If you live with cats, you can probably attest to their very unique—and sometimes very strange—personalities.
It’s never more obvious than when you watch your cats interact with dogs.
We have a dog—an overly-affectionate golden retriever named Harry with no concept of personal space. We also have two cats who are the complete opposite of Harry.
What we’ve learned is that our pets’ behavior may be confusing to us, but it’s downright baffling to other pets.
Harry introduces himself to the cats by sniffing their butts. When they flick their tails at him in irritation, he thinks they’re playing. When they lift a paw at his buoyant approach, we’re almost convinced he thinks they’re waving.
Cat Swatting. They are not waving.
Our cats are just doing that thing cats do when there’s a dog around. They are preparing to swat. But why do cats swat at dogs?
In this article, we’re answering that question—and a few others. Like:
Why do cats and dogs struggle to get along?
How can you help your cats and dogs get along better?
How can you stop your cat from assaulting your dog?
Why Cats And Dogs Struggle To Get Along
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule—many of them! Some family groups wouldn’t be complete without the inseparable cat and dog combo.
Cats and dogs can become great friends over time, but initial tensions are common. Stress, jealousy, insecurity—all these factors can play a part in why your cat is attacking your dog. Natural behavioral traits also play a part in creating an awkward relationship between your furry companions.
That’s because dogs and cats communicate differently:
- A dog wagging his tail is a sign of joy and excitement. Cats flick their tails in agitation. A dog can mistake your cat’s irritation for playtime, which escalates tensions.
- Dogs introduce themselves by sniffing butts—and being butt-sniffed. Cats prefer the more socially appropriate nose-to-nose touch. Excuse the pun, but this is another area cats and dogs don’t see eye to eye.
- Dogs roll over to show submission. They expose their bellies to their leaders, showing trust. For cats, showing their belly is usually something they do when they’re getting ready to attack—to grab, scratch, kick and bite.
- Cats lift their paws as a sign of apprehension. Essentially, it’s a warning against whatever (or whoever) is in their personal space. Dogs, on the other hand, lift their paw as an effort to connect with others.
This last point helps us to answer the question: why do cats swat at dogs?
Cats Swatting At Dogs
We all celebrate our dogs when they lift a paw in greeting, or for the classic shake hands trick. Our dogs love it, too, because they enjoy the connection with their people.
Similarly, both cats and dogs lift their paws to try and get our attention.
Cats have different reasons, too. They lift a paw in apprehension when someone or something suspicious approaches. They lift a paw to signal ‘hey, I’m not sure how I feel about you being in my personal space.’
If your dog doesn’t heed your cat’s signals, he might be rewarded with a little swat.
Some other reasons cats slap dogs are the same as the reasons cats slap anything—including their people and each other.
1. For Status
Cats have a very clear social hierarchy, and they aren’t afraid to speak up when the lines get blurred. This extends to everyone in their group—including you, your family, and your other furry companions.
Cats may swat at dogs to get them to fall back in line. This is especially common where your cat views themselves as being higher up the power ladder. They are showing their authority and dominance over the dog.
Sometimes, a cat may decide they want to climb the social hierarchy and swat your dog to challenge their position in the group. When your dog backs off and runs to you for reassurance, the cat sees this as a win in the power struggle.
What to watch for:
If your dog is sensitive or shows any signs of cat aggression, a simple “power swat” could escalate into a dangerous attack. In a later section, we’ll explore some actions that can help deflate that kind of escalation.
2. For Fun
Cats don’t lose their playful nature with age. How often have you laughed at your moggy’s kitten-like behavior even when you’ve lived together for years?
Cats will swat at other furry family members (and their owners) to indicate that they want to play. They’re so committed to play-time, in fact, that they’ll continue to slap their intended playmates repeatedly until they get their way.
When a kitty wants to play, they’ll slap with the claws retracted. Their posture will be alert but not hostile, and their ears will be pointed—not flat to their head or turned back.
Every cat owner knows the hilarity that can ensue when your cats play their own version of cat-and-mouse: one sneaking up on another, delivering a couple of well-placed swats, and then chasing each other around the house.
