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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 both pets safe around each other, especially during play. I live with 17-yer-old Seren-Kitty who weighs only 6 pounds, 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.

dog and cat playing4 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. A baby is less likely to argue with older pet 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.

rough play between petsWhat Is Normal Play?

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

Dog play is noisy, and includes growls and barks or that otherwise threaten instead are playful noises. 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 that everything that comes after 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 to the others to invite a game. For instance, a dog might play 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 the game, and keep coming back for more. Bad play scares or hurts one or more of the pets. It's pretty easy to tell with cats and dogs when to separate them, though. Here are more signs you should stop the games.

  • One pet tries to hide or run away.
  • Uninhibited bites with yelps or screams from the bitten pet
  • Canine growls that lower in pitch and continue
  • 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. Don't allow games to last longer than 5 minutes or so, and use toys or treats to lure them apart.

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I have a 7 month old jack russel , and a 10 yr. old male cat.  Matti ( dog ) plays kind of rough with Bobby (cat ) dragging him across the snow by the neck.  She never leaves tooth marks in the cat but since j r’s are an aggressive breed should I stop them or leave it up to the cat? Will the cat let her know when enough is actually enough!  The cat spars back with Matti but is normally pretty passive.


Hi Mary Jo,

You know your pets best. If this is normal behavior for them and your cat doesn’t seem to mind, let them play.

Watch your cat for signals that he’s done playing: If Bo.bby gives Matti signs he’s being too rough and Matti doesn’t back off, you can intervene to separate them.

Some Jack Russells do have strong prey drives, so you may need to work on refocusing his attention on you with commands like Touch or Leave It.

Thanks for reading!

Hi MaryJo,
One roommate has a very timid and babied, spoiled teacup Maltese.  My other roommate has a very energetic and playful one year old cat who has a lot of kitten left in him.  He really wants a play pal and will run up to the dog and try to play.  The dog just cowers and tries to hide.  The dog’s owner is very protective of the dog and always scolds the cat.  The cat isn’t malicious, however, the fear he may hurt the dog by clawing or swiping the eye exists.  How can we get them to interact and hopefully play together.  I am needing peace here and weary of the dog owner constantly complaining about the cat driving her crazy!  Poor kitty is just looking for a playmate.  Thank you so much in advance for any advice!!!

Hi Julie,

You might need to help your roommate’s cat let out some of his energy on his own. Spend some time playing with the cat every day. Feather wands and laser pointers are great options, and automatic cat toys can play with your cat during the day even when you’re gone.

Once the cat is feeling less frisky, he might be less inclined to try to play with the dog.

If you’re still worried about playtime accidents, you can attach nail caps to the cat’s claws.

Good luck with your pets! Thanks for reading!

I have a 2 year old American staffordshire and have introduced a kitten to the household.
The kitten ruled the roost the first 36 hours but now they have started to play. The dog has started repetitive behavior of trying to get the kitten between his front paws, whether standing or lying down, he works very hard to get the kitten perfectly aligned and the stay there… what is going on?

I have two 11 month old manchester terriers and a 4 month old Snowshoe kitten. Through the door it seems that they like each other and the mini meet and greets have went well also, with pups on their leashes. The kitten always initiates the play and the dogs just look around and watch her move sometimes play-bowing. They do however whine a bit when they are outside the door to her room. Is this a good sign or bad?

We just introduced a new kitten (Mittens) to our 4 month old Great Dane (Mali). Mali has never seen a kitten before. Im not sure if Mali is playing or not as she tends to bite Mittens on her head and on the back of her neck and body. She also lunges and Mittens and chases her under the couches. Is this normal behavior?

Hi Karen,

It sounds like your dog and new kitten are getting along fine.

Your staffie might be trying to cuddle, or he might be trying to say to the kitten that he’s had enough playing for now.

As long as your kitten is comfortable and not bothered by this behavior, you can let them play like that.

Hi Angelica,

Good job with your first introductions! It sounds like your dogs are excited to meet the new kitten, which isn’t necessarily bad.

During the next meet and greet, watch for signs of over-excitement or the dogs being too focused on the kitten. Loud whining could upset your kitten, and you want to make sure the dogs don’t see the kitten as a prey object.

Separate your pets or talk to a behaviorist if you feel uncomfortable at any point during your introductions.

Thanks for reading!

Hi Samantha,

How does Mittens feel about playing with Mali? Does she run away when Mali chases her or come back and play? When Mali bites her head, does it seem rough or does Mittens cry out?

If Mittens comes back for more playtime, she’s probably fine with Mali’s play style. If Mittens seems scared, runs away, or doesn’t play back, Mali’s probably a little rough. You might need to teach Mali to back off a little when Mittens seems overwhelmed.

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