No matter how smug we may feel about our opposable thumbs and interest-earning checking accounts, any home with cats or dogs belongs to the animals, and the people just live there. Animals consider their homes to be territory and any visitors are, well, interlopers. They have routines and rules, preferences and mandates — often ones as complicated as kindergarten rules to accommodate children with allergies.
So now that summer is almost upon us, with road trips and chances to visit your far-flung college friends, cousins and your baby sister, it’s likely that you may find yourself sharing space with an animal with whom you’re unfamiliar and, more importantly, who is unfamiliar with you.
Dispense with the idea now that all cats are reclusive introverts and all dogs are goofy welcome wagons who just want a ball to catch and a scratch around the ears. Many pets these days are rescue animals and may have suffered trauma or abuse in earlier homes. Ask before you reach toward a dog or cat’s face, and defer to the pet owner’s judgment about how their animal is likely to respond to your advances.
My stepsister, for instance, has an adorable terrier named Bernie who has the perfect shiny button eyes and nose of a high-end Steiff toy and an expression of benevolent wisdom like Paul Krugman. Again and again, I have seen strangers reach right past the yellow “Caution” ribbon on his leash and straight for his head even as my sister tries to blurt out, “Please don’t do that he’s a rescue and was abused!” And they get snapped at.
You may think you’re awesome with animals, but Bernie (and other animals with traumatic pasts) hasn’t gotten your memo. After all, he can’t read.
It’s also important to know, whether you’re a dog person, a cat owner or animal free, that what you know about one species’ body language doesn’t translate to the other. Dogs wag their tails when they’re happy, while cats swish their tails back and forth when they’re agitated. So, while a wagging-tailed dog is saying, “Oh my God! Hi new friend! I’m so excited to meet you!” the cat is practically muttering, “I’m about to attack your dumb face, hairless demon, and tear out your throat.”
But other body language does translate: If an animal is growling, snarling, hissing or howling at you, they’re all screaming, “Back up!” whether out of fear or aggression. And, if any of its hair — tail, neck, back, sides — is standing up, again, don’t even reach a finger in their direction.
While a wagging-tailed dog is saying, “Oh my God! Hi new friend! I’m so excited to meet you!” the cat is practically muttering, “I’m about to attack your dumb face, hairless demon, and tear out your throat.”
Every cat and dog hates sudden loud noises, unexpected jerky or sudden movements and being cornered by some larger creature, which can often lead to aggressive behavior, even if you are just trying to pet or play with them. But really, who doesn’t hate those things?
On the whole it’s best to keep things calm with pets: Yes, it’s super cute with Catlisabeth Moss the kitten grabs your hand with her tiny teeth and rabbit kicks at your wrist. The thing is, those teeth and claws don’t stay teeny tiny and Catlisabeth’s owners need to get her to stop doing that before she’s too big to un-learn the behavior, so you shouldn’t indulge.
Cats, even adult cats, will “playfully” bite and try to disembowel your forearm when they get overstimulated, which is why it’s bad to indulge the play as a kitten. But if an adult cat does get you, try not to yank your hand away, because their claws curve inwards to better tear at flesh. Move your hand toward the cat and use your other hand to lift their paws away.
While some cats — some very rare and special cats — are okay with having their bellies rubbed, most cats will snap shut like a bear trap on your hand if you touch their stomachs. I don’t know why they present them to us like that when they’re being friendly, but trust me, it’s a trap; very few of them want to be touched, and you will need that knowledge about how to remove their claws from your arm if you try.
And, please, unless the humans in the household expressly say it’s OK, don’t feed anything from your plate to a cat or dog, no matter how cutely and earnestly they beg. (And they will absolutely beg, and they will absolutely be trying to fool you into indulging them. Every well-raised house pet knows that they aren’t supposed to eat off human plates.) Many human foods are saltier and fattier than animals need and some foods — chocolate, for example — can be poisonous to pets.
Definitely bogart your marijuana (and alcohol) around animals, especially dogs: There has been a real rise in the number of marijuana overdose cases in house pets, and the lack of research funds for marijuana research also means that veterinarians don’t know the full effects of THC. Plus, the animal has not consented to having their consciousness altered and will likely only be frightened by what they experience.
Essentially, exercise the same rules of respect and consent that you would with any person. But, as for your old friends’ new partners, roommates, kids and spouses, well, good luck. They’re a lot more complicated than animals and — in my opinion — usually not as smart.
David Ferguson is the host of The TRex Report podcast and lead singer of the rock band Kompromat. He lives in north Georgia with his husband and four rescue cats.