Cats plus dogs equals peace?

NICK BARNETT
Last updated 11:26 16/01/2013

Will your dog like your cat, and vice versa? I don't think you can know in advance for sure, but there are things you can do to help, and there are grounds for a lot of optimism.

Cats and dogs can get on. They're not doomed to lifelong hostility or to fulfilling the cliché about "fighting like cats and dogs". The two species can be touchingly gentle with each other, or amusingly playful, or acceptably tolerant. Check out our photo collections of cat-dog friendship for the endearing proof.

Boo and Gandalf
  Watch the eyes! Pup Gandalf clashes with Boo the cat.
But they're different species, acting on instincts that often are similar but that then can diverge wildly.

How do you bring them together so they'll be peaceful with each other? I'd like to know your thoughts and experiences on that - but here are mine to start things off.

We brought a puppy into a home that previously had a single cat. The pup, Phoebe, had been socialised with a cat and didn't seem exercised by Merrick. Our cat, however, seemed stunned by the tiny interloper, keeping a distance while apparently not seeing it as any rival or as much of an annoyance - Merrick could easily climb out of Phoebe's range, and all feeding routines went unchanged.

As Phoebe grew, things got tenser. The dog began barking at the cat, perhaps once a day. Generally, it was all talk, but a couple of times Merrick got pissed off and batted the puppy away. Phoebe seemed to learn quickly to keep a distance; she'd make sure not to get too close to Merrick on the couch, and only ever looked at him sidelong.

Then we got a second dog, and Connor seemed to have been socialised with cats too, because he showed no surprise or fear on meeting our cat. Over time, he's developed a much closer connection to Merrick than Phoebe ever has: Connor often cuddles up to Merrick to sleep, and both are liable to walk all over each other in pursuit of the best spot on the couch. Connor occasionally prances around the sedate old cat as if to imbue him with more energy, to the point where Merrick will raise an admonishing paw that is usually enough to reinstate his preferred zone of personal space.

Both dogs are fixated on Merrick's bum, and always try to steal a sniff if he passes anywhere near them. I guess it's in the dogs' genes to check out other four-leggers in that way...

A lot of people will tell you that it's the cat who sets and patrols the boundaries between itself and any dogs it shares its home with. I believe that has to do with 1. the cat's innate self-assuredness, and 2. its possession of claws.

Don't underestimate the claw - that's a lesson both for dogs and for you as owner. Many a dog has lost its sight because of a swipe from a cat. We once undertook a late-night trip to the after-hours vet in fear that Merrick's claw had connected with Connor's eye, but it turned out not to have. Still, I've seen the cat's claw gain purchase on Connor's skin and once, yikes, on his ear. Even a slow learner such as Connor has twigged that it's better not to get in swiping range of the cat.

By now, my dogs and cat are in a state of mutual respect and toleration. They don't play together, or groom each other fetchingly as some pairings do. But they can be on the same couch or bed; they can wait together for feeding, without conflict, in the kitchen (though Merrick is always fed first); they can lick treats from the same bowl at the same time. They don't fight. It's a good situation.

Too good a situation to upset by trying to introduce either another cat or another dog, I think. But given our cat's age, the day will probably come when we are down to just the dogs - and it's hard for me to contemplate not having a cat around, so I know I'll at least consider getting another. That would return us to the uncertainty I mention at the start of this blog - you can't bank on two animals necessarily liking each other.

I think I'd look for a cat that's lived with or been socialised with dogs. I'd take advice on whether a kitten or a grown cat would be a better choice (what do you think?). But I wouldn't just chuck the animals together; I'd try to introduce them gradually, safely distant from each other but getting used to each other's scent and having the other around - for example, in a crate, then on a lap, then in the same space under supervision...

We'd have a strong "stop" or "leave it" command for the dogs, to keep them clear of the cat. The cat would get full run of the house, including some spots where it can be clear of any bother from the dogs.

Any other thoughts or tips for someone thinking about introducing a cat to their dog or vice versa?

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