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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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