Have you ever had a dream of being bitten by a cat or dog? This is a very common and important type of dream that usually has the following characteristics: an animal engages with the dreamer in a focused and intense way; the dreamer is typically not terrified but there is an anxious concern that the encounter could get more dangerous; the dreamer wants to stop the encounter but the animal persists; the dreamer tries not to show fear; the animal almost always bites or threatens to bite the dreamer (most commonly on the hand or arm); the urgency of the encounter tends to ramp up, both within the dream and in subsequent dreams. What is this kind of dream trying to say?
Here’s an example, told to me recently by a 32-year-old man. He had a very similar dream of a dog encounter two months earlier, so this was his second dream in the series:
“I’m in some kind of space with a woman who has a big dog. The dog is very tall, with long light grey hair. The dog wants to interact with me, to play, with its open mouth, play-biting but not really biting, pushing on my hands and arms as I’m trying to push it away. I feel that if I don’t go along with the game and do the right thing it will escalate and it might really bite me. I feel it’s pushing me to do something I don’t want to do, and I also feel like it’s testing me somehow. But I do not want to play this game, I just want to get away. There is a risky feeling, like this could quickly get out of control. I wake up.”
As we discussed the dream there was a definite sense that the dog was trying to tell him something, or better yet–trying to get him to do something. When a dreamer is close to being able to identify with a figure in his dream but cannot quite do it I will usually ask him to ‘be the part’. So I asked this man to be the dog. “Okay…I am the dog” he said. What do you want this man to do? I asked. This is what dream dog said:
“I want this man to show me that he can handle me. Without being intimidated. I don’t want him to be frightened or intimidated. I want to test him, and force him to find a way to handle me firmly, without panicking. He needs to be calm in a difficult and tense situation and prove that he can deal with it.”
At this point the dreamer started to feel a resonant connection between the dream message and his life. The dog’s message seemed to fit well with his financial and career situation which was currently difficult and tense. So we could move on now to a response.
We started with the first level of response–the imaginal level. I asked to try standing above the dog (in his visual imagination) and give him a solid command to “sit”. But the dreamer had some resistance to doing this. “I do not want to either receive commands or give commands.” This was another very resonant moment. It felt like we were face to face with something in his nature which did not believe in being firm and commanding. I felt strongly that this is why the dream dog needed to come to him–to help him find and develop the commanding part of his nature that he wished to disown.
So I persisted. I asked him again to stand up and give the “sit” command. At first it did not sound convincing, a bit better the second time, but the third time there was that magical change that happens in fairy tales and old stories. The feeling in the scene shifted completely. The dog was now sitting and looking up at him attentively. And the man’s feeling about the dog also transformed–he no longer wanted to stop the encounter and get away from the dog. He wanted the dog to be with him now.
Now, if we step back from the scene and look at it psychodynamically, we can see that a wonderful thing is happening here. An animal ally is appearing to force the dreamer to adopt and develop a new set of behaviors. Because the dreamer is resistant to this kind of behavior for some reason the encounter is tense and threatening at first. But if the meeting is allowed to move forward then the animal’s teaching can be received and tried on, and the characteristic “positive shift” occurs. This dream type falls within the larger category of the shadow dream, in which a true part of self that has been held at arms length appears and demands to be accepted and integrated.
In my experience this type of dream is most often played out by members of the cat and dog families, usually “domestic” cats and dogs, but often wilder (and larger) members of those families. I have seen many of the big cats appear in this kind of role, as well as wolves on the canine side. But any animal or person could take the lead role here; the important thing is to recognize the pattern and feeling tone of the encounter.
Additionally, I have noticed that in women’s dreams the most common variant is being bitten by a cat. Whenever I hear such a dream I suspect that there may be an issue in the area of personal boundaries. Once the woman has connected the dream it will often refer to a need to be firmer in creating and defending her personal space against unwanted incursions, sexual and otherwise. The cat’s demand is: “practice being strong, firm, and consistent when somebody comes close to you in a way that you don’t like.”
So–whenever you come across this type of dream you can help yourself get oriented with a version of the what is this dream asking for? question– what new behavior does this animal want the dreamer to learn and adopt?