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Cats and dogs - natural enemies?

'They fight like cat and dog' goes the common expression. Yet we know that this is not always the case. Many of us know of households where cats and dogs live together, if not in harmony, at least with minimal friction. It is quite common that people who already own one pet - for example a cat - would like to adopt a dog or vice versa.

So the question is not only whether to adopt one species while already having a member of the other, but if the adoption goes ahead, how to introduce the cat and the dog so they can cohabit peacefully under the same roof?

Scientists step in

A few years back Joseph Terkel asked just that question. His was not just idle curiosity, for Mr Terkel is a Professor at the Department of Zoology at Tel Aviv University, and he wanted a scientific answer. He and his colleagues interviewed almost 200 animal lovers who had both a cat and a dog. The behaviour of these animal odd couples was videoed and analyzed.

The analysis showed that in about seventy percent of households cats and dogs got along amiably. Things were less sunny with the remaining thirty percent where pet relations ranged from occasional hostility to interspecies warfare. So what made the difference?

The investigators found that household with peaceful pets were were most common in cases when the animals were introduced to each other when very young. (That is, six months or earlier for the kittens and younger than a year for the puppy). It was also clear from the results that it is easier to introduce a dog to a house where a cat is already in residence than the other way round.

Crossed signals

The major problem arises from differences in the natural behaviour of cats and dogs. Humans often misread the signals their cat is sending them (e.g. a 'wagging' tail does not indicate a happy cat). Dogs find their feline housemates even more contradictory and confusing. As the wagging tail example indicates, the same signals can mean something completely different to a cat and a dog.

Here's another example. When a dog wants to show submission he will lay his ears flat and roll on his back. Generally speaking a cat meeting a potential enemy will flatten her ears to avoid them getting damaged in combat. And she rolls onto her back because she wants to use her claw-tipped paws for something other than standing on. So a dog that comes over to a cat in what he assumes to be a 'submissive' pose is likely to get a severe shock and a shredded muzzle.

Kids and adults

Prof Terkel's team found that a kitten and puppy can actually integrate these different behavioural patterns into the learning experience which is natural for animals at this age. In such cases, cats and dogs can not only cohabit amicably but even become playmates. An analogy might be with two children who do not speak each other's language. When they meet they can understand each other through play and gestures and have a wonderful time. Adults in the same situation we find it much harder to communicate. An adult cat that is unused to dogs will find it hard to get along with them, because the cat's view of the world has become more rigid over time. Likewise an adult dog whose prior experience of cats is limited to chasing them down alleys will find it hard to understand what one is doing in his home.

However, adult cats and dogs can get along. Although bringing animals together when they are still very young is the best scenario, that does not mean that adult cats and dogs are doomed to life-long enmity. But it does mean that they have to be introduced in the right way. Even then, donít expect a beautiful friendship. Generally speaking, the most you can hope for is that an adult cat and dog will each ignore the other, pretending that the other does not exist even while carefully skirting around areas of potential conflict.

As with people, a lot depends on personality. Most cats are fearful of dogs and if your resident cat is a timid creature who spends a lot of time hiding, a dog will never be welcome. It is not unknown in such circumstances for the cat to abandon the family home in the hope of finding more congenial accommodation elsewhere. However a bold and outgoing cat might welcome an extra interest in her life, and in such cases the introductions will be easier.

The hunting instinct

It is important to remember that some dogs think of cats as prey, and it is in a dogís nature to chase anything that runs from it. And a large dog can easily hurt or kill a cat. So unless you are absolutely sure that those two are safe left alone, they should be under close supervision when they are together. Also, for the cat's peace of mind, make sure that she has somewhere to run and hide where the dog canít get to her. We will discuss that in detail later.

Cats and dogs are born hunters, but their techniques are very different. The cat is an ambush hunter, patiently stalking her prey or waiting patiently for it to come within range of a sudden rush. Dogs are less subtle. Wild dogs hunt by chasing prey until it drops from exhaustion. That's why most dogs love chasing after things, be they cats or cars, and some strains of dogs are particularly good at it. These strains include terriers, pit bull terriers and most hunting breeds.

