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I was listening to a radio talk show in which the afternoon’s topic was “animal abuse.” One woman called in to suggest that she had an idea that she believed could cut down on animal abuse.
Her idea was to simply enact a municipal bylaw that would forbid any family from owning both a cat and a dog and keeping them in the same house. She said, “This will greatly cut down on animal injuries caused by the continuing conflict between these genetically incompatible species” and concluded by noting “Everyone knows that the saying ‘fighting like cats and dogs’ is true.” Unfortunately, her thinking is based upon the widely held, but unproven, myth that dogs and cats cannot get along in the same living space.
The truth of the matter is that having a cat and a dog in the same household is really not that unusual. A 2006 Gallup poll found that 6 in 10 Americans owned some type of pet. The breakdown was that 44 percent own a dog and 29 percent own a cat.
However, a more careful analysis showed that among pet owners, 27 percent owned a dog, but not a cat; 12 percent owned a cat, but not a dog; and 17 percent owned both. This means you are more likely to find a cat living in a household with a dog than to find a cat living alone or with other cats.
A similar study of Canadian households found that 56 percent have at least one dog or cat. Most of the pet owners reported having only dogs (20 percent) or only cats (23 percent) while 13 percent had both species. Pooling the results from these two studies, we can conclude that roughly 1 in every 7 pet-owning families in North America owns both a cat and a dog.
Do Dogs and Cats in the Same Home Get Along?
There have been surprisingly few studies that have looked at the behavioral dynamics between cats and dogs living in the same home; however, there is a recent report by Elżbieta Bombik and Jakub Mandał of the Siedlce University of Natural Sciences and Humanities in Poland that sheds some light on the topic.
It is a modest study involving 87 individuals who owned both a cat and a dog. However, it used a broad behavioral survey and their presentation of the data is detailed and interesting.
The main finding is that dogs and cats living in the same home seem to tolerate each other reasonably well. Levels of aggression are quite low, with the dog chasing the cat or vice versa reported by only about 4 percent of owners. The cats tend to be more unsociable and are 7 times more likely to keep a distance from the dog or leave the area where the dog is. Dogs are also 4 times more likely to try to initiate friendly interactions than cats.
Squabbles Over Food
These investigators also looked at some areas where conflict is most likely to occur between dogs and cats. One has to do with food. Here, the cats are somewhat more tolerant, and 37 percent of cats even allow dogs to eat from their food bowl. However, 6 percent of cats will defend their bowl with their paws, 7 percent will hiss at the approaching dog, and 4 percent will actively chase the dog away.
Dogs are more possessive of their food bowl than cats; only 23 percent will allow a cat to eat from it, 18 percent will chase the cat away, and 12 percent will growl or bark when the cat tries to eat from it.
Dog and cat owners seem to recognize that this is an area of conflict and only 12 percent have the dog and cat eating from the same bowl. Nearly half (48 percent) place the dog and cat’s bowls in different rooms. Meanwhile, 23 percent of owners placed the food bowls in the same room but in widely spaced locations, while 17 percent have the bowls in the same room but at different heights (generally the dog’s bowl is on the floor and the cat’s bowl is on a counter). This separation of feeding bowls cuts down on the opportunities and motivation for food-related aggression.
Competition for Their Owner’s Attention
Dogs seem to place a higher social value on their human owner in comparison to cats. Consider a situation where the owner is sitting with one of the animals.
Cats are more than twice as likely to ignore the situation. Dogs are around twice as likely to approach in order to try to get some social interaction from their owner; they are also three times more likely to try to chase the cat away in order to get some exclusive affection.
However, when it comes to sleeping arrangements, acceptance seems to be the norm. Only 14 percent of the animals defend their sleeping space.
Does Tolerance Generalize to Unfamiliar Animals?
Although the picture that these researchers paint seems to be one of general tolerance with low or modest levels of what looks like “sibling rivalry” in humans, feelings of harmony between the species do not necessarily generalize to behaviors outside of the walls of the house. This is especially the case for cats.
When a cat living with a dog encounters an unfamiliar dog away from the home, the likelihood that it will respond with aggression or threat is around 30 percent, and the likelihood that it will run away is 43 percent. In comparison, dogs are considerably less likely to be aggressive (12 percent) although they are still very likely to chase the unfamiliar cat (45 percent).
Cats tend to remain extremely standoffish around unfamiliar dogs, with only 7 percent showing a cheerful response upon meeting them. Dogs tend to be more positive toward unfamiliar felines, since 38 percent of dogs seem quite joyful when they meet an unfamiliar cat.
The researchers conclude by saying: “The results of the survey indicate that animals largely show friendly behaviour towards another animal with which they share a home, despite the fact that they display negative behaviour towards an unfamiliar animal.”
Apparently, no bylaws preventing dogs and cats from living in the same household are needed.
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