One of the most influential books I read in my teens was ‘On Aggression’ by Konrad Lorenz. I had always been keenly interested in animals – if the pun were not so bad, I’d even say I can’t resist their ‘animal magnetism’. Yet, after reading his book, I began to notice more and more specifics of their communication.
My first ‘profoundly funny observation’ was to notice the ‘communications problems’ that cats and dogs were having.
When a dog approaches someone in a non-threatening way, he wags his tail from side to side to clearly show friendly intentions. Cats also wag their tails from side to side – but only as the last warning before they attack!
I kind of imagined this like two people meeting for the same time, neither speaking English well, and each working from a ‘Monty-Pythonesque dictionary’…. of the ‘Your hovercraft is full of eels’ type… However, each would have completely different edition, with the phrases in it giving different translations. Extrapolating to the ‘cat-dog’ situation, I imagine their conversation might go something like this:
Dog says: “Hello, how do you do? It is very nice to meet you!”
Cat hears: “You there! Yes, I’m talking to you, you mangy scum! I’ll punch your lights out!”
Naturally, Cat is not going to take this lying down!
Cat answers: “You son of a bitch! This is your only warning: if you don’t leave me alone, I’ll rip you to shreds!”
Dog hears: “How do you do! Very pleased to meet you! Let’s sniff butts!”
Dog is happy, thinking the proper etiquette is being followed. After all, they ARE getting along swimmingly… Not only is Cat’s tail wagging faster than ever, Cat even lowered its head closer to the ground! I’d better accept this ‘universal’ sign of submission and make the first move to butt-sniffing.
Cat, already on edge from being challenged by this rude stranger, now sees Dog make a move towards Cat…..so, defensively, Cat unsheathes the blades which are its claws and smacks the closest bit of Dog, the nose!
Well, you can just imagine how hurt the Dog is by this unprovoked attack! OK, Dog’s nose may be smarting, but, the really hurt part are Dog’s feelings. After all, how much more polite could Dog have been? And Cat was just leading him on! Answering nicely and politely, suckering him into coming closer by inviting him to butt-sniffing…and the whole time it was just a setup to claw him! What a slap in the face!
Once bystanders separate the two combatants, they both go away with an uncomplimentary picture of each other. Cat thinks Dog is a rude brute! That’ll be the day, when Cat will ever bother with another dog ever again! And Dog is left thinking that Cat is mean, crafty and treacherous, pretending to be polite only to get close enough to hurt someone. Cats are just not to be trusted, ever!
Yet, cats and dogs CAN learn to live together, they ARE able to learn each other’s language! Sort of like the people in the Monty Python sketch: the people understand that when THIS person says something about one’s parentage, they really think they are asking to buy a pack of matches….
Of course, cats and dogs are not the only ones whose communication can get messed up by crossed signals. I always like to see if ‘lessons learned’ in one area can be applied in another…. Perhaps next time I’ll write about such a ‘conversation’ between Dog and Rabbit!
March 13, 2008 at 01:30
Nice interpretation! It reminds me of Aristotle’s theory of signs, in which he argues that all human beings have the same nature but use different signs to express that nature.
May 7, 2008 at 19:00
[…] was quite young when I realized how mutually incompatible the ‘natural’ body language of cats and dogs is. Yet, cats and dogs who lived together (especially if they did so from an early age) are quite […]