Preventing Catastrophes – Creating interspecies harmony

Brittney Frazier, Found Training Center

Bringing a new pet into the home is always a process usually filled with anticipation, some stress, and adjustment. However, when the new pet happens to be of the infamous feline variety, a primarily dog-centered household can be turned upside down if its caregivers aren’t prepared. Recently, our three-and-a-rotating-foster-dog home became a great deal more interesting when we welcomed a two-pound kitten reminiscent of a Beanie Baby into our pack. Found on the side of the road in rural Wisconsin, our little Valentina was crowned with a name to match her spicy personality.

I realized as I drove home with a little screaming creature in my lap attempting to climb in and out of anything and everything that it had been over ten years since I owned a cat, and I was feeling less than equipped to ensure a smooth transition into a home with three large dogs and a rescue puppy. How would they react? I knew my border collie mix, Mona, was always happy to chase and attempt to catch any small animal she laid eyes on while on walk, and our large and goofy German Shepherd was always good for a surprise when introduced to new things. Our oldie girl, Jolie, had met some cats in her eleven years, but there was no telling how she would feel with this tiny little thing prancing around her house. Was this a bad idea? I was about to put my training skills to the test and find out.

As I set Valentina’s carrier on the floor, my girls sniffed very thoroughly and Jolie let out a “woof.” I took a deep breath and asked all the pups for a “sit” a few feet back. As I brought the new baby out and allowed the girls to sniff slowly, I was relieved to see Mona look back up at me as if to say “What’s the big deal?” and trot away into the next room unamused. I cracked up as the tension dissipated.

I will be frank in saying that merging Val into our lives has and continues to challenge my ability to stay the calm leader of my pets that I strive to be. However, after the last few months, I feel that to be the ultimate goal in successful introducing a cat to dogs or vice versa. Keeping a composed mentality and taking each situation step by step allows you to find where everyone’s limit is at before everyone is going at it like…well…cats and dogs. Below are some tips that I have complied after bringing our little fluff home.

  • Learn about your pet(s) – It is not wise to commit to bringing any new pet home unless you can predict, if even just estimated guess, how your current pet will react. If you currently own a cat, find a friend with a mild-mannered, low energy dog you can borrow for a few hours, or even pet-sit for a few days if your cat reacts well. If you currently own a dog, it may be best to pay a visit to a friend’s house with a confident, dog-savvy kitty. Finding your individual pet’s threshold for when they become overstimulated is key. Also, identify what motivates them and allows you to redirect their focus. Next, ensure the animal you are planning to introduce has had at least some positive interaction with other species with the exception of very young puppies and kittens. Use your best logic to determine whether or not if the animals you are working to blend are compatible before moving forward. At this point in the game, it may be a good idea to consult a professional if you feel your current pet could use some priming before bringing the pet in question into your home.
  • Utilize barriers for safety – From the first moment you introduce your pets, it is vital that safety is the highest priority. If you feel your dog’s obedience is unreliable, ensure your equipment (collars, leashes, etc.) are failsafe. A crate or baby gate might also be an appropriate way to block your pets from having too close of an encounter too soon. My kitten was first sniffed through her carrier so I could gauge my dog’s reaction as interested or closer to the prey drive end of the spectrum. Use barriers that keep both you and the pets comfortable at all times, and ones that allow you to easily create distance if need be. While barriers are not the ideal relationship experience for you pets long term, I would encourage them to stay as long as you need and to not rush close physical interactions until everyone involved is ready for the next step, whatever that may be.
  • Slowly allow both pets to act as naturally as possible – If we limit our pets’ reactions to each other too much, we run the risk of creating an unnatural situation, which can cause frustration or fear surrounding the new pet. This is why barriers can be so useful, as we can then allow each animal to observe the other and understand what to expect from them. Take note of what your dog does if/when the cat moves quickly and observe if your cat is overly fearful of your dog’s natural movements (barking, whining, jumping). This will help you learn to anticipate what may cause issues between them in the future.

  • Give them TIME – Although some pets adjust to new additions to the home with ease, we tend to push our pets to make friends more quickly than they would have done on their own. Forcing any animal past their threshold too soon can have serious consequences and lasting effects. Our hope is that our pets build lasting relationships with each other, even if that’s just simply peacefully coexisting. Give your pets breaks from each other to allow some destressing downtime. Spend time training each pet one-on-one in the meantime to build your relationship and responsiveness to you. And yes, that means working with the cat, too! A calm and confident cat will allow your dog to respect them as a friend and not prey. When the time is right, you’ll know when your pets are ready to mingle full time.
  • Don’t declaw the cat! – A cat’s claws are their defense from the world and removing them can make them much more vulnerable to a dog’s instincts. However painful it may be, a scratch on the nose is sometimes the easiest way for a dog to understand their limits when it comes to the cat’s personal space. While you should certainly keep your cat from injuring your dog, our little kitten has learned ways of fending off our three goofs all on her own, and her natural defenses are extraordinary. I wouldn’t dream of taking that empowerment away from her.

If at any point in time you feel overwhelmed in this process, consult a professional. It is our job as our pets’ guardians to intervene when necessary, but also to seek help, and this is probably one of the most important times to do so. I’ve seen many unfortunate pairings go horribly wrong and have wished we were called much sooner to intervene.

All in all, our little kitty is very accepted and loved in our pack these days. She wrestles and plays as if she herself were a dog because of how integrated she has become with them. Our German Shepherd is wrapped around her little paw and our old girl throws her a play bow every once in a while. After just a few months, we can’t imagine life without her, and we hope the transition of your cat or dog into your home goes over just as well.

Found Chicago
4018 N. Rockwell St.
Chicago, IL 60618
www.foundchicago.org

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