Socialising cats and dogs – avoiding conflict
Many passionate animal lovers enjoy keeping both cats and dogs in the home. However, life between these two species doesn’t always run as smoothly as some owners would imagine. Unwanted behaviour can develop when pets have formed separate boundaries to territory and aggression or retreat is the options when a ‘fight-flight’, [adrenaline-response] is triggered.
The conflict scenario is most common when an adopted dog is first introduced into a household that already has existing cats or when a cat is brought into a previous dog-only household.
Some conflict issues dealt with through my clinic have coincided with when people move into a home together.
There can be unwanted behaviours between dogs and cats that have been brought up together, including occasional and unexpected spats that are seemingly unexplainable for some owners. When dogs and cats are apprehensive they will display a mutual distrust during initial encounters and it is not uncommon for rehomed dogs to present an aggressive response, fearful or challenging, towards a cat that has already been established in a home by growling. Cats can growl as a warning although they mostly hiss and spit during conflicts or when they are defending territory.
There can also have been a prior ‘learned chase-response’ in a dog that may have had a previous owner that encouraged aggressive chasing-behaviour in order to deter cats from wandering onto their property. There are dog breeds (including terriers and herding dogs) that will naturally chase cats, since this stimulates instinctive canine predator-prey responses.
Significant changes in homes and territory cannot be ‘explained’ to cats and dogs, and in these circumstances any confused boundaries and alliances with owners can result in confrontational aggression between cats and dogs, or simply withdrawal by cats (even to the extent of them leaving).
Alternatively, some puppies and kittens that are brought up together, and managed appropriately and sensibly, will coexist without conflict. Achieving this ideal means correctly training the dog to respond to instructions and directions, and not to put either dog or cat in situations where disagreement or possessive behaviour is likely to occur. This is often toys or food bowls in areas that both inhabit – especially when owners are not around to supervise.
It’s important to accept that, under fur and cute demeanours, companion pets ARE animals and, genetically, one step away from nature.
Allowing kittens or puppies to pester older counterparts may also result in friction, so be mindful that just because an owner wants them to get along and play together doesn’t mean they always will. Competition triggered through attention from the owner given to one or the other pet can also result in friction between cats and dogs.
We advise owners to offer consistency as regards social hierarchy when giving pets attention. For safety, dogs should be already trained to instructions this can be achieved with clicker and Training discs associated with when the owner interacts with them. Any retraining procedure is likely to work successfully and quickly if it is already introduced and established.
It’s important to accept that animals have all their natural instincts and behaviours either innate (genetic/inherited) or learned – which should be understood in order to manage them safely and appropriately.
If a cat is being introduced to a dog that is known to be generally friendly towards cats, I advise the owner to play a distraction strategy in the initial socialising sessions. This usually involves toy-retrieval or food-searching reward games with the dog controlled on a lead while the cat is allowed to explore in the same room. This usually results in the dog learning that it’s rewarding to ignore the cat.
However, if the dog is known to already present aggression or hyperactivity towards cats, it is important to employ a muzzle [for safety] combined with a Tether system (a training lead attached to a sturdy wall-mounted bracket or to a heavy and immovable object such as a table leg).
Use these aids [avoidance] while distracting a dog as described above within the limits of his tether, should be used as a precaution, so that a dog cannot chase and bite at the cat.
A dog that is displaying positive behaviour towards a cat should be immediately signalled with the clicker and rewarded with special food-treats.
It is rarely practical to keep a dog and a kitten or cat separated in the same home. While they are unsocialised – before any initial contact – avoidance is necessary to prevent conflict.
However, there has to come a time when they will be in close proximity and meet and this comes with potential for fearful or aggression responses. Issues can be countered through controlled-socialisation with the use of food rewards for acceptable response behaviour.
Socialisation periods should be undertaken on a regular basis – every few hours if possible – over a settling period of about four to six weeks. If a dog presents an aggressive response towards the cat, attract its attention (squeaky toy or whistle) and then immediately lead-walk the dog away to separate them.
When a dog is aggressive towards a new cat it is important not to react with any sort of emotional attention as this can make the event, albeit unintentionally on your part, more exciting, thereby rewarding thus reinforcing the dog’s behaviour.
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Case study 1
In a case referred to me by a vet, a rehomed, neutered, Japanese Akita bitch aged four was showing predatory behaviour (mouthing, holding and biting), including two instances of attacks on cats within the household. The first attack took place two months after the dog was rehomed, and the second a month into the retraining programme I’d suggested to the client. Both incidents resulted in the cats needing urgent veterinary attention and surgery. During my initial home visit after referral, it became obvious that the five cats were choosing to live upstairs while the Japanese Akita was being confined to a downstairs room.
A tailored behaviour modification programme required the owner to introduce and condition her dog to a clicker and whistle (linked to reward) and training discs (linked to the removal of reward) communication system (each to be introduced in a sequence).
Controlled owner interaction, structured walks and play sessions formed part of the programme. The introduction of the tether strategy and dog gates was also recommended to offer the cats freedom to more safely roam around the house.
A month into the three-month programme a second cat was attacked and sustained extensive injuries, necessitating a week’s stay at the veterinary clinic for treatment. This attack occurred even though a tether-system was in place. The cat, perhaps encouraged by the controlled movement of the Japanese Akita during a desensitisation period, walked past and the dog grabbed it. The client was preoccupied on a telephone at the time but insists that in observation there was no prior indication that the dog would attack.
