I remember as a young child thinking that dogs were the boys and cats were the girls and they were the same animals otherwise. I think most kids go through that stage. What is interesting to me, is that though we learn differently as we get older and realize there are girl dogs and boy cats, we somehow keep the expectation that dogs and cats are the same animals in many ways.
Maybe it’s because they’re both four-legged, furry and (most of the time) have big ears and tails. We do regard them as having very different temperaments: dogs are extroverts and cats are introverts. Or put anther way: dogs are friendly and cats aren’t, but that’s not the whole story! It took bringing a puppy into my established two-adult-cat household to teach me how very differently cats and dogs communicate with the world.
It’s not just their temperaments. I’ve had very outgoing cats that loved people and would even fetch. And I’ve had aloof, independent dogs that would rather be alone most of the time and looked at a thrown ball as some sort of insult. All my dogs and cats have followed me from room to room and wanted to sleep with me.
No, it’s in their body language which is quite opposite that the differences between feline and canine are most apparent. Take the tail. A dog wags her tail when she’s eager, excited and if it’s really swishy and wagging hard, she’s happy. A cat wags (though it’s more like a twitch) when she’s upset and angry, and the more, faster and further a tail twitches, the angrier she is. When a dog’s tail is high — straight up or over her back, she’s feeling confident, perhaps belligerent. When a cat approaches another with tail held high, she’s feeling friendly and showing she trusts the other animal.
The greeting styles are totally different in all ways. A dog regards a frontal approach with eye contact and wide-open eyes as a challenge. Cats greet friends with wide-open eyes, running straight in to touch noses. Dogs don’t commonly go straight to touching noses unless they know the other dog VERY well, and they don’t stare into the other dog’s eyes when they do!
Even play is expressed differently. A dog paws at another animal with a clawed foot when she’s soliciting play. A cat pawing at another animal with claws out is saying “get out of my face!” Dogs rolling over on their back and exposing their tummies is a sign of trust and invitation to approach. A cat rolling on it’s back is freeing up all four clawed feet for use and you approach at your own risk!
A dog that runs from another dog is often asking to be chased. A cat running from a dog (or another cat) is almost always trying to get away from a dangerous menace! The terrible thing is, that by running — and running scared, cats look like prey to a dog and they will be chased. Even a friendly dog might forget it’s friendly feelings when it get caught up in the chase.
I’ve seen very smart cats use these differences to buffalo dogs. My tabby, Pasht, would sit and stare at a new dog. Once she had the dog feeling uncomfortable, she’d stand up, tail high and still staring, approach. Most often the poor dog backed away, reading in the cat’s body language that she was challenging and ready for a fight. Pasht wasn’t fighting, she was just smart enough to know that she could make dogs back down if she acted like that — and I swear she was smiling when she did it!
I’ve also seen a lot of cats and dogs learn each other’s body language and become great friends. That same kitty, Pasht, would take herself to one of my big German Shepherds for some lovin’ if I wasn’t paying enough attention to her. Several of my cats have played — and played rough — with my big dogs. But usually, one or other of the pair was introduced to the other species as a puppy or kitten. Just like humans, cats and dogs learn new languages easier and faster when they’re young.