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Who Rules? Dogs and Cats: Learning to Get Along

Are your dogs and cats fighting like...well...cats and dogs? Cats and dogs are two very different species, each evolved for different purposes and each with a unique place in their relationship with humankind.

Dogs, from Wolf to Woof

Canis familiaris. The name says it all - familiaris - Man's Best Friend. Archaeological evidence points to the fact that dogs evolved in the company of man as a social species. They shared the same habitat and hunted the same prey. Whether man adopted orphaned wolf cubs or wild dogs chose to stay close to human settlements to take advantage of the "leftovers," modern dogs are the result of their ancestors' ability to accept food and eat in the presence of humans. The consequent close ties between people and their pups are the result of the commonalities between them.

Cats, from Myeo to Meow

Felis catus. Egyptologists suggest Egyptians were domesticating African wildcats as early as 3,500 BC. These tamed cats were called myeo ormau. However, some archaeologists place the date at ~6,000 BC. Whenever it happened, it seems to be a result of the cat following the rodents, snakes and other pests that gathered around civilization where man was stockpiling food supplies. Initially cats were tolerated by humans because they killed these pests, and although full domestication and companionship status followed, domestic cats have an entirely different outlook on their relationship with people than dogs.

How They Get Along

The tired old saying, "fighting like cats and dogs" tends to be rooted in fact. After all, where there's smoke, there's fire, right? Yet, we have also seen examples of a dog-cat kinship that is as tender and loving as any friendship. 

The most recent statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association report that 44 percent of U.S. pet owners have multiple-pet households, and the most common combinations include dogs and cats in the mix. Since this combination is the most likely, it's important to know how to handle the situation IF the family pets aren't playing well together.

What went wrong?

Liz Palika, an award-winning author of pet-care and behavior books that range from dogs and cats to reptiles and birds, provides insight into dog-cat relationships that spell trouble.

"The most common problem I see with dogs and cats in the same household is dogs chasing cats," Liz said. "The best way to overcome this problem is obedience training for the owner AND the dog. The owner needs to learn how to teach the dog and the dog needs to learn self control...and also that the owner is the one to set the rules!"

"We teach the command, 'Leave it' to our dogs," Palika continued. "Then, with the dog on the leash, we teach it to ignore the cat. A dog must never be allowed to chase a cat. In my house, this always works. The dogs are very well trained and no excuses are allowed. The dogs will not chase the cats - period. If it's not working, the dog needs to go back for some refreshed obedience training."

Understanding the differences

Dr. Gary Landsberg, North Toronto Animal Clinic, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, is recognized as one of the top animal behaviorists in the world. When it comes to dog-cat relationships, he says the main problem is simply that the owners wish their dogs and cats got along better - rather than like the two distinctly different species that they are.

"Other than that," he said, "the biggest problems are related to specific compatibility issues where the dog is too playful and the cat is too fearful, or the dog has a strong chase - or even predatory - drive. Also a cat that is fearful and aggressive and a dog that does not know how to react."

When these issues arise, the solution to the problem needs to be individualized to the household and the pets involved. Dr. Landsberg indicated that this is probably a situation calling for a complete assessment and consultation as to what is the problem and what is the best resolution considering the pets, the household, the owners and their schedules. 

"If the problem is that the cat needs to get away from the dog at times, in general there may be a need for more areas that the cat can access and not the dog," he advised. "However, if the cat is too fearful or the dog potentially too aggressive, they must be separated when the owner is not present."

Starting from "Scratch" (so to speak)

There are some definite "DOs and DON'Ts" to keep in mind when introducing dogs and cats for the first time. Dr. Landsberg cautions that the most important aspect is matching personalities of the pets, if possible. For example, a playful dog or puppy will be better matched with a playful cat - or a more tolerant one. 

"Any new kitten or puppy, if not too fearful, will want to play with the other animal," he said. "The question is whether the existing animal will enjoy or tolerate the presence of the other pet or the play with the other pet. Another important aspect is that just because a dog has been socialized or friendly with another cat (or vice versa) - it does not necessarily mean that the dog or cat will tolerate, understand or communicate well with a different dog or cat."

Palika advised that when bringing in a new cat or kitten into the home, it should be confined to a separate room for awhile. "That way, everyone can get used to the smells," she said. "Household smells, new cat/dog smells, all the smells. New and the existing pets need this to adjust."

Dr. Landsberg agreed, saying, "Give the cat a separate room with toys, food, bedding, litter, etc. - all the necessities of life. When it's time for face-to-face introductions, perhaps consider a leash and harness for cat control and a leash or leash and head halter for dog control. Only begin to let the cat out if it is calm, non-fearful or inquistive and seems to want to leave the room - - - even when it has heard the dog on the other side of the door. Begin introductions with the dog on a leash and giving the cat some freedom to wander and explore. Give food and play to encourage the cat leaving its room and approaching the dogs."

"Make sure the cat is socialized to dogs and not too fearful," Dr. Landsberg said. "Ensure the cat has sufficient perching and climbing places where it rests and naps that are out of the dog's reach. If not, consider training this behavior by giving toys and treats on the perches or counters."

Dr. Landsberg continued, "Bring the dog into the room under control with a leash or leash and head halter. Keep the dog occupied and monitor the cat's response to the dog, and the dog's response to the cat. It may be possible to use food rewards and toys to encourage the pets to approach each other, but you need to monitor and 'read' the pets to determine how fast you can go. Keep the dog in a kennel (crate) or separate room when you cannot supervise the two together."

The moral...

Slow and controlled introductions and be sure to watch for potential problems so you can avoid or minimize them.

How long?

While there are some parings that work out in days, in some rare cases, it never works out. Liz Palika noted that, in her experience, the "get acquainted" process usually takes two to three weeks.

Dr. Landsberg noted that sometimes it's not easy to tell by their interactions if a dog and cat are getting along or not. "It is sometimes difficult to tell playful and predatory actions apart," he said, "since play and chase could have a predatory outcome or could lead to inadvertent but serious injury if the dog is too physical with the cat or the cat is too fearful with the dog. Therefore any intense focusing on the other pet, threats or aggression, stalking or chase attempts should be cause for more supervision, training and concern.

"Some cats take weeks to adapt to the dogs," Landsberg added, "and similiarly it can take weeks for the owners to teach the dog how to behave around the cat. Even if improvement is made and the cat and dog tolerate or enjoy each other, in some circumstances, separation when not supervised is the best long-term option."

And When it Works...

When it works, there is nothing sweeter than seeing how a little kitty cat can wrap a big old dog around her dainty little paw - Or how a tough, battle-scarred veteran cat will melt at a puppy's charms. 

Dr. Landsberg has observed that same behavior at his clinic. "The most common thing that you will see is that the cat and dog learn how to communicate (the dog as a dog and the cat as a cat)," he said. "Our clinic cat (15 lbs) plays with my dog (8 lbs). The dog plays like a dog, nipping and biting and pulling the cat, and the cat plays like a cat, pouncing on the dog and instigating her to chase and bite. However, when things get out of hand, the cat knows to jump in the bathroom sink (because the dog is too short to reach her!")
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