When you live in a multi-species household, communication can sometimes be a challenge. Both dogs and cats definitely have communication styles that let their humans know exactly what they need and want, but can cats and dogs communicate with each other? If you've ever seen your cat give your pooch a good whack when they're feeling a little irritated, then you know they each can get their message across when the chips are down. But how far does that communication really go?
How Cats and Dogs Communicate so They Understand Each Other
Cats and dogs can communicate. While they may not understand all the cues the other has, they definitely get the gist of it. They clearly communicate emotions—including happiness, anger, or overwhelm—through body movements, vocalizations, and scents.
They May Misinterpret Body Language
When humans talk to each other, our body language can say a lot. Like us, cats and dogs both have their own body language, but since they're different from one another, they may not fully understand all of it. That's not to say they don't understand some of it, despite the language barrier.
- Tail movement: Cats flick their tails when they're annoyed, while dogs wag theirs when they're happy. But both species raise their tails when they're alert or agitated.
- Ears and eyes: Pinned-back ears in both species generally mean they're scared or irritated, while forward-facing ears show interest or curiosity.
- Posture: Your dog showing their belly might show submission, while a cat doing the same could be in a defensive pose, prepared to use all four sets of claws.
These body signals alone may not be understood between species, but if it's combined with a vocalization, like an angry meow or an irritated growl, that's when cats and dogs would understand one another.
They Can Understand Each Other's Vocal Cues
Vocal cues are easier for dogs and cats to understand than body language. While dogs use barking to communicate a range of emotions from happiness to warning, cats primarily meow for human interaction. They rarely use it to communicate with other cats and might not use it to 'speak' to your dogs.
Cats purr when they're content, but also sometimes when in pain or distress. Dogs growl primarily as a warning, and cats might growl or hiss for the same reason. Either way, both species use growling as a universal sign of anger or frustration, so they'll understand the warning if the other growls at them.
They Both Communicate With Scent, but It May Not Make Sense to the Other Pet
Cats rely heavily on the power of scent to communicate with both their environment and other felines. One of the most notable ways they do this is through scent glands located on various parts of their body, such as their cheeks, base of their tail, and between their front paws. When a cat rubs against objects or people, they are "marking" them with their unique scent, signifying ownership or familiarity.
Like cats, dogs also have scent glands. Their scent glands, which release pheromones, are located in their ears and between the pads of their feet. These pheromones carry specific social cues detectable by other dogs. When a dog marks an object or spot with their urine, they leave behind a complex "message" about their presence, status, and even recent experiences. This scent-based form of communication helps maintain social hierarchies, establish territories, and even signal mating availability.
Despite both using scent to communicate, we aren't completely certain if dogs can read the cats' messages, or if cats can read the dogs'. The scent could be detectable, but the message may not be clear to either one. It's like us reading a letter in a different language. We know there's writing there, but we don't fully understand what the letter says.
This form of communication is subtle but crucial in interactions with each species.
The Both Offer Visual Cues
In cats, slow blinking often signals trust and satisfaction. However, if a cat's pupils are dilated, it could be a sign of excitement, fear, or even aggression. On the other hand, dogs may display stress or fear by avoiding direct eye contact or by revealing the whites of their eyes, often referred to as "whale eye." A dog's intense stare can indicate either deep concentration or potential aggression. Cats and dogs may be able to understand blinking-type signals if they grew up together.
Learning to Understand Cues Overall
While dogs and cats might not fully grasp the specifics of each other's language, they can learn to understand certain cues from each other, especially if they grow up together. A cat might learn their companion dog's bark is a warning or an invitation to play based on tone and context. Similarly, a dog might recognize a cat's hiss as a sign to back off.
There could still be some miscommunication on occasion. Both dogs and cats have social hierarchies. Dogs have a pack mentality with an alpha, while cats often establish territories and are more independent. Understanding this can give insight into their interactions and how messages could be mis-communicated. For example, a dog might chase a cat to play, while the cat might view their invitation to play as a territorial threat.
Think of this like a language barrier; while we may understand certain parts of a foreign language, the potential for miscommunication is still there.
Cats and Dogs Bonding
Mutual grooming is a shared gesture of affection and trust, with a cat often purring as it headbutts or rubs against their canine companion, and the dog responding by gently licking the cat's fur. They might seek each other out for companionship, opting to nap side by side, their bodies touching in serene slumber.
Play sessions also indicate a bond is there, especially when the chase or pounce games are marked by gentleness and frequent breaks, showing mutual respect and understanding. Observing such behaviors in cats and dogs shows both cats and dogs enjoy one another's company, reflecting their ability to look beyond their natural instincts and form deep, affectionate bonds.
Since our dogs and cats can't speak our language, we never know exactly what they're thinking, but we can guess based on what we know about them. Between us, our dogs, and our cats, there are significant language barriers. Yet, we are still able to communicate with one another. Our cats and dogs appear to work the same way.