Are your dog and cat sweet on each other?
In the build-up to Valentine's Day last week, it occurred to me how the most unlikely animals can become lifelong buddies, while other dogs and cats strike up an immediate and everlasting intolerance.
"Mealtime is a real challenge for us," says Julie McCloskey of Wesley Chapel. Her dogs, Daisy and Brooklyn, always finish eating first and then work as a team to clear the cats' plates. "They usually go after Boo, the elderly cat, and dance around her plate until she's intimidated to the point of abandoning what's left over."
Despite their inherent differences, cats and dogs don't have to live antagonistically. It's understandable, though, how that happens. Imagine if you had a blind date show up to your home and announce they were going to live with you forever. That might be akin to what a dog or cat feels when a strange new species arrives on their turf.
"We have jealousy issues, too," McCloskey says. "The dogs don't like when we pet or hold the cats. They find it unacceptable."
Sounds like Daisy and Brooklyn could use some relationship ground rules.
If you're planning to add a dog to your cat-only household, or vice versa, seek advice from your family veterinarian about introduction tools or perhaps a referral to a trainer. Experts can offer strategies for preventing or minimizing potential problems through careful first encounters.
However, if you missed the golden opportunity and your pets are already waging a dog-cat sibling rivalry, what are you to do? Veterinarian Stu Rosenberg at Bayshore Animal Clinic in Tampa offers some taming advice.
"Remember that canines and felines are scent-oriented, especially cats."
Strange new scents on what used to be their turf can cause a multitude of instinctive reactions that you find unacceptable. Those behaviors might include inappropriate elimination, spraying, chasing, taunting, even aggression.
If you're dealing with a dog that thinks kitty is prey, you'll have to intervene using pack mentality.
"This dog is exhibiting a predator-to-prey relationship. Teach the dog that anytime he looks at the cat, it's not good," Rosenberg says. "In pack mentality, you are alpha dog and you do not tolerate the dog chasing that animal. Explain to the dog in dog language that any time they do that, they'll get corrected."
If you need brushing up on your alpha-dog or top-cat communication skills, talk to your veterinarian or a trainer.
"I like trainers that come to your house," Rosenberg says. "Evaluating and training you and your pet at home can be more effective."
And despite what cats would have you believe, Rosenberg says they're trainable, "It just depends on how motivated you and the cat are to learn."
If serious fear or aggression issues exist between pets, a consultation or evaluation by a certified veterinary behaviorist may be in order.
Rosenberg also suggests a good look at yourself when it comes to evaluating the source of your pets' anxiety. When you anticipate an altercation, do you tense up or react outwardly? Do you laugh or scream to prevent, in reaction to, comical or bad behavior?
"If you freak out, you're telling your pet to freak out," Rosenberg says. "It's a lot like a 2-year-old falling down at the park. Don't make a big deal out of it or overreact."
If proper introductions, good alpha communication and a sense of calm don't keep your dog and cat from cartoonlike sabotage of one another, consider your pet's diet.
"Nutrition can be very important when it comes to behavior," Rosenberg says. "A high-energy dog eating a high-carbohydrate diet might be a misbehaving dog. Not unlike the result of feeding a child cotton candy every day."
Rosenberg suggests pet owners read the first six ingredients on their pet food bag or can and decide whether that is a food they want to feed their pet.
"Feed your pet the highest quality food you can afford," he suggests. "Bottom line for people or pets is eat healthy, feel better."
Now, go chew on that.