Kris Hill from the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) talks about how cats and dogs can live happily together in the same household.
Cats or Dogs or Both?
Some people identify as ‘dog people’ and others as ‘cat people’ but no one says you must choose!
Humans are social animals who suffer mentally and physically from social isolation. Companion animals can help alleviate loneliness and facilitate social interactions with other people. Dogs are also highly social and were domesticated from wolves who had already evolved complex social signals to facilitate group living. However, the ancestors of domestic cats were solitary animals, and sociability is a recently evolved feline trait. Thus, the social repertoire of cats may not be complete. This is something both humans and dogs may overlook in their over-eagerness to become ‘best buddies’ with a shy or anxious cat.
Cats are not dogs and not all cats are the same.
Cats are not socially obligate, meaning as a species they don’t need social interactions. However, this does not mean they are asocial. Nor does it mean that all cats would prefer to be solitary (although some might). It all depends on a combination of individual cat personality and how they were raised. Many cats can and do get along with and bond with dogs. The key to a happy cat, happy cats, or harmonious cat and dog households is understanding the individuals and their needs.
Adding to your furry family
The decision to bring home a new furry family member should always be carefully considered, and attention paid to how this might impact current family members (including the human, feline, and canine). For example, it could cause unnecessary distress to an elderly cat if a new kitten or puppy is bought into the home. This is especially so if the cat has never been socialised to other species, but also an aged cat may not feel as confident or secure when their joints are stiffer.
Animal shelters will typically try to determine which cats and dogs are socialised to other cats or dogs and identify who might be terrified or aggressive towards other species. This will help them match potential adopters with suitable animals, because while cats and dogs can live together in perfect harmony this ideal scenario cannot be taken for granted.
Even if both the cat and dog are used to living with other cats or dogs, introductions should be properly planned to reduce stress for everyone involved. The Blue Cross offers some guidance on introducing a new cat to your resident dog or vice versa.
If you have a kitten if is advisable to ensure they are fully socialised to a variety of people, pets, and circumstances. This is especially so if you believe you may get a dog at some point in the future. See here for some tips on socialising kittens and giving them the best start in life.
Puppies who have been socialised to cats will also be less likely to be afraid of, or aggressive towards cats. There are some dog breeds who tend to get along better with cats (although there are no hard and fast rules).
Dogs may seek social contact more often and may not understand that their new cat ‘friend’ may want to be left alone. This can distress the cat and may result in the dog getting bitten or scratched. It is important to pay attention to the needs of both species and individuals. Dogs can be taught to respect feline spaces and their need for play provided by other means. For example, playing with the dog more will discourage them from bothering a cat who wants to be left alone.
Chasing is an instinct for dogs. This is a behaviour to prevent from ever occurring with your cat (or any cat!) because the dog might learn it is fun (and it is not fun for the cat).
Dealing with discord: What if cats and dogs are not getting along?
Much as you want to believe that all your companions are happy, it is important not to ignore signs of distress. Cats are especially good at hiding pain or discomfort. Dogs too can feel threatened by cats, even when the cat is physically smaller. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to subtle changes in the individuals’ behaviour or health issues that may be a sign of emotional distress. Understanding feline emotional states may not be as intuitive as understanding human or canine emotions and subtle cues or signs of anxiety can be overlooked in cats.
In a recent SCAS Webinar entitled ‘Dealing with inter-cat tension in multi-cat households’ Dr. Sarah Heath discussed issues that can arise within multi-cat households (past webinar recordings can be purchased for a small fee by contacting SCAS). Aggression, spraying, and soiling outside of the litter tray are feline behaviours most often reported in the clinical context. These types of behaviours tend to be the less tolerated form of social tension because of how they impact the caregivers. However, research suggests that many more cats may be in a state of chronic stress. Social tension and anxiety can lead to avoidance behaviours (hiding) and/or frustration, which may present as aggression. Many of the same principles regarding optimisation of the feline environments could be applied to cats living with other species.
If in doubt, seek professional help!
Cats and dogs do not need to be best friends to live in harmony. However, everyone deserves to feel safe and secure and not constantly to be in a state of anxiety!
In multi-cat households, a lack of conflict is not necessarily a sign of friendship. And while they might be tolerating each other, there could be underlying tension causing anxiety in one or more cats. A sign that cats are bonded (friends) is two-way affiliative behaviours such as allogrooming (grooming each other). In her recent SCAS Webinar, Dr Sarah Heath explains that the goal of reducing stress is not to force inter-feline friendships, but rather to enable cats to feel secure and tolerant of each other (past webinar recordings can be purchased for a small fee by contacting SCAS).
Your vet should be able to check for underlying physical causes to behavioural concerns (or vice versa) and may recommend a behavioural specialist to help identify and resolve the underlying issue. In the UK, the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors or the Animal Behaviour and Training Council will help you to find a reputable behaviourist.
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SCAS is the UK’s leading human-companion animal bond organisation through funding research, providing education, raising awareness, encouraging best practice, and influencing the development of policies and practices that support the human-companion animal bond. For more details check out our website at www.scas.org.uk
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SCAS was established in 1979 to promote the study of human-companion animal interactions and raise awareness of the importance of pets in society.
Over the past forty years SCAS has established itself as the UK authority in Human-Companion Animal Bond Studies, funding research, providing education, raising awareness, encouraging best practice, and influencing the development of policies and practices that support the human-companion animal bond.
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