How To Figure Out Which Dogs Get Along With Cats? A New Study Sheds Some Light

Photo credit: Flickr/reader of the pack

Does this dog get along with cats? If your household includes a feline, that a question you’ll want to know the answer to, before bringing home a new pup.

There isn’t any standardized way of making that important determination, just yet. So animal behaviorists did some research — involving an animatronic cat, recorded cat noises, and the smell of cat pee.

Sixty-nine dogs — some of whom are known to have hurt or killed cats — were exposed to the feline stimuli. The question was whether the dogs who have behaved badly with cats would respond differently to the toy, noises, and smell of pee than the others.

The results, which appear this month in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, showed dogs who are known to be rough with cats responding more strongly to the cat noises, than do the dogs who are peaceful with the kitties. The researchers did not notice any difference in how these dogs responded to the cat toy, or the cat urine.

These are observations that — bolstered with more research — could, emphasis could, help animal shelters make better placements for their dogs, says the study’s lead author, Christy L. Hoffman, a professor at Canisius College.

Shelter Me caught up with Hoffman by email to find out more about the science and its implications, and also about the toys — where, exactly, does one get an animatronic cat?

Shelter Me: Why is it important or interesting to find out how dogs react to cat urine and noises, or toy cats? 

Christy L. Hoffman: Taken together, these findings may provide some insight into how the dogs viewed the stimuli. If the dogs actually viewed the toy cat as being somewhat cat-like, it makes sense they would not bother investing more time sniffing it if it also smelled like a cat. That is, perhaps the cat smell aligned with their expectation that something that looks like a cat might also smell like one.

Dogs’ responses to the cat sounds were really interesting. Those dogs who had a history of injuring or killing cats or other small animals spent significantly more time focusing on the cat sounds than dogs who did not have such a history.

This finding was quite robust; however, we are not saying animal shelters can definitively conclude how a dog will do with cats and other small animals based on his or her response to cat sounds.

In fact, this area of research would need to be continued if someone wanted to actually develop a behavioral assessment tool. Even if such a tool were developed, I would caution that it should be used carefully and in conjunction with other information a shelter has about a particular dog.

What questions were you looking to answer, exactly?

Based on years of work with shelter dogs, my co-author Miranda Workman was curious whether dogs’ responses to a cat-like robotic doll, specifically Hasbro’s FurReal Friends Lulu, would predict how dogs behave around living cats.

We decided to test this question by setting up a study that included pet dogs whose histories in relation to cats and other small animals were well-known. We set out to employ a rigorous experimental design, and so we included, in addition to the toy cat, a control object (a stuffed pillowcase), cat and control sounds, and cat odor (cat urine).

Because dogs have sharp senses of smell and hearing, we decided the sound and odor trials might provide us with different information than the toy cat trials.

Did any of the dogs do anything really funny or unexpected, when presented with the stimuli?

A few of the dogs may have been fooled by the toy cat because they repeatedly play bowed in front of it! One dog howled in response to the cat sounds. This fascinated her owner because he had never heard her howl before.

The cat and control sounds were played in a room that was adjacent to the lab. We mounted a wooden baby gate in the doorway between the two rooms to prevent the dogs from locating the source of the cat and control sounds. One Saint Bernard was so aroused by the cat sounds that it took a strong grip on the leash and all my strength to keep him from crashing through the baby gate!

Once dogs had completed the study, they exited the lab through the room from which the cat sounds had been played. Even though several minutes had passed between hearing the cat sounds and exiting the lab, many dogs sniffed intensively and searched the room with their eyes, as if they were still trying to locate the source of the cat sound.

Please tell me about the cat toys, and what you are doing with them now?

By the time we started this project in 2013, Hasbro had stopped selling the specific toy cats we needed for this study. This meant the toys were hard to find, and those available for sale ranged in price, from about $20 to well over $100! We spent a lot of money on a couple brand new ones we found on Amazon. We wanted to have 5 or 6 in total because we anticipated that dogs might damage them.

I ended up searching eBay for these cats and asking the sellers if they were the toy cat’s original owner, if their home included living cats, and if the toy cat had ever come into contact with living cats. I am sure the sellers thought I was crazy, but it was important that none of the toy cats smell like living cats. We wanted to be careful to control which dogs were exposed to cat odor, via cat urine, and which dogs were not, and the only way to do this was to verify that the toy cats were coming from cat-free environments.

The toy cats spend most of the year in my research lab (which is comprised of computers and pictures of dogs but no living dogs!), but each fall, I use them in my Research Methods in Animal Behavior class. Because the toy cats display a variety of movements and vocalizations, they help my students practice defining behaviors in technical, objective ways.

What are you working on next?

We have several ongoing projects. In addition to being fascinated by dog behavior, I’m equally as interested in developing a better understanding of the relationships that form between dogs and people.

Along those lines, I’m using a variety of methods to examine how dogs and humans impact each other’s sleep. Preliminary evidence suggests that, at least in some ways, dogs may be better bed partners than other humans!

This interview has been edited for length.

Story tip? Get in touch at aringreenwood@gmail.com

Arin Greenwood

Arin Greenwood is an animal writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Previously, she was animal welfare editor at The Huffington Post. Arin is a former lawyer (J.D. from Columbia Law School, member of the New York Bar), life long animal lover, pit bull advocate, and devoted fan of cats and dogs who run for public office. Her first novel, Tropical Depression -- based on her five-odd, sometimes very odd, years living on a small island near Guam -- was published by teeny indie publisher Back Porch Books in 2011. Her second book, a comic young adult mystery called Save The Enemy, was published by Soho Teen in November 2013. Hello From Dog Island!, Arin's third book, will be published by Soho Teen in 2018. Know a shelter with a great, innovative program? Have another animal story to share? Get in touch at aringreenwood@gmail.com!

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