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photograph of a dog and a cat snuggled up together on some green grass.
figure 1  


fight like cats and dogs. Fighting from diametrically opposed views; a relentless, endless, and irresolvable battle or struggle.

This phrase is based on the assumption that cats and dogs are “natural” enemies who find each other's existence to be anathema. To fight like cats and dogs is to fight the other solely for their “otherness.” 1998 Time Magazine quotes an unnamed congressional staffer's comments on the House Judiciary Committee: “We fight like cats and dogs.” This was also the title of that issue's cover story. The special report goes on to describe the Committee as “one of the most doggedly partisan committees in all of Congress.”reference 1 This supposedly natural enmity between canines and felines was the subject of a summer comedy in 2001, “Cats and Dogs.” To be honest , I have not seen it, but a friend, who has two dogs herself, described it as stereotyping the personalities that humans attribute to these two species. Dogs are good-natured but somewhat bumbling, while cats are conniving and aloof.

1. Cohen, Adam. 1998. “We Fight Like Cats & Dogs” Clinton's Case Has Landed before a House Judiciary Committee Where Zealous Partisans Rule the Day. Time Magazine 152 (13):17.

Okay, so what is the reality of this relationship? Growing up, as I did, in a farming community, I saw both cats and dogs primarily as working animals. While they had distinctly different responsibilities and fundamental personalities, they cohabited with apparent ease, though without any apparent pleasure. There was no need to keep them separated. They sought different kinds of affection and attention from their human companions, so I find it hard to imagine that there was any jealousy or sense of competition. In the absence of humans, cats and dogs are competitors in the sense that both are predators. However, their hunting tactics are divergent and territories overlap without apparent conflict. In other words, cats and dogs do not fight like cats and dogs.  

If this is the case, then where does this description of conflict come from? I attribute it to a common pattern in English-speaking societies: the creation of binary opposites. Cats and dogs have become a way to illustrate opposing forces. This may result in the relationship that these species are sometimes presumed to have to gender roles: dog is to man as cat is to woman. Women and men are stereotypically supposed to fight like cats and dogs. The implication that the fighting is especially intense might be attributable to the other uses of the phrase “cats and dogs,” especially “raining cats and dogs,” which describes a torrential and intense downpour.

The binary opposition is quite old. A humorous poem for children called “The Duel,” by Eugene Field, describes a fight between “the gingham dog and the calico cat.” The fight concludes:

But the truth about that cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!reference 2
2. Field, Eugene. 1913. The Duel. In Yale Book of American Verse, edited by T. R. Lounsbury. New Haven: Yale University Press. Available from http:// 102/ 231. html.
a picture of the cartoon character Catdog
figure 2  
In what may be a sign that our society is ready to resolve this duality and create a hybrid of both, there is a cartoon on the Nickelodeon cable channel named Catdog. The main character is a creature with the fore-body of a cat on one end and the fore-body of a dog at the other. This raises potentially squeamish questions about internal organs, the removal of wastes, etc. Perhaps it is comforting to some that the opportunity for this character to reproduce would appear to be unavailable. However, true to the world of cartoons aimed at children, there is no attention paid to the anatomical aspects of the relationship. Cat and Dog struggle to find common ground and mutual respect as any two people would when thrown together in perpetuity.
About the illustrations: Figure 1:“Two is Company, Three is a Crowd.” 195?. The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920: Photographs from the Fred Hultstrand and F.A. Pazandak Photograph Collections from North Dakota State University, Library of Congress Ameritech collections. Public Domain.

Figure 2, an image of Catdog, is from a fan site (http:// sema.html) and is by an unnamed artist. Unfortunately , the pages appear to be abandoned and there is no information about either the artist or how to reach the creator of the page. I am grateful to Sema for his or her efforts.

see also: cats and dogs (securities); raining cats and dogs; Dog is to Cat as Man is to Woman
cf: dogfall

Last updated: July 5, 2008
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