Stop Treating Your Cat Like A Dog

By Reyna Abraham

Do you consider yourself a dog person? Do cats confuse and confound you? Or are you a cat person who just can't figure dogs out?

kitten and dog snuggle together
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It seems so easy just to pick a side, but how much of your preference for one of the other stems from misunderstanding?

Exploring some of the differences and similarities between cat and dog behavior, Francine Miller, Certified Applied Animal Behavior Counselor, Vice-Chair of the Pet Professional Guild's Cat Committee and founder of Call Ms Behaving, has some fantastic advice for understanding both cats and dogs.

Body Language And Tail Wagging

Since dogs and cats can't speak to us with words (no matter how much we wish they could), it is important to pay attention to body language. Misreading body language can lead to serious misunderstandings resulting in some potentially awkward and even dangerous encounters. Both cats and dogs move their tails, but sometimes this tail wagging movement doesn't mean what we might think.

"The biggest misconception about dogs is that a wagging tail means the dog is happy. This is a dangerous misconception, because a wagging tail can simply mean that the dog is aroused and sometimes not in a positive way," said Miller. "If the dog is wagging his tail slowly back and forth, and especially if his hind end is also wiggly, THAT is a happy dog. If the tail is upright and stiffly moving, that is an aroused dog."

Dog Panting
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According to "The Myth of the Wagging Tail" by Camille Personne, CCDT, "dogs use different wagging speeds and different tail positions depending on the situation, and what they are trying to convey." When a dog is wagging his tail "in such a way that it looks the tail is vibrating, it means the dog is ready for action, usually to run or fight."

If the tail is tucked or low, the dog may be scared or feeling the need to show submission. A tense tail, or a tail that is sticking up high is a sign that the dog is alert, tense, or challenging. When the dog's tail is neutral, it shows that the dog is relaxed and receptive to communication.

Red Cat rubs head against dog in the yard
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How Cats Communicate Differently From Dogs

It turns out that cats also use their tails to communicate, but unlike dogs, a cat's tail wagging never means happy.

"A vertical, erect and slightly curled tail indicates friendliness and the cat is most likely looking to interact," said Miller. "My cat greeted me each night when I came home from work with her tail in this position and a trill." Think of this position like a slight question mark, requesting attention and interaction.

"If the tail has hairs on end (piloerection), they are experiencing increased anxiety that may be due to a state of either defensive or passive aggression. If the tail is wrapped around the cat's body, it is fearful and asking for increased distance from you." This is a sign that the cat wants you to get away!

Females
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"If the tail is arched over the back it is generally a defensive display to another cat. If their opponent doesn't back down, the cat may lower its tail. Without piloerection it can also indicate interest or arousal. Mild flicking of the tail indicates irritation. Thumping indicates conflict, frustration or irritation. And lashing means the cat is very agitated. The greater the lashing, the greater the agitation. The cat is giving you a very clear warning to back off," Miller continued.

So, like dogs, a cat's tail will tell you if they want you to interact, to leave them alone, or to get the hell out of the way. But it isn't that simple. "Cat body language is an exquisitely complex subject. They communicate with their ears, eyes, tail, body, whiskers, fur and vocalizations!" said Miller.

Two friendly cats
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Fetch And Bringing Presents

Both cats and dogs bring their humans presents, but for different reasons. "Dogs bring their people 'gifts' to show their affection for the person receiving it. Cats bring their 'gifts', which are usually mice or birds, into the home to contribute to the food source! How thoughtful!" said Miller.

While we know that dogs love to play fetch, some so much so that they will figure out ways to play by themselves, some cats will play as well. "Cats most like to play in a way that simulates hunting and engages their prey drive. That's why they enjoy wanded toys and little mice so much, as well as food foraging toys," said Miller. The difference between fetch and hunting for cats is that most cats who play fetch had owners who started playing with them this way as kittens. "It's a personal preference thing (not all cats like to play the same ways) and also based on early learning."

Spielende Katze
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Going For Walks Is Different With Cats And Dogs

Taking your dog for a walk is integral to a dog's well being and happiness, and can have some positive benefits for humans as well! And, while it may seem impossible, according to Francine Miller, training your feline fave to go for a walk can (and maybe even should) be done.

Yellow Lab on a Walk
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"Training your cat to wear a harness and go for a walk is an awesome thing to do," said Miller. It can provide a safe and stimulating activity preventing boredom especially for an indoor cat.

A word of caution: "You can't just slap a harness on the cat and expect them to be comfortable, however. Training is best done early, while the cat is a kitten, but that doesn't mean an adult couldn't be conditioned to wearing one. The harness needs to be paired with great treats and slowly introduced through desensitization and counter-conditioning. Adding the leash would be an additional step of the process. Spending the time to do this properly is well worth it when you can give your cat time outdoors that is safe for both the cat and outdoor wildlife, as well as enjoyable for you!" Be patient, though. Cats tend to be very slow walkers.

Devon rex cat walking in the garden on a leash
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When Cats Just Don’t Seem To Like You

"Unfortunately, most cats are not socialized as kittens, which is just as important as it is for puppies," said Miller. "That means that they haven't been handled by unfamiliar people and learned that they are safe and fun during their critical sensitive phase. Consequently, they very naturally become wary and cautious of new people. So, that means it's less likely that a person can enter the home of a cat and be greeted in a welcoming manner. More likely, the cat will hide or watch from a distance. I think this is why people think cats "don't like them". For these cats, it will take time for them to warm up to an individual and feel safe interacting with them."

Hidden Cat
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Despite their similarities, cats and dogs are definitely different.

"Through the domestication process, dogs have developed a strong desire to please people. Cats are not domesticated in the same way. In many ways, house cats are still wild." It is important to build a bond of trust in order to get to know a cat, and this takes time and patience.

"One of my pet peeves (no pun intended) is that people bring a dog or cat into their home without learning anything about the species they have invited in. They don't learn about the animal's needs. They don't learn about how dogs and cats learn. They don't realize that cats can be trained. I would really like to encourage people to educate themselves about the animal they are going to share their home with BEFORE they bring one home."

For more training and behavior tips for both cats and dogs, go to Call Ms. Behaving or visit Francine Miller's Facebook page!