Play between Dogs and Cats: Keeping Them Safe

Many of us are equal opportunity pet lovers and share homes with both cats and dogs. Care must be taken, though, to keep pets safe around each other, especially during play. I live with 17-yer-old Seren-Kitty who weighs only 6 pounds, one year-old Karma-Kat who weighs 13 pounds, and Magic, a 90-pound German Shepherd. The old lady cat wants nothing to do with Magic, but Karma and the dog are best friends and play chase and tag every day.

cats and dogs

4 Reasons for Caution

  1. Language Barrier. When dogs and cats grow up with each other they learn to understand each other's sounds and body language. For instance, dog tail wags invite approach while cat tail wags say, "Go away!" Pets that haven't been properly socialized to other species can misunderstand signals, fear each other, or consider one another prey.
  2. Age Concerns. Puppies and kittens are less likely to argue with older pets about who is the boss, but youngsters with high energy can drive mature pets crazy. Tempers flare when the adult cat or dog says, "Go away, Junior," but the youngster ignores his elders.
  3. Size Differences. While it's natural to think the bigger dog could accidentally hurt smaller cats, even tiny kittens can severely injure dogs by scratching eyes or biting. Cat bites are very prone to infection, but a dog bite can kill a cat if your dog gets hurt and snaps out of reflex.
  4. Play Styles. Certain dog breeds that were bred to chase down smaller prey, like terriers, or coursing dogs like Greyhounds, may instinctively go after cats. Big bruiser felines faced with a tiny Chihuahua puppy could consider him prey.

What Is Normal Play?

Normal dog and cat play look a lot like exaggerated hunting with behaviors such as tracking, stalking, chasing, attacking, biting, killing and eating. During play, the sequence is jumbled, pets stop short of the kill and instead use an inhibited bite.

Dog play is noisy and includes growls and barks. These noises may sound threatening but instead are playful. Cat play is silent. A cat may think a noisy dog means business when he just wants to play.

Dogs use exaggerated postures like the play bow to tell other dogs everything after this is a game, and not a serious threat. Cats also use the elevator-butt pose prior to launching a play attack or grabbing the dog's waving tail.
During play the top dog or cat will often "pretend" to be subordinate as an invitation to play. For instance, a dog might bow. Cats often roll on their back to invite a game.

Pets aim open-mouth inhibited bites at the legs and paws of each other, and they paw and bat each other without force to hurt. You'll see cats and dogs take turns chasing, wrestling, and pinning each other. Cats often target the backs of necks or fall on one side to bunny-kick the other pet.

Danger Signs to Stop the Games

When the games are mutual, the cat and dog eagerly join in and keep coming back for more. Bad play scares or hurts one or more of the pets. Here are 4 signs you should stop your cat and dog from playing:

  1. One pet tries to hide or run away
  2. Uninhibited bites with yelps or scream from the bitten pet
  3. Canine growls that are lower in pitch and continue
  4. Cats play silently, so take hisses or growls seriously

Always supervise play between your cats and dogs, especially when there is a great size difference. Then lure your pets apart by using toys and treats.

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