As I researched this week’s science column, I thought for a moment I had already written it, because as I Googled the phrase “fight like cats and dogs,” what popped up but…a column from the Regina Leader Post.
That column, by Christalee Froese, which ran July 7, began pretty much exactly the same way I wanted to start this one:
“’They fight like cats and dogs.’
“How many times have you heard that phrase?”
Christalee goes on, “I’ve heard it more than I care to remember, and quite frankly, I was sure the age-old cliché was just plain false,” because, she noted, she grew up with cats and dogs that got along just fine.
Well, now there’s scientific evidence that the “age-old cliché” need not be true (although, as Christalee’s own column goes on to note, sometimes it is–there’s a reason why clichés become clichés!).
(An aside: I searched as best I could on the origin of the phrase “fight like cats and dogs” with no luck, which probably means it’s so obvious it’s been around forever–in other words, it really is an “age-old cliché” [although, come to think of it, isn’t “age-old cliché” itself an age-old cliché’ at this point?]. Certainly it crops up several times in works from the 19th century.)
In a paper just published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, graduate student Neta-li Feuerstein of the Koret School of Veterinary Medicine in Israel and her advisor, Joseph Terkel of Tel Aviv University, show that dogs and cats can get along just fine under one roof. The key appears to be introducing them to each other at a young age.
They never use the term “fight like cats and dogs,” of course. They put it this way: “interspecific communication between dogs and cats is problematic, stemming from their separate evolutionary development and their different social structures.”
So they set out to find out from people who had successfully joined cats and dogs together in the same household what made “interspecific communication” work in those instances.
To do so, they surveyed 170 Israeli households where cats and dogs lived together. A full two-thirds of those households reported that their cats and dogs got along fine.
Next, Feuerstein and Terkel personally observed cat-dog interactions in 45 of those households.
They found that both cats and dogs were capable of establishing a “relatively positive” relationship with animals of the other species. Gender seemed to have little to do with it, and age (as noted earlier) a lot: things tended to work out best if the animals were introduced when the cat was younger than six months and the dog younger than a year.
Even more interesting than that (which is, after all, just common sense) is that the dogs and cats were able to interpret each other’s very different body languages.
It’s generally thought that a lot of the antipathy between dogs and cats is a result of these different signals. When a dog averts its head, it’s typically expressing submission, but when a cat turns its head away, it may actually be signaling aggression.
An even more classic example: when a dog lashes its tail from side to side, it’s usually happy. When a cat does the same thing, it’s upset.
By studying their video recordings of cat-dog interactions, Feuerstein and Terkel found in peacable households, four times out of five, dogs correctly interpreted cat body language and vice-versa.
Just like children can learn additional languages more easily when they’re young, it appears that young dogs can learn to understand (if not speak) cat, and vice versa.
This might not seem like earth-shattering scientific research, and perhaps it’s not. On the other hand, as the researchers note, “Both species have acquired a global distribution and, in modern times, it has become quite common to find homes with the two species living side by side…A better understanding of the various factors involved in determining the two species’ relationship, should improve the quality of life of these pets, and encourage more people to adopt both cat and dog.”
It should also help save wear and tear on furniture, fragile knick-knacks, and homeowners’ nerves.