Dear Sinéad and Siouxsie:
I have a very important question. My mommy and daddy just adopted me from the animal shelter. I'm a little puppy (I hope you don't mind questions from dogs), and I've been adopted into a home with a grown-up cat. I really, really want to be friends with the cat, and I know that he's in charge. Sometimes I want to play, and I make my best "I want to play" faces and noises to him. It seems like he doesn't understand me, though. When I say "I want to play," he rolls over onto his back-my dog mommy told me that means he's submitting to me--so I run over and go to sniff his belly, and he starts attacking me with his claws! What does this mean? Does the cat hate me? I hope not! I don't want my new mommy and daddy to take me back to the Pound! I hope you'll answer my question, even though I'm a dog.
Siouxsie: Well, darling, this is basically a language problem.
Sinéad: Dogs and cats have similar kinds of body language, but it has different meanings. Like you said, your dog mama taught you that rolling over means "I'm submitting to you." But when we cats roll over on our backs, it means "I want to play and wrestle."
Siouxsie: If your cat friend was really mad at you, he'd get all fat-tailed and his fur would stick out, and he'd stand sideways to you, arch his back, and hiss. That's what cats do when they say, "I hate you!"
Sinéad: Likewise, your cat friend might be kind of intimidated by your dog way of saying "I want to play." Our dog friend, Aki, bounces around, then clomps her front end down on the floor with her butt in the air, wagging her tail and making noise, when she wants to play. Of course, Aki's almost as big as our person mama, so that's kind of scary sometimes.
Siouxsie: Yes, you dogs can be a bit clumsy in your expressions, and if you're a big puppy and you accidentally hit your cat friend, it may take a while for your cat friend to come out and play with you again.
Sinéad: What you have to understand is that you and your cat friend will both have to take the time to get to know each other's language. But it really is worth it in the end, because you and the cat will probably become great friends, just like Aki and her cat friend, our kitty grandma Shaughnessy!
Siouxsie: Sometimes, Aki and Shaughnessy even sleep curled up together in Aki's doggie bed. Don't tell anyone I told you this! Shaughnessy might get embarrassed.
Sinéad: No she wouldn't. Shaughnessy's always gotten along well with dogs, because the dogs always knew she was in charge.
Siouxsie: Anyway....Rufus, here are some other things you should be aware of when relating to cats. Cats are generally a lot more subtle than dogs, so if you run right up to your cat friend and stick your big, wet, cold nose to his butt to smell where he's been, he's probably not going to like that. You may butt-sniff, but do so from a respectable distance, and for heaven's sake, don't get dog nose-drool all over your cat friend's bottom!
Sinéad: If your cat friend is sitting very still in the grass, with his ears pointed forward and his eyes wide, don't run up to him and disturb him. He's probably hunting, and he won't appreciate your interruption. Wait until he comes back home or he is not otherwise occupied.
Siouxsie: Cats like to sleep, and they hate being pounced on and galumphed while they're basking in a warm, sunny spot. If you stick your nose in a cat's space while the cat is sleeping, you're going to end up with a big cat scratch on your muzzle!
Sinéad: Just be respectful to your cat friend, and understand that his body language is different from yours. If you hear him hissing or growling, or if you see a raised paw, an arched back, ears flat against the head, or fur standing on end, stay back. Your cat friend is telling you he doesn't want to be with you right now.
Siouxsie: But if he rolls over on his back, he's saying, "Let's wrestle!" Don't worry if he bats you-he won't have his claws out unless you get too rough.
Sinéad: Cats also like to play tag from time to time. If you have a nice, big yard, maybe you and your cat friend can play tag. Don't chase him up into a tree and bark at him, though; he'll get very mad at you.
Siouxsie: We hope that helps, Rufus. Just be gentle and remember who's in charge--the cat, of course--and you and your cat friend will have a long, happy relationship.
Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail Sinéad and Siouxsie at email@example.com. None of the advice in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.