Happy pet families: helping cats & dogs get along


Dear Ms Kitty,

 My grown daughter had to move back home and she brought her two cats and dog with her. They’re all nice animals so we thought everyone would get along. But now there are fights and my cats Levon and Daniel are hiding under the bed. What did we do wrong?

Fighting in Fountain

Dear Fighting,

We all want our animals to be one big happy family, don’t we? The reality, though, is that adding new animals to our cats can be stressful.

Most dogs can be introduced into a group of other dogs and know right away where they fit into the doggie hierarchy. Dogs are pack animals who have honed their canine communication skills over millennia.

Cats are closer to their wild cousins and their colonies are different from dog packs. While leaders can emerge, the roles can be more fluid, depending on environment, resources and personalities.

This isn’t to say cats don’t have a range of social skills. Most of us who live with and love cats know how subtle their communication can be.

Most cats are hardwired to treat other animals as strangers, as they would if they were protecting their colony in the wild. Cats usually just need time to adjust to other cats and recognize them as friends.

Like cats in the wild, resources are paramount to your little house panthers. Everything in your home is a resource: food, litter boxes, scratchers, nests, toys and especially, you!

It’s normal that Levon and Daniel should be on guard to anyone new. Fewer resources means more stress. More new animals means even fewer resources so even more stress.

If you turn a new animal loose into another cat’s territory, you’re forcing the original cat to defend it. Dogs are cats’ natural predators, so it can be scary if a new dog is turned loose in the cats’ safe place, and worse yet if the dog is allowed to chase them.

If a human two or three times your size barges into your home and chases you, you’d probably feel terrified too! That can set them up for feline PTSD, making your cats hypervigilant and afraid of more than just the new dog.

If Levon and Daniel just had the one scary encounter, it may not be too late to start the new animals over in a Safe Room. The ideal room is one where you spend lots of time but without deep hiding places, like an office instead of a bedroom.

Give the new animals time to adjust in there. Look for eating, drinking and eliminating normally, and coming out from hiding.

Then add more resources. Competition sets them up for fighting, so make sure you have one litterbox per cat in separate rooms–plus one for insurance.

They’ll all need separate food and water stations at first, plus extra nesting spots. Cat trees do double duty as nests plus safe places to get away from over-enthusiastic dogs.

Techniques that slow down the first meeting can allow Levi and Daniel to get used to the new animals, one sense at a time. First, let them get used to the sounds of each other in their separate spaces.

Once the new animals are comfortable in the Safe Room, you can exchange scents. Take bedding from the new animals and offer it to Levi and Daniel, and vice versa. This gives them time to absorb having new housemates without the threat of directly seeing them.

Taste and sight are last. A baby gate that’s covered can sometimes work for this. Cats can easily jump a gate, so you’ll need to monitor these encounters.

Feed everyone on either side, several feet away, and slowly bring them within a couple feet of each other. Once they’re close, you can slowly pull back the cover over a few days so they first glimpse and later see each other.

If any of the animals—either cat or dog—get overexcited and want to move too quickly, put them in a halter or walking jacket so you can stay in control and keep things slow.

Make sure Levon and Daniel still have their special time with you. Some hissing is normal as they negotiate boundaries. If you let your boys drive the intros and allow a few weeks for slower adapting, your happy family should follow!


Sara Ferguson is the Director of Happy Cats Haven, a feline rescue and adoption center in Manitou Springs, Colorado.

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