For centuries, people have told stories about dogs. From Aesop to Homer Simpson, humans have used dogs as metaphors for everything from loyalty to chaos. But some dog lovers go beyond metaphor they say that dogs actually dislike cats. In fact, they’re so angry at them that they’ve taken up arms against felines in combat. And while these theories may sound like fodder for a bad joke, one scientific study suggests that they might be true.
In 2006, researchers at Cornell University published findings showing that dogs were more likely to attack members of another species when they wore “cat” suits. The team concluded that this behavior was not based on any specific social cues between dogs and cats (such as scent), but rather on an innate fear of anything strange or unfamiliar. This theory seemed to back up claims by animal rights activists who claimed that dogs weren’t being treated fairly because society had trained them to fight cats instead of playmates.
But what if dogs don’t really hate cats? What if they’re simply responding to their environment? Or perhaps even worse, what if the whole thing is a myth perpetuated by lazy writers trying to drum up interest in a cat-and-dog fight that doesn’t exist?
That last question is precisely why we asked author and anthropologist Dr. Lauren Lipuma, who has studied the relationship between cats and dogs for years. She says she can’t speak definitively for all animals, including dogs, but she does believe that most domesticated pets will get along fine with each other if given the chance.
She also thinks it’s important to distinguish between two different types of aggression in animals. There’s aggressive mimicry, where animals imitate others’ behaviors without understanding how those behaviors work. For example, birds sometimes peck at insects until they die, which isn’t exactly a way to make friends. Then there’s aggressive rivalry, which occurs when animals compete for resources such as food.
When rivalrous species meet, neither side wants to lose its territory, so they’ll fight over resources. Dogs often exhibit this type of competition with members of other species, especially wolves. They bark, growl, and show teeth, chasing after and possibly attacking wolves.
It’s unlikely that dogs would ever turn violent toward other animals unless provoked. As any pet owner knows, getting into a cage match with another creature could lead to injuries and even death. That’s probably why we rarely see dogs attacking lions, tigers, bears, hyenas, crocodiles, or snakes. Even if dogs did try to bite off more than they could chew, they’d probably end up hurting themselves first.
On top of that, dogs aren’t typically territorial creatures. Wolves and coyotes hunt together in packs, but in human communities, dogs tend to hang out alone. As far as wild predators go, dogs are no threat to the big game, except maybe through disease transmission.
So now that we know dogs aren’t inherently dangerous to other animals, let’s take a look at some old myths surrounding the canine-feline love/hate relationship.
The Cat’s Meow
One common explanation for why dogs hate cats comes from the ancient Greeks. In his fables, Apelles included a story called “The Lion, the Ass, and the Wolf.” It tells about a lion, wolf, and donkey wandering around looking for dinner. All three want nothing more than to eat something good. One day, the ass notices a small bird sitting atop a tree stump. He goes over for a closer look and discovers it’s a gazelle.
He tries to chase it down, but the gazelle escapes. After unsuccessfully hunting the gazelle, the wolf chases the ass away. The next time the trio encounter each other, the wolf attacks the ass, mauling him badly before he gets away again. Finally, the lion asks the gazelle what happened. The gazelle replies, “I saw your friend, the wolf, coming after me, so I flew up here to safety.” The moral of the tale is simple: Don’t mess with someone else’s lunch.
Another Greek myth attributes the reason for dogs’ enmity toward cats to Zeus himself. According to this version of events, Zeus once went to sleep under a bush, only to wake up surrounded by a group of nasty cats. Furious, he chased the cats away, leaving behind a pack of ferocious dogs. Since then, every time a cat wanders onto a field full of sheep, a few of the animals inevitably get eaten. If you doubt the veracity of this story, consider the following: Zeus is known to have fathered dozens of children, while female cats usually reproduce less than once per year.
Modern versions of Apelles’ fable include the 1939 animated film “Three Little Pigs,” in which pigs become victims of wolf attacks after the wolf learns about their houses made of straw. More recently, the 1991 movie “Babe” featured a scene wherein piglets escape an approaching storm by hiding inside barns made of sticks. Cats, meanwhile, remain relatively safe during storms thanks to their ability to sense impending weather changes.
Still, other tales blame cats for the animosity between dogs. One Persian folktale tells of a woman whose house catches fire. Before dashing outside to save her belongings, however, she takes care to close all the windows and doors. As she exits the burning building, she hears a loud noise coming from outside. Upon opening the door, she finds herself face-to-face with a cat. Terrified, she cries out, “Cat! Oh my God! Help!” The cat responds by scratching her repeatedly. Once the woman recovers, she realizes that the noise she heard wasn’t a cat at all — it was a barking dog.
Tales from the Lab
When it comes to real-life scenarios involving dogs and cats, many experts agree that negative feelings toward cats are pretty rare among dogs. Sure, some dogs may bark at cats from afar, but that’s usually due to rivalry or territorial concerns. Some dogs may occasionally snap at cats, but that’s usually because they perceive the cats as threats to their owners, family, or property. No research studies have shown evidence of dogs killing cats, much less doing it intentionally.
Some cats, however, do provoke dogs. Certain breeds, especially Siamese cats, may carry fleas or ticks, both of which cause itching. To relieve the discomfort caused by itching, some cats scratch whatever they touch, including their owners’ dogs. Owners may respond by nipping at the cats’ tails or scratching their faces, causing the cats to lash out defensively. If left untreated, these situations can escalate into all-out fights.
Fortunately, similar problems can arise when dogs and cats share living spaces, as well. Cats are notorious for urinating in the beds of sleeping dogs. If the dogs don’t move quickly enough to clean up the urine, the smell can drive them crazy. Also, if the dogs happen to suffer from allergies, they may paw at their eyes when exposed to cat smells, further aggravating the situation.
Cats can also hurt dogs through self-defense techniques, such as spraying their attackers with urine. Not surprisingly, since cats use this strategy to protect themselves from dogs, the same technique works in reverse. Dog owners should keep their pets indoors whenever possible to avoid having them pee on valuable possessions.
Although it may seem cruel, many veterinarians recommend keeping dogs separate from cats. Dogs and cats can exchange diseases through contact with saliva, feces, urine, and carcasses. Sharing water sources can also spread parasites, bacteria, and viruses. Because dogs and cats live in very distinct habitats, it’s hard for them to find suitable companionship within the same household.
What do you think?
Now that we’ve seen a sampling of various explanations for why dogs hate cats, let’s put our knowledge to rest and ask ourselves a simpler question: Do dogs really hate cats?
Most scientists, vets, and animal trainers claim that there’s little evidence supporting the idea that dogs truly despise cats.
Instead, they argue that the problem lies elsewhere. Some suggest that dog owners are too quick to attribute hostile actions to a general hatred of cats, while others point out that dogs may be reacting negatively to the presence of a predator. Still, others contend that the problem lies with the way cats are portrayed in popular culture.
Of course, none of us likes to feel manipulated, so we shouldn’t blindly accept any conclusion reached by media outlets or marketing companies. On the other hand, we need to weigh conflicting messages carefully before we choose sides. If we continue to ignore valid arguments against the notion that dogs hate cats, we may end up missing out on the opportunity to learn new information that could help us better understand the relationships between these species.
As stated earlier, cats usually have fewer offspring than dogs. However, if you factor in litter size, kittens born to queens generally produce four times as many pups as male cats do.