There’s a difference between harmless play time and crossing the line when it comes to animals. In a lot of households these days, cats and dogs commonly live together (and hopefully peacefully). But there are some cases where caution is heavily advised. So, why does my dog put my cat’s head in its mouth? The most likely reason can be due to harmless play or play that has progressed into aggression.
In this article, we’ll define different play styles, some warning signs, and discuss in detail what exactly causes this interesting behavior. If nothing else, your veterinarian is always a resource and could help you distinguish the difference between danger and harmless play.
What Causes This Behavior?
Depending on the ages of your pets, cats and dogs will typically grow up together and learn the other’s different sounds and body language. In doing so, most pets that cohabitate will know when to stop and when they’ve gone too far.
If they don’t, that’s where you need to step in. Though, again, most times you have nothing to worry about if your dog suddenly puts your cat’s head in its mouth or even carries them around the house.
This behavior could be caused by a maternal instinct that all dogs have. It’s quite common for dogs to pick up their young and carry them in their mouths. In fact, if you have an older dog and a younger cat, it is very well likely that this is the reason behind the behavior.
Your dog probably was never able to have puppies of their own and developed this bond with your cat. The kitten, on the other hand, is used to their own mothers enacting this same behavior. It’s up to you to decide whether this behavior is appropriate or not.
Normal Play in Animals
Just like with two cats or two dogs, normal play consists of chasing, stalking, tracking, and even attacking. This behavior is common in normal hunting behavior in the wild but it’s far more exaggerated in normal play. In this case, your pets should skip over the last part of hunting, which is “the kill.” Instead, they’ll simply bite or swipe at one another playfully.
In other cases, the animal that is considered “dominant” in the household will pretend to be the subordinate in order to get the other to play. It’s common to see dogs roll over on their back to show this behavior and it’s the same with cats. Though, it’s more common in cats than in dogs. Normal play also results in both biting but with an open mouth, so no harm occurs.
Identifying Dog Play
In dogs, for instance, their play is noisy. If you hear your dog growling or barking, it’s most likely playful. Make sure you listen to the pitch, though. If your dog is growling in a low tone, that’s a warning sign. There are other signs associated with this side, such as low ears and tense lips.
Dogs also use exaggerated movements like the “play bow.” This posture exists to signal to others that they’re not a serious threat. It’s identified by a dog stretching its front legs out in front of it and leaning down on its elbows.
The chest is low to the ground, but its rear is in the air. This play is also usually accompanied with its mouth open and tongue hanging out, as if the dog is grinning. Sometimes, a small bark will even be associated with this invitation.
Identifying Cat Play
On the other side of things, cat play is quiet. This shows the stark difference between hunting for dogs and hunting for cats. We associate cats with stalking their prey while dogs are more likely to be aggressive right off the bat. If you hear your cat growling, then it’s not normal play.
When we throw these two different types of play styles together, it can lead to confusion. One animal might simply be playing while the other thinks it’s not. It’s important to keep an eye on your pets in this case. Always be supervising when play occurs so one pet isn’t harmed.
An easy way to identify when your cat wants to play is by the “elevator-butt” pose. It’s quite similar to a dog’s “play bow” in that the cat lowers their chest to the ground while their rear end remains in the air.
It’s similar to what cats look like right before they pounce: their eyes dilate, and they shake their rear end. This movement is also usually prior to a play attack or clawing at the dog’s tail.
Is This Behavior Okay?
Now, onto the actual question: why does my dog put my cat’s head in its mouth? In the best-case scenario, it’s simply a routine from play. If your cat doesn’t growl or hiss at the dog, it’s likely your cat actually likes being carried around in its mouth. However, if you have a kitten or younger cat, you want to keep a close eye, especially if you have a large dog.
Not even with this behavior but a large dog can harm your cat easily if they’re not careful. Some dogs don’t understand the size difference and display behavior that’s inappropriate for their size. A good example of this is a dog that still insists on sitting on your lap, even though they weigh more than a small child. Make sure you set good boundaries in cases like this.
The worst-case scenario is your cat doesn’t like it and is afraid. If so, you should step in and separate the two. Make sure that your dog knows this behavior isn’t allowed. Dogs can pick up on warnings easier than we think, so the message should be pretty clear as long as you’re stern.
Get their attention and point your finger while saying “no” loud and clear. If they continue with this behavior, make sure to separate your pets regularly.
Warning Signs in Play
We’ve discussed the various signs for when the play is mutual, but we haven’t yet discussed what happens when it’s not. The easiest sign, especially with play between cats and dogs, is when the cat starts growling and hissing. If you hear that, they mostly likely don’t understand that your dog simply wants to play and therefore sees them as a threat. Here are some other signs:
- One pet tries to hide from the other or run away
- Bites or swipes result with yelps or screams
- Your dog growls in a low tone
Body language can also be a sign. Learn to identify when your cat or dog is uncomfortable or uneasy, especially during play. If their ears are down, this is a bad sign. For cats, if their back is arched and their fur is standing straight up, that’s also a bad sign.
If the tail is twitching for your cat or dog, this can also be a sign that the play isn’t mutual. Any side of nervous behavior or tenseness is a sign they aren’t comfortable.
My Dog Won’t Stop Playing With My Cat or Vice Versa
If you find that the pet that wants to play keeps trying to invite the other, you should carry one of them to a place the other can’t access. For example, if your cat or dog is allowed outside, maybe this is a good opportunity to play fetch.
They might have a lot of pent-up energy that you could help release. You might want to make sure that whenever the two are together, they’re supervised, especially in cases of younger animals.
If you can’t keep them separated, another suggestion is to introduce new behaviors. In the case that your dog just really likes having your cat’s head in its mouth, give them some chew toys to keep their mouth preoccupied.
If you can find a toy they like, they’ll most likely not want to give up the toy in exchange for the cat’s head. You also want to set aside time daily to play with your dog or cat to bond and help release some of that energy. Take note of the breed of your pets, as some breeds may require more affection than others.
We can’t say for certain whether the behavior in your household is harmful; we don’t know your pets on a personal level. Someone who would is your local veterinarian, so you should take the time to call or make an appointment to determine whether this is a serious problem. Your vet will know the personalities of your pets and can give a more specific answer.
However, certain behaviors are easier to pick up on than others. Just remember that there are very visible signs where play isn’t mutual. As long as you keep an eye on your pets, you can identify this behavior for yourself. We hope that the information we provided was helpful to you and that your pets continue to play safely.