Dogs’ breakfasts and cats among the pigeons: animal idioms, part 1

Jennifer Dietrich / EyeEm /GettyImages

by Kate Woodford

Readers of this blog often tell us that they want to learn more English idioms. To help with this, we’ve decided to publish a short series of posts on animal idioms. Animals feature in a lot of English idioms. Some learners find them easy to remember because they create such a strong image in the mind.

Let’s start with an animal that features in a number of frequent English idioms: the cat. Sometimes when it is raining very hard, you might say that it is raining cats and dogs:

It’s raining cats and dogs out there! I’ll just wait in the store a bit longer and hope the rain lets up.

If someone allows a secret to be known, usually without intending to, you might say they let the cat out of the bag:

It was supposed to be a surprise party but Sam let the cat out of the bag!

To describe a place that is extremely small, you might say there isn’t enough room to swing a cat:

You certainly couldn’t fit a double bed in here. There isn’t enough room to swing a cat!

If someone says or does something that causes trouble, or makes a lot of people very angry, in UK English you can say they put or set the cat among the pigeons:

The announcement certainly set the cat among the pigeons!

Finally for cats, the expression while the cat’s away, the mice will play means that when the person who is in charge of a place is absent, people often behave badly:

Jo’s been away this week so the office hasn’t been getting much done. While the cat’s away, the mice will play.

As you’d expect, dogs feature in English idioms too. In UK English, an informal way to refer to something that has been done very badly is a dog’s breakfast:

Alex had attempted to fill in the form and made a complete dog’s breakfast of it.

A saying that you sometimes hear is you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, meaning that it is difficult to change someone’s habits after they have been doing the same thing for many years:

He’s been driving that way for so long now. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Another animal that is used often in English idioms is the horse. One popular idiom featuring the horse is you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. This is used to emphasize that you can make it easy for someone to do something, but you can’t actually force them to do it:

I’ve paid for Ollie’s gym membership but whether he actually goes is up to him. You know what they say – you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

A rather disturbing (but common) horse idiom is beat a dead horse or (UK) flog a dead horse. If you beat/flog a dead horse, you waste effort trying to do something when there is no chance of it succeeding:

He keeps trying to get his novel published but, personally, I think he’s beating a dead horse. 

Finally, if you say wild horses wouldn’t drag you somewhere, you mean you absolutely do not want to go somewhere:

Wild horses wouldn’t drag me to one of their concerts.

Next month we’ll look at idioms related to fish and flies, among other creatures.






50 thoughts on “Dogs’ breakfasts and cats among the pigeons: animal idioms, part 1

    1. Oliver

      Excuse me, if you can an animal to compare with Is it a little rude
      Ex: They have lived in a such a messy way for a long time. You can’t teach an old dog news tricks

  1. mucahit demirci

    Hey thank you 🙂 this platform is providing essential idioms. I think this blog is the best thing since sliced bread!

    1. Karim Housni

      Hi ,how are you doing ? Frankly speaking iam crazy about idioms .Thanks a lot. I find your lesson absolutely helpful and beneficial.I appreciate that.This Karim from Morocco.

      1. Jal Shah

        I am really looking for a lesson in writing English using good punctuation!
        Jal Shah from Wilmslow England

  2. Stella

    Animal idioms are so much fun to learn. Thanks for the efforts to collect them and teach with example sentences.

  3. Dennis

    Of course, in the Southern U.S., the dog idioms are practically endless…
    1) “To run with the big dogs you have to get off the porch” (or “You can’t run with the big dogs unless you get off the porch”) – Meaning: It’s time to do your part, take the lead, grow up.
    2) “I don’t have a dog in that hunt” (In earlier times you might have heard “… in that fight” but no so much in recent years, thankfully.) Meaning: I’m indifferent to the outcome of that debate; that issue doesn’t affect me; I’m not getting into an argument over that.
    3) “He’s all bark, and no bite” Meaning: S/He talks a lot but won’t take action; won’t back up his/her words.
    4) “Even a blind dog trees a (prey animal; often cat or (rac)coon) now and again” Meaning: S/He succeeded by sheer luck. Similar to “Even a blind pig finds a nut now and then.”
    And my favorite,
    5) “That dog won’t hunt!” Meaning: The concept you propose is entirely unrealistic or unworkable; that’s absurd.

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Dennis! Wow, that’s a lot of dog idioms! We have ‘someone’s bark is worse than their bite’ which is the equivalent of ‘all bark, and no bite’. Best wishes to you!

  4. In Portuguese there is an idiom that relates dog and cats (“if you do not have a dog to help you to hunt, you may hunt as a cat”). Reading this article, I’ve realized some parallelisms among idioms in English and in Portuguese, the exact meaning and direct translation. Very nice article! Thank you!

    1. Atiyab Habib

      Really enjoyed the article, quite entertained by pausing to take in the idioms literally. The title felt apt in appreciating the sometimes eccentric and confusing nature of English.

  5. Kate Woodford

    Thanks very much to everyone who has left a message. It’s great to hear that you find these posts helpful. Best wishes to you all.

  6. Liz Duckworth

    The number of chicken idioms shows how long we’ve been associated with them. For example: cooped up, running around like a headless chicken, counting your chickens before they’ve hatched, etc etc.
    Are you including poultry in Part 2? I do hope so!

    1. Sasheena Kurfman

      Ever since I got a flock of chickens, I’ve realized just how many chicken idioms there are. I use them unwittingly and realize them… like when my little bantam rooster runs from me, I tell him, “You’re just chicken” or when the new chicken we add to the flock is “hen pecked” or then they establish their “pecking order”…. all of which I use as idioms when talking to the chickens, and then realize I’m using a chicken-based idiom to refer to chicken based behavior.

  7. Alea

    Recently, I’ve noticed that there are quite a few horse-related idioms that people are no longer able to relate back to horses. Thus, ‘rein’ is very often written as ‘reign’. For example, I have seen each of the idioms below written as ‘reign’. I suppose the further away we get from needing horses for transport, the more likely this will happen!

    Hand over the reins (hand over the responsibility)
    Give free rein to someone (allow someone complete freedom to do something)
    Keep a tight rein on (something or someone)

    Thank you for a very interesting and enjoyable blog.

  8. Lee

    Wow… I was only searching for a true definition of idiom. Better yet, I’ve discovered an absolutely lovely and witty blogger! How little I actually know, you are teaching me… “Cant run with the hounds and piss like a pup”. Thanks Kate

  9. Haitham Ghazy

    thank you very much from my heart. this really is a fabulous work that helps us learning idioms in a very enjoyable way.

  10. El impacto de los animales en la vida de los seres humanos es tan positivo que incluso muchos programas de salud en varios países han empezado a incluir más a las mascotas en lasterapias.

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