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.

An Australian Shepherd dog and a calico cat lean on each other in a friendly way outside in the garden
Photo: TN Photographer/Shutterstock


By Zazie Todd, PhD

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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
Photo: shubbel/Shutterstock.com

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.

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog calls it “The must-have guide to improving your dog’s life.” 

If you're a cat person, you might like to check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Dr. Sarah Ellis says, "Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read!"

How does your dog get on with cats?


Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:


Reference
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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