...and the cat and the dog shall lie down together.

Submitted by Jerry Halberstadt on Fri, 03/21/2008 - 23:40

It is amazing to see the young male cat, Chunky, and the older Canaani female dog, Keren, living in harmony. Keren and Chunky have become real pals. Might this example of interspecies communication be a model for how humans of different cultures or identities could relate to each other?

There are some basic differences between cats and dogs. Dogs tend to be pack-oriented, cats more solitary. A dog is hard-wired to treat as potential prey anything moving; Keren would love to chase rabbits, squirrels, and yes, cats. While young cats love to run and leap and attack small objects. But to avoid being chased like prey, a cat needs to hold its ground. A dog will yawn to calm another. Cats seem hard-wired to see a dog with a big mouth and large teeth as a serious threat.

And the communications systems of the two species are diametrically opposed in their signals. A dog wags the tail as a signal of interest and friendliness; a cat swishes the tail as a sign of imminent attack. When a dog stares directly at another dog, that is taken as a threat; staring is the precursor to attacking prey. When a cat wants to express affection, it stares and blinks. A cat's purr is similar to a dog's warning growl. When a dog wants to play, she leans down on her front legs with her rump in the air. As far as I can tell, a cat tries to get play started by pawing and biting while purring.

So, how can a cat and a dog become friends? They each like to play, but they don't know how to communicate that they want to play and not to attack each other.

Chunky loves to play. He runs and leaps all over the house, purring as he goes. He runs up to a passing human and purrs, bites, and swipes at any moving part. He bites like a puppy AND he has sharp claws. He steals paper from the wastebasket and worries it; he carries things off and plays cat-and-mouse games--with a computer mouse, pieces of jewelry, pieces of candy--anything small enough to carry in his mouth.

And Keren loves to play. She has a lot of games she plays alone. She throws small things like a piece of rawhide, then pounces on them. She arranges her beef shin bones in artistic groupings. She is very creative!

She is very well trained; she knows all the commands I have taught her, such as "Come!". But if I call her before we have played, she will do her best to get me to play first. She runs in circles, runs and 'hides' in her special hiding places and waits for me to flush her out, she brings a throw toy, does a play bow, and does everything she can to provoke me to run after her and play. After she is played out, she will come. I may seem like a wimp trainer, but I know that Keren needs to play and will respond if she gets her play time.

I don't know exactly how Keren and Chunky did it, but each found a way to say "This is play" and be understood by the other. This is pretty sophisticated, it is using metalanguage. A way of talking about behavior. They found a way to play together. I am still watching them to understand how they do it.

Keren, with permission from Chunky, chows down Chunky's food. Keren does a little courting dance, making nice to Chunky, and Chunky stands by while Keren chows down on cat food. Keren could just threaten and run Chunky off, but instead she is very polite.

Chunky tries to provoke Keren. Paw pokes, practically stands on Keren's head, pat pat pat, see I can hit this big dog. Keren takes this with placid resignation. Then, Keren does a play bow, and stands with her nose just within range of the paw swipe. Chunky makes a move, Keren is Gone! She is fast! They love this game. Sometimes they play hide-and-seek; Keren hunts for Chunky, Chunky hides behind the sofa, and dashes to another cover if discovered. While Keren is resting, Chunky moves around with great stealth, but Keren's ears swivel to track his location.

Keren tolerates a lot. But if Chunky steps out of line, Keren chases him up the stairs. Sometimes they do noses (touch and sniff, nose-to-nose). Especially when Keren comes into the house, she goes up to Chunky and sniffs. When I let Keren out of the room on waking up in the morning, Chunky appears and follows Keren. Sometimes there is a bit of jealousy and guarding. Keren likes to have exclusive access to people and the TV, and may make Chunky leave the area. But sometimes they watch TV together with people.

Most amazing is that Keren allows Chunky on Keren's favorite spot on the couch, and they take turns looking out the window to guard the house. I'm not sure if on balance Keren is resigned to tolerating the cat, or glad to have a playmate.

Our Canaani girl in Israel, Keshet, was very close to our American immigrant cat, Banana. Banana welcomed the puppy and taught her how to be a cat. The lessons included important things like the fact that there is no need to listen to people, they will feed you no matter what. Banana would put a paw on Keshet's nose to put her in her place. When Banana was sick and dying, Keshet hovered near her and worried about her.

Photos of Keren and Chunky