A cat and dog duo who have grown up together often demonstrate the same behavior. Your dog is likely to be more gentle when playing—making mauling faces but not biting, and barely touching your cat to fake swat him—and your cat will play with claws retracted and more teasing than attacking.
What to watch for:
If one of your furry friends is showing signs of distress or agitation, they are not enjoying the game and it is best to defuse the situation before one of your pets feels the need to retaliate with real aggression.
3. For Learning
Much like how we tinker with things we don’t understand, our cats like to poke and prod at new objects in their environment. This can extend to new additions to the family. If you’ve added a new puppy to the family, or someone else’s dog has been spending more time at your home, your friendly feline might be interested in figuring out this new addition.
If curiosity is the main driver behind your moggy swatting the new kid on the block, it’s easy to identify. Are they making casual approaches and tapping the dog’s tail or rear end? It may come in increments: lots of eyeballing, followed by tentative approaches, a lifted paw, and eventually a curious tap.
What to watch for:
This is a natural behavior for a cat and not something to be concerned about. If you are concerned about what the dog’s reaction might be, pay close attention to their body language when the cat approaches.
Is the dog relaxed and interested?
Is the dog anxious and tense?
Is the dog growling or whimpering?
Swatting: How To Stop It
If swatting stems from your furry friends trying to establish dominance, it can be stressful for everyone in your home. There are three simple steps involved in reducing tension when the swatting is more than playful banter.
Step 1: Separate
- Provide an escape hatch for your cat. A high perch—like a windowsill, shelf, or secure cat tree—can give your cat somewhere to escape to when the situation becomes too much. Encourage your cat to enjoy that space by putting a treat there, or rubbing some catnip around the area. Make sure the safe zone can’t be knocked over by a boisterous and over-excited Fido.
- Feed your pets separately. Food is a political minefield for our companion animals: the first to eat is the alpha, and the alpha decides when the rest of the pack eats. To take this out of the equation—vital when your pets are squabbling over dominance—feed them in separate areas where they don’t have access to each other’s food. Similarly, dogs eat more food (and faster!), so your cat needs to be fed separately to ensure she’s getting all the nutrition she needs.
- Get a baby gate. Another option that gives your cat an escape plan if playtime with Fido gets out of hand, a baby gate sets up separate spaces for your dogs and cats. Dogs can’t get over (or through) a baby gate, which means your cat has plenty of space to rest and relax, rather than feeling cornered into retaliation.
- Keep your pets separated. This is a good option if cat swatting regularly escalates into aggressive behavior. Keep your pets separated when you can’t be at home to keep an eye on them. Your dog can harm or kill a cat quite easily, but the same is true of cats—they can seriously injure your dog, cause infections, and cause blindness. To separate the offending furballs, you can keep them in separate rooms, have your puppy crated when you’re not home, or enclose them in different areas of your home. Always make sure your animals have access to freshwater, comfortable bedding, stimulating activity, and a place to go to the toilet.
Step 2: Stimulate
Keep your pets stimulated mentally and physically, to keep their minds off each other and their ongoing power struggle. Invest in toys for your cat and dog, but do not share their toys. By having separate toys for your cats and dogs, you aren’t introducing another factor to their battle for supremacy.
Step 3: Reassure
One of the most important factors in your pets’ struggle for dominance is you. They want to know that they are a valuable part of your pack. You can provide reassurance by:
- Spending quality time with each of your furry friends. You know what your pets like: some don’t enjoy physical attention, some don’t like to play, so do what your pets like to foster a strong bond and eliminate jealousy.
- Reinforce positive behavior. When your pets don’t take the bait and play into the power struggle, reward them. Likewise when your cat and dog interact well together.
Cat Swatting: The Final Word
Cat swatting doesn’t always stem from aggression—often it is just your cat’s way of navigating the world they live in. But if it becomes an issue in your home, the key is to take responsibility for de-escalating the situation and teaching your furry friends how to behave.
Animal behaviorists can also offer actionable advice to help your pets live in peace and harmony together.