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Why Do Cats and Dogs Greet Us So Differently?

Reviewed by Dr. Peter Kintzer, DVM, DACVIM on Thursday, October 1, 2015
Posted October 01, 2015 in Dog Behavior

Dog greetings
A July io9 article discussed, in depth, the science behind why dogs can be so incredibly, exuberantly happy when we come home. The article says that Neuroscientist Gregory Berns of Emory University has been studying changes in dog brains using fMRI to determine how dogs think and perceive their environment. Berns believes from his research that dogs “love their humans—and not just for food. They love the company of humans simply for its own sake.”

Woman greeting her dogs at the doorDo dogs have separation anxiety?
The i09 article also cites neuroscientist Giorgio Vallortigara of the University of Trento who notes that for dogs “separation from the owner…is not voluntary.” He theorizes that dogs’ over-the-top greeting behavior may be because dogs prefer the social company of others and they have difficulty, or an inability, to accept “the possibility of non-voluntary detachment.” In other words, your dog experiences mild to moderate stress upon your departure, the degree to which depends on the personality, training, development and environment of your dog. Your return is a relief and an opportunity for the dog to express his or her attachment to you and what can be considered “joy.”

What makes a dog so excited for your return?
Another reason for a dog’s excited greeting behavior can be ascribed to that fact that many dogs are bored during the day and lack the necessary mental and physical enrichment they require. A dog that has nothing to do during the hours that you’re gone will become excited when you return because he anticipates it means:

  • He will get to engage in activities that are interesting  
  • He will eliminate boredom with play, exercise and social contact
  • He will have positive experiences, like being fed dinner

Why don’t cats greet us the same way?
When looking at how cats greet their humans, one gets a different mental picture. Cats are certainly not known for exuberantly jumping on their people and expressing happiness that, for a dog, can border on looking like temporary hysteria. This lack of an overtly obvious emotional display leaves many people with the impression that cats are indifferent to us and not as loving and affectionate. Research into cat behavior demonstrates that this belief is incorrect and we simply are misinterpreting cat behavior through the lens of what’s expected behavior from the dogs in our lives.

What does the science say?
Dr. Sharon Crowell-Davis, a veterinary behaviorist and Professor of Behavior and Anatomy at the University of Georgia, has studied cat social behavior for several years. Her research has found that cats are indeed “a social species1.”

Cats exhibit greeting behaviors with humans that are appropriate for their species, such as nose-touching, allogrooming, and head rubbing. Therefore a cat that saunters up to you when you come home and rubs her head against your leg is expressing a friendly greeting that is “reserved for familiar” members of their social group. It may not seem as exuberant as a dog’s greeting, but for that cat, she is expressing the same level of pleasure at your arrival that a dog is, just in a species appropriate way.

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Mychelle has more than 13 years of experience in the pet health industry and is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant as well as a valued member of IDEXX’s Pet Health Network team since 2014.