Why Do Cats and Dogs Greet Us So Differently?

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.

How would wild cats greet?
In fact, cats in the wild, and in households, form social groups with other cats, and cats only allow interaction with non-members of their social group with “a gradual process1;" strangers are not allowed to just casually stroll up and greet them. This can explain why your dog is delighted to meet every stranger who comes to your door, while your cat may regard them coolly from afar. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t cats that will run up to greet new people— as all cats, and dogs, are individuals—but those that don’t are acting in a manner consistent with their species and cats should be allowed to greet new people with a timeframe that makes them comfortable.

Cats are vocal
Another form of greeting behavior that is very common for cats is vocalization and cats are in fact “one of the most vocal carnivore species1.” Cats can exhibit greeting behavior through purring, trilling, meowing and even howling (for cats that may be more stressed at their separation and your eventual return). Certain breeds of cat are also known to be more “talkative” than others, such as Siamese and Tonkinese cats, according to The Cat Fanciers' Association. Cats also demonstrate friendly behavior when they approach you with their tails up.

So are cats really indifferent to the return of their guardians? Research, and cat lovers, would dispute this notion. Cats simply need to be understood for who they are and their friendly, attachment-oriented behavior should be appreciated and not compared to our canine friends’ unbridled demonstrations of enthusiasm. Both dogs and cats share a clear social affiliation with their human families and express it their own unique ways.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.


  1. Crowell-Davis SL, Curtis TM and Knowles RJ. (2004) Social organization in the cat: A modern understanding. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery 6(19-28).


Reviewed on: 
Thursday, October 1, 2015