Although these dogs tend to think of cats as a form of fast food, even they can be taught to respect cats and adopt them as members of the pack. But be aware that the process of adaptation will usually be lengthy and is not recommended for those without considerable experience in handling the dogs. Overall, they are seldom an optimal choice for a mixed cat/dog household. If you need to make the attempt, more information on how to train these types of dog to accept a cat can be found at this website:

Getting to know you

Otherwise, it's a matter of perception. For cats territory is what matters. For dogs social standing within the family 'pack' is all-important. Because of these differences, it is often easier to bring a dog to a cat home than vice versa. If a cat was there first, she has already got her territory mapped out and established. When a dog comes along his first priority is to find out where in the pack structure he fits in. As long as the dog understands that his place in the pack partly depends on his respect for the cat's territory, a happy resolution is very possible. But the dog's understanding of the pack structure is the key. The biggest problems start when the dog thinks he is a Ďtop dogí in the household, and it's his decision which members stay and which should be driven out or 'disciplined'.

When adopting an adult dog it is often a good idea to spend time alone with the dog before you bring him into a house with a resident cat. Thereafter introductions have to be done slowly, beginning with maximum separation. It is best for both the cat and the dog to get used to the smells and sounds of the other before face-to-face contact. Rubbing a towel over the dog or cat and then leaving the towel in their respective rooms is a good idea. It gives the animals a chance to sniff over each other's scent without the distraction of the live animal present. Wait for the scent to be familiar enough for both animals to ignore it. If they focus on it intensely, a personal meeting might be equally intense, and not in a good way.

Once the animals are ready to face each other for the first time, do this under strict supervision and at a distance. It is a good idea to rub a cat-scented towel on the dog so that the cat smells her own scent. Scent is how cats mark familiar things (including you). If after the first meeting the animals show indifference to each other, next time bring them slightly closer. Keep the dog firmly on a leash. If you are on your own keep the cat in a closed cat basket, or if a second person is available, with the other person taking care of the cat. If the session went well, reward both animals with a treat. Continue until both animals become indifferent to each otherís presence - but donít then think that all issues have been resolved. Flare-ups are still highly probable.

If an adult dog is first in the home, a kitten may be a better option than an adult cat. A well-trained, good-natured dog will often accept a kitten into the family 'pack' without problems. Again as mentioned before, for dogs social interactions are what it's about. So if you bring a kitten into the house, give a lot of attention and love to the dog or he may feel excluded and become jealous of the newcomer.

When in the presence of a dog, a cat with an escape route is a happier cat. Cats hate feeling trapped, and being trapped with a large and potentially hostile carnivore is no cat's idea of a good time. A cat will be much more prepared to accept being in the presence of a dog if she thinks she is there voluntarily. Those humans wanting a peaceful life should adjust the environment accordingly.

Dogs are not good climbers, so a tall cat tree would do nicely. A room in the house with a cat flap and closed doors can become the feline equivalent of a panic room. If you don't want a cat flap, set a door chain so that the gap in the door is just wide enough for a cat but not for the dog. If you use this system make sure that the door is kept propped or wedged open.

The same goes for a litter tray. It has to be both easily accessible and totally secure so that the cat can do her business even while feeling her most vulnerable. Otherwise she might make her own arrangements - for example she might have noted that the dog canít get under the sofa and shift her toilet arrangements accordingly.

When a cat and dog are really good buddies, they sometimes don't mind if their food bowls are close together, but in general, they should be kept apart. It would help if the cat food were elevated so the dog can't disturb the cat during meals. Apart from anything else, dogs and cats have different dietary requirements, so both should be discouraged from helping themselves to the otherís food. And nothing upsets even the most placid creature than another animal helping itself to 'her' food.

When you leave the house for any length of time, the animals should be physically separated. Flare-ups happen, and you need to be around to referee when they do.

Much emphasis has been put here on the cat's safety, simply because the cat is generally smaller and more vulnerable. (Though there have been cases of cats making the lives of chiwawas a misery.) However a cat is not a defenseless creature. Her claws are a very powerful weapon. An angry or terrified cat can inflict considerable damage, as many a startled dog can testify. To avoid vet's bills all round, conflict avoidance should be the priority of a sensible human.

Finally, however much you try, some dogs and cats will never move past that first hate-hate relationship, and simply will not be able to live together. Once you have accepted that the pair have irreconcilable differences, the usual rule of last in first out should apply.


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