The client has since agreed to muzzle the dog when in the home to ensure the cats can avoid injury. This short-term, practical, solution is to be used in the hope that the dog will, in time, become less stimulated by the presence of the cats. The case is on-going, although there is a possibility that the eventual rehoming of the dog to a cat-free household is required
In my experience, once an attack has been presented by a dog towards any animal an instinctive prey-drive, together with any general breed trait, is stimulated, and the chances of a successful behaviour modification programme designed to counter aggression is generally poor. However, some clients are extremely determined – and have the facility – to succeed in changing unwanted behaviour rather than have the dog rehomed or euthanised.
When prey-drive involves chasing livestock, where an immediate solution is required, remote-controlled, citronella spray, collars can be successful in interrupting the response. This is because there can be some prediction of when chase-behaviour is likely to be presented, such as on rural walks, in a situation where owners can be prepared in advance to use interruption methods.
However, when innate prey-drive trigger is unpredictable (such as in the case of a Japanese Akita), it is much more difficult to anticipate the onset of aggression unless owners are prepared to be in a constant state of readiness to act and prevent aggression.
Case study 2
A rehomed Jack Russell Terrier bitch was targeting cats encountered around its home area when being walked on lead.
The owners reported that, on occasions, they were often unaware of a cat being close by until the dog lunged into a hedgerow or pulled at a wall and aggression commenced. In some instances, the dog exhibited continuous vocalisation, including sustained high-pitched yelps and barks.
The owners were keen to be able to counter this unwanted behaviour, not least because it caused them considerable embarrassment during walks.
The Jack Russell was put through a rigid programme which again included using dog gates and tethering in the home in order to create boundaries. Alongside training and controlling factors, the dog was denied window access during daylight hours, to prevent target barking and help to reduce her overall hyperactive behaviour.
This particular Jack Russell was highly food-orientated, so proved biddable to retraining. She responded positively to treats associated with the clicker system from an early stage, but was less receptive to ‘non-reward’ training discs in outdoor situations.
This prognosis is found in most dogs, however, when they are exposed to this method and this opposite sound-signal to the clicker can be an option to change unwanted behaviour in cases.
In one of several one-to-one sessions, the owners approached a cat that was sunning itself opposite their home. In a slow process, which required much patience on their behalf, the dog was kept on a lead within a metre of the cat for a 10-minute period.
The dog commenced some unwanted vocalisation in the first few minutes but eventually this reduced to an acceptable level and ceased altogether after five minutes. The cat, in this instance, did not react or display any fearful behaviour towards the Jack Russell.
Three months into the programme, the Jack Russell’s usual aggressive reaction to cats and previous acute vocalisation behaviour had reduced to low-level interest and, therefore interruptible before hyperactivity could begin.
The drip-feeding of food treats acted as a mind-set change in the form of distraction. Because the dog was responsive to treats (rewards) the system was successful.
Case study 3
A Chow Chow, neutered bitch
British short-hair, entire Tom [kitten aged 5 months]
The Chow Chow bitch, previously socialised with an adult cat in the home, had immediately targeted a kitten introduced into the home following the loss of that cat. The owners had resorted to crating the kitten to allow the dog visual contact.
The owners reported that, following unexpected behaviour from the Chow Chow (the dog was presenting a hyperactive and potentially aggressive reaction) was alarming the new kitten.
They were keen to be able to counter this unwanted behaviour and hoped that a behaviour programme would successfully lead to socialising the two companion pets.
The Chow Chow was initially put through a clicker and reward-whistle programme to be untilised for a period of training through positive reinforcement of calm behaviour.
The owners were instructed to introduce a Gripper Lead (® Dogmatic) to develop a Tether-system in the home in order to create restraint. This offered controlled-safety (without their physical interaction) and appeasement to reduce apprehension from the owners being transmitted to the dog.
Alongside training and controlling factors, the dog [controlled] and kitten [free to explore] were to be fed in close proximity to each other.
The Chow Chow was to be offer nutritious, lasting-chews (previously associated with the clicker system) to create calm episodes when the kitten was in close proximity. Scenario sessions were to be introduced in the evening quiet within two weeks of my home-visit session.
Only weeks into the programme, the Chow Chow changed its interaction from hyperactivity to calm interest and socialisation began to develop.
The chews [tripe sticks] acted as a mind-set change in the form of distraction. Because the dog was responsive to treats (rewards) the system was successful.
- In desensitising methods, the dog should be first contained in a covered crate or indoor kennel in the room where the controlled introduction can be made. Cats should not be in the room at that time.
- Place a number of different treats (on saucers or in small containers) around the room.
- Introduce one or more new scratching posts and spray these with catnip.
- Then allow the cats to enter and explore the room in their own time. If they use a scratching post and take food it is a significant point of progress.
- Following this initial period of exposure, where some cats will investigate the sides and top of the crate, lead the dog from the crate out of the room and into another part of the home.
- If there has been little aggression in a 15-minute period of exposure, return with the dog after 15 minutes and repeat the process. Introduce the Tether system.
- If there has been much spitting and snarling give the cats an extended period to calm down.
- To reduce the triggers for problem behaviours, don’t give attention to and avoid eye contact with the cat and dog.
- Eventually, providing the initial introduction was problem-free, replace the crate with the tether system (as described earlier) where closer contact can be made.
- In the last step, a member of the family should reward (clicker-treating can be used here if desired) the dog for desired, calm behaviour in ignoring the cat while controlled contact outside of a crate is undertaken.
In escalating situations, cat-chasing behaviour in dogs may be reduced with the use of remote-controlled spray-collars that are based on aversion principles. This can prevent unwanted injuries to both parties. However, it is essential that you consult a trainer as to these collars’ appropriate and timely use (which is critical to their effectiveness) and to show you how to use one correctly.
Dr David Sands
Fellow of the CFBA, Canine and Feline Behaviourist