cats and dogs- When the research can tell us about their differences and when it can't

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

City dwellers or country living, we love our pets. There are cat people and dog people and there are cat and dog people. When it comes to everyone living together as one big happy family, just how well can dogs and cats get along? How similar are these two species in how they relate to us? And when does the research looking at those differences do so in meaningful ways to help us in our understanding of the companion animals in our homes?

Researchers, N. Feuerstein and Joseph Terkel studied the relationships of cats and dogs living with humans in an article published in a 2008 edition of Applied Animal Behaviour Science. The authors’ analyzed questionnaires distributed to 202 households in Israel and observed cat and dog interactions in 25 of households surveyed. The scientists found, that, yes, cats and dogs can live “amicably”, read happily, together.

According to the study, cats and dogs are more than adept at reading each other signals and dogs will even adapt their own greeting behavior to accommodate the cats in the house. When encountering each other, cats tend to sniff nose to nose while dogs prefer a nose to tail sniff. When cats and dogs live together the nose sniff becomes the universal greeting.

Other key points made were that dogs and cats seem to be the most successful in adapting to each other when the cat is adopted first. Cats that are brought into the family before or after a dog, seem to more readily become accustomed to the dog, whereas when a dog is an established family member prior to a cat’s introduction the dog may exhibit greater aggression or indifference to the cat. The reason for this is thought to be the dog’s greater dependence on humans and what might look like and perhaps be jealousy on the part of the dog. Don’t blame the dog though. Human domestication of dogs has created this trait. Not only do we ask our dogs to work very closely for us as farm dogs, hunting dogs and service dogs (all heavily dependent on human direction and interaction). We also breed our dogs for what we consider acceptable temperament-namely sociability with humans

Not surprisingly, the age of the dog or cat can be a factor as well. Babies get along well with other babies. The researchers found that cats under six months of age and dogs less than one year tended to have the lowest levels of aggression and indifference to each other.

In a separate 2015 study, seeking to study attachment in cats and dogs with their people, researchers Alice Potter and Daniel Simon Mills compared attachment styles of dogs and cats to humans. Twenty cats and their owners were recruited to take part. The experiment calls for an attached pair to be placed in a new and strange environment, separates the two, introduces a stranger, then reunites the pair and evaluates what behaviors happen at each turn. Attachment in the test used is shown when an individual strives to remain close to the other, is upset when unintentionally separated, pleased when reunited, returns to the other when frightened and feels safe enough to explore in the others presence.

The use of this test, commonly known as the “Strange Situation Test” or “SST” was first developed in the 1950s to measure how attached infants were to their mothers. The test was subsequently used with chimpanzees and has been very popular in studies with dogs. Researchers drawn to the similarity of the bond/dependence existing between the domestic dog and the owner and an infant and the mother have found parallel results in attachment levels. This no doubt contributes to how well the Strange Situation Test works with both sets of species. But how cats encounter their environment along with the differences in how they establish relationships impacts how useful the Strange Situation Test is to measure how attached they are to their owners.

In the Potter and Mills study, the cats were not found to respond with the same behaviors as infants and dogs to the Strange Situation Test. This does not prove that cats are not attached to their humans rather that the test is not a useful one for feline attachment to people. Cats and dogs are both social animals and both have developed successful domestic relationships with humans but how they live in a natural environment and with people is markedly different.

The test used starts with placing an attached pair in a new and strange environment. For the Strange Situation Test to be an effective one there has to be a level of stress and discomfort in an unknown environment. And in order to successfully compare attachment in new environment there needs to be a similar level of stress and discomfort as a starting point to the new environment. However, there is a serious difference between stressed and terrified. Stressed allows for comforting and terrified calls for survival first and foremost (think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs where safety comes before social). Terrified and survival strategies are what a new environment means for most cats, that’s why in shelters and re-homing we provide cats with beds, boxes and places to hide.

A new environment for cats is akin to a four alarm fire. Cats are seriously territorial and owned cats are famously under socialized to places they are not housed in or choose to frequent on their own terms (even cats given access to the outdoors roam in a specific and familiar territory close to home). New environments are serious stuff and need much time and vigilance to acclimate to. Francis Galton, scientist and cousin of Charles Darwin, writing on cats and domestication, noted that: “The cat is the only non-gregarious domestic animal. It is retained by its extra-ordinary adhesion to the comforts of the house in which it is reared.”

It is difficult, if not impossible, to measure a degree of natural behavior, including natural social behavior, when extreme vigilance is needed to encounter a new environment. In a 2013 study by Dr.s'. Saito and Shinozuka, showing cats’ abilities to recognize their owner’s voices the author position their choice of conducting the study in the home environment because: “Visiting owners’ homes allowed us to observe the cats’ natural behaviors which might be disrupted in a laboratory because of vigilance against a novel place.”

What is further interesting to note, is that the Potter and Mills study finds the greatest behaviors that the cats display in the test to be ones where the cats are scanning the new environment or sniffing the air while still or actively exploring it and moving around in it. These behaviors are not described as vigilance because according to the authors, they are apparently not accompanied by fully open eyes or ear flicking.

One concern is then, how vigilance is defined (and this concern is not confined to this study). A strong argument can be made that the study cats were in fact vigilant while they scanned the environment or moved around in it. Additionally it can then be said that vigilance occupied much of their time to ascertain the safety of this new space and which precluded the display of other social behaviors that would occur in a familiar setting.

Looking at how cats and dogs relate to human beings as distinctive species is a worthwhile and valuable endeavor. In order to do well with it, we have to measure the natural behavior of the cat as a unique species and not as a feline version of a dog. That never works.


N. Feuerstein, Joseph Terkel,(2008) Interrelationships of dogs (Canis familiaris) and cats (Felis catus L.) living under the same roof, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 113, Issues 1–3, Pages 150-165, ISSN 0168-1591,

Potter, A., Mills, D.S. (2015). Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris catus) Do Not Show Signs of Secure Attachment to Their Owners. PLos ONE.

Saito, A., Shinozuka, K. (2013). Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats (Felis catus). Animal Cognition.

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