Have you ever noticed how many catch-phrases and colloquialisms refer to cats and dogs? There are many famous sayings like “he let the cat out of the bag” or “I feel as sick as a dog.” Often we do not even know where these phrases have come from, but one thing is for certain; animal behaviors have been observed by humans as long as language has existed. Here are a few of the most common idiomatic phrases (and their meanings) that feature our favorite furry friends:

Cat Idioms

  • Cat on a hot tin roof (A person who is on edge.)
  • Copycat (Someone who mimics the behaviors of others.)
  • Has the cat got your tongue? (When someone is speechless, as if a cat swiped their tongue.)
  • Cats in gloves catch no mice. (By playing too nicely by the rules, you won’t get what you want.)
  • When the cat’s away the mice will play. (When the authoritative figure such as a policeman or parent is gone, people get mischievous or lawless.)
  • Curiosity killed the cat. (Be careful what you do, since many cats have been injured by exploring something should not.)
  • Scaredy-cat. (Someone who is as jumpy as a kitten, or will run away at the first sign of noise or danger.)
  • Play cat and mouse. (To tease someone along for a while, but plan to eventually hurt or ruin them.)
  • Fighting like cats and dogs. (When people argue like old-time enemies.)
  • Raining cats and dogs. (Pouring rain.)
  • Look what the cat dragged in. (This refers to someone who looks bedraggled, torn up, weary, or dirty.)
  • There’s more than one way to skin a cat. (There are multiple ways to do a task or solve a problem.)
  • He looks like the cat that ate the canary. (When someone appears sly and smug as if they have gotten away with something and are not sorry for it!)
  • He let the cat out of the bag. (When a secret comes out.)
  • Not enough room to swing a cat. (The space is small.)
  • The cat’s pajamas. (The coolest, best thing.)

Dog Idioms

  • Meaner than a junkyard dog. (Someone who is territorial, set in his ways and grouchy.)
  • A barking dog never bites. OR His bark is worse than his bite. (Someone who makes big promises and threats, but isn’t as dangerous or serious as they would like people to think.)
  • Barking up the wrong tree. (Looking in the wrong place; often for someone to blame, or to find a culprit.)
  • Better to be a live dog than a dead lion. (It is better to walk away humble and alive, rather than be the champion and risk defeat.)
  • Throw me a bone. (Help me out; give me something to work with.)
  • Don’t keep a dog and bark yourself. (Don’t try to do everything: if you are paying someone to do a job, let them do it.)
  • The lucky dog. (Someone who is fortunate).
  • Call off the dogs. (Stop threatening or chasing someone.)
  • Every dog has its day. (Everyone will suffer or receive rewards for what they have done.)
  • Like a blind dog in a meat market. (When someone acts aimlessly, pursuing one trail after another, or behave with no self-control.)
  • He works like a dog. (A hard-working, dedicated person.)
  • Go to the dogs. (To become bad, or grow worse.)
  • You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. (It is difficult to change people once they are set in their ways.)
  • Go see a man about a dog. (Leaving for a purpose that is indelicate to announce – such as using the bathroom.)
  • It’s a dog-eat-dog world. (People are willing to do whatever they have to, to get ahead.)
  • That’s not my dog. (That isn’t my problem.)
  • Let sleeping dogs lie. (Don’t go looking for trouble- if everything is peaceful, let it be.)
  • Put the dog off the scent. (Distract someone from what is really going on.)
  • In the doghouse. (Someone that has been blacklisted or is being punished.)
  • Walking with his tail between his legs. (When someone appears to be humiliated or embarrassed.)
  • The tail is wagging the dog. (Describing a scenario in which a small factor dictates a big decision.)
  • My dogs are barking. (Referring to feet that hurt after they have been walked on all day.)
  • He is the top dog. (Someone who is the leader, or well respected in the community.)

Phrases in reference to people

Because of their behaviors and generic tendencies, the very words “cat” and “dog” have become descriptions for certain kinds of people and the characteristics they possess. For example, phrases like “All men are dogs” or “Women can be so catty,” make gross generalizations, yet are used often.

The term “dog” when describing a human can refer to scummy man, or an unattractive girl. “That man is such a dog,” could mean that he is base, appetite seeking, or animalistic in his pursuits. The saying, “She’s a real dog,” suggests that the woman is ugly, frumpy, and generally undesirable.

These phrases can also can refer to behaviors that dogs exhibit. For example, when someone says “He dogged me all day” it means the person followed them, as a loyal dog would follow his master.  It also can refer to someone ravenously devouring food: “He dogged (or “wolfed”) his dinner and was out of the house by 8 pm.”
Similarly for cats, the word usually means a man is in control, admirable and sophisticated when he is called a “cool cat.” When someone describes a woman as a “cat” or “catty” they meant that she is self-seeking, likes to gossip, and has a tendency to “scratch” at people with her words.