“Fighting like cats and dogs” is an expression that succinctly describes the worst case scenario of dog and cat interactions. Not all dogs and cats have to get along with each other to live full and happy lives, but it sure is important to know which dogs can live with cats and which ones can’t. That’s especially critical for shelters seeking to find homes for dogs, because nobody wants to adopt a dog who will terrorize their cat. Though there are many ways that shelter staff can evaluate a dog’s response to other dogs and to people, there is far less information, and no validated assessment tool, for evaluating how a dog will react to cats. In most cases, we don’t even know what it is about a cat that sets dogs off, other than the useless knowledge that the dog is reacting because the cat is a cat.
A recent study seeks to change that by adding to what we know about which triggers from cats set dogs off. “Dogs’ responses to visual, auditory, and olfactory cat-related cues” concludes that the sound of a cat and how a dog reacts to it may be of critical importance when evaluating dogs. In the study, dogs reacted more to the auditory stimuli of cats than to visual stimuli of cats, but the stimuli they used were not directly comparable.
The visual stimulus was an animatronic children’s toy, the auditory stimulus was a recording of cat vocalizations, and the olfactory stimulus was cat urine. Because only the auditory stimulus was the actual stimulus that a dog would perceive in the presence of a cat, it is hard to accept the conclusions of the study. The actual odor of a cat and the sight of a live cat are different than the stimuli presented in the study.
The researchers found that dogs who had previously hurt a cat were more attentive to the auditory stimuli than other dogs were, though there was no difference in the behavior of dogs in either group towards the visual cat stimulus. The olfactory stimulus was associated with dogs spending more time sniffing than when no olfactory cue was present.
Responses to cat sounds could be a useful predictor of whether or not a dog will get along with cats, but more research is necessary. (It would be of particular importance in future studies to consider the stimuli presented during assessments.) The results of this study could also be explained by concluding that dogs attend more to realistic cat stimuli and that dogs who have previously hurt a cat are especially attentive to realistic cat cues, which in this study only applied to the auditory cue.