly leave. My own dog reacts strongly (and badly) to novel cats, particularly long-coated cats, but she can walk by (feral) cats she knows without paying them any mind (they don't move out of her way, either) and is perfectly agreeable with her own cat at in the house. It's hard to pull off without unfairly stressing the cats, but we found the best judge of dog character were the (experienced, dog-savvy) cats themselves. Would sure love to know what they're cueing off of, but they seem to be seeing something...

    1. With you on that about familiar cats

    2. Cats can read the body language of dogs for sure. All the ferals seem to know my dog isn't a threat - they'll sit there as she walks past less than 2 ft away from them on our walks. The interesting thing I noticed is that my dog seems to be communicating with the cats - her whole body language changes when she notices a cat nearby that she must walk past. It's as if she's telling them they don't have to run and she won't chase. Pretty cool to see interspecies communication like this 😀

  3. Is the "orienting" to the cat sound how long it took to them to become interested/move towards it? Surely that's just a familiarity with cats? I often play animal noises when I take photographs (I photograph dogs in a large shelter - usually 200 dogs on site) and some dogs are curious (I have videos ;) ) who are fine with cats, some dogs go nuts who are massive cat chasers, including a braque d'Auvergne I had in foster here who went into full point the moment he smelled cats, and spent 2 weeks scrabbling at the door to my kittie quarantine zone to get at them. A miaow at him is the quickest way to get his attention.

    It is very true that the three of my current four here this morning who are okay with cats are Curious Georges with a cat sound (instant) One of the dogs is deaf (I guess they tested the dogs' hearing? - not always possible in a shelter to know who is deaf!) and the infamous cat grabber among my current lot looked just as interested at the same point, but then was less interested quicker. The second time I played the clip this morning, he just ignored it, but then so did one of my fosters who has lived with cats, and one of my own who loves cats. Still, you only have to walk most of our cat chasers through our main yard (where we have cats in liberty) and you have an instant reaction. Not one of our confirmed cat killers fails to give a lunge when they see a distant cat. If a cat is 10m away with their back to the subject, it's not stressful to the cat. I'm yet to be convinced of a massive difference between dogs' behaviour in shelters as opposed to out, other than stress and fear, displacement biting or aggression. As far as I'm concerned, if cats would make a nice snack in the shelter for a dog, I wouldn't trust them with a cat in the real world either. All it would take is one high-stress moment to put that to the test.

    Much as the study is interesting, 14 dogs who don't like cats doesn't seem like a big number to me, and do what with cats in real life? Chase them, or want to catch them? Over-excitement around a cat can be just as distressing for a cat even if no chasing or catching is involved.

    I think you know I'll be playing cat sounds to the dogs I'm photographing this afternoon!

    1. Just as an update to this... currently working with a dog who injured a cat in her second home. She is "orienting" towards the cats even before we are anywhere near them! Her behaviour is obsessive, predatory and predictive. She orients to them, their sound and their smell faster than any other dog I know. I know it's anecdotal, but it's something I see in a number of high-drive dogs with strong predatory instincts. Happens with two Britannies and a Braque as well.

  4. A very complicated question. It can very much depend on the individual cat as well as whether or not the cat is a stranger or part of the household.
    I had one cat who 'trained' the dogs -- he's just sit still and stare at them while they were eating. He never has any trouble. But his mother did -- because she would hiss and run away.
    The more important question is really how do we teach cats and dogs to tolerate each other. It is possible -- though the cat is the harder one to train.


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