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Forever friends

Forever friends?

Will your pets fight like cats and dogs or become buddies for life? Kim Sullivan has some great advice for helping multi-pet households get along nicely.

Sharing a home always requires a few house rules and a good dose of tolerance on all sides. To a certain degree, these things can be taught, but when it comes to pets it’s worth thinking carefully about the breed, personality and sex of the animals that will be living together.

If you want to introduce a new dog to your cat, for example, it’s best to avoid breeds that were originally bred to chase small, furry creatures (such as Terriers and Greyhounds)! Traditionally child-friendly breeds such as Labradors or Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are a better bet. Like us, some pets will naturally be more sociable than others, or may simply take a like or dislike to each other – if your cat has always been a bit stand-offish, chances are he won’t warm up to a new housemate. Coming from the same litter can help with acceptance, especially in cats, but it’s not a guarantee. Same-sex dogs from the same litter are generally less likely to get on as they grow up, especially bitches, while a (neutered) bitch and a dog can be a good pair – each pet and circumstance is different.

  Young and keen

Age also plays an important part. There’s an early, sensitive period of development when socialisation occurs – from two to seven weeks old in cats, and from four to around 14 weeks in dogs, depending on the breed. ‘The younger you introduce pets the better. If they can grow up together at this key stage it helps them to feel equal and accept each other as members of the same family,’ says Emily Blackwell, animal behaviourist from Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences.

A good breeder should be socialising their animals to lots of things from a very young age, including letting them see other animals from a distance and rewarding them for a calm response. But young animals should find adapting to new experiences – including gradual introductions to other dogs and cats in the house – fairly easy up until around 12 months old.

  Meet and greet

The first introduction of pets is key, and needs to be a positive experience. ‘If a poor relationship is established and one or both animals feels threatened, it can be difficult to change,’ says Emily. That means taking things slowly. If possible, allow your pets to become accustomed to each other’s scent before meeting – stroke them and let them smell your hands, or leave a blanket from the other’s bedding for them to sniff. Supervise the introduction and keep interactions short at first, holding the animals at a distance so they both feel safe, and making sure the focus is on you, rather than the other pet, by using treats and games.

Establishing clear boundaries from the outset will help reduce stress and promote friendship. If one pet is visibly bothering the other, or if playtime becomes too rough, gently separate them. Positive reinforcement will encourage your pets to associate each other’s presence with good things, so use lots of treats and praise when they’re together and getting along well – and continue this practice throughout their relationship.

  Companions, not competitors

For a happy life together, ‘All pets need to feel confident that their basic needs are being met, even if they’re living alongside an animal with different instincts and requirements,’ explains Emily. Ensuring that your pets have their own space and food will reduce the urge to fight for resources. As a species that is both predator and prey, cats particularly need their own territory, and access to their own feeding area and bowl, litter tray and sleeping area. They also need places within the home to jump up and escape to, allowing them a choice as to if and when they socialise.

Dogs will tend to compete for attention, so you need to be fair and firm. ‘If there’s an unruly race to greet you when you come in, try not to heighten their excitement, and wait until they calm down before giving them attention,’ advises Sarah Millsopp, a lecturer in animal behaviour at the University of Chester. ‘You’ll need to work at keeping a dual- or multi-dog household happy – it’s an on going relationship,’ she continues. ‘Each dog needs some time away from the others for part of the day to play, train and bond with their owner. This helps increase the confidence of each dog and prevents them from becoming over-dependent on each other.’

  Watching and responding

Dogs are social animals that most enjoy the company of other dogs, and can also bond with cats if they find their company a positive experience. However, you need to remain alert to any signs of distress, aggression or avoidance, and adjust your training and resources accordingly. A qualified behaviourist can objectively assess the situation and provide advice to help smooth out any niggles.

Cats are naturally solitary, although this isn’t to say they can’t get on. Joy Davidson’s cats, Monty and Floyd, are best buds, and have been for a while: ‘We adopted Monty and Floyd from Cats Protection four years ago. They were re-homed as a pair due to their strong bond with each other and are still great pals,’ Joy wrote on the PetplanUK Facebook page.

Caroline Reay, chief vet at the Blue Cross animal hospital in Merton, recommends keeping an eye on body language: ‘If your pets are staring at each other, or your cat is skirting round the room or spending a lot of time away from other pets, then they are not happy and you need to investigate the problem. On the other hand, sleeping together or grooming each other is a sign of acceptance and affection.’

  Losing a friend

When animals have bonded well, they can miss or even mourn each other when a pal dies. Getting a replacement buddy is a possibility, but Sarah Millsopp advises considering all options before you do: ‘After any long relationship, it takes time to build another, and you may be better off replacing the company of their absent friend with other activities in the short term,’ she says. But if you do decide on a new companion, remember to set clear boundaries and use positive reinforcement to ease the transition. Petplan customer Clare Dawson shares her experience of pet grief: ‘Our King Charles Spaniel, Freddie, would follow our Westie, Poppy, everywhere. When she died, Freddie initially seemed confused, and then became quiet and withdrawn. After a few months we decided that he might welcome another companion, so we got Nellie, also a King Charles Spaniel. At first he was a bit taken aback by the antics of a crazy young pup, but we helped Nellie to understand what was and wasn’t acceptable (like jumping on Freddie in the garden, but not when he was trying to eat). Now they’re inseparable. It’s been wonderful to see Freddie make a new friend.’

  Perfect partners for your bunny

As prey animals, rabbits naturally live in large groups and need company to feel safe, so they should always be kept in pairs. It can be love at first sight if bunnies are introduced under 12 weeks, or meet frequently over a very short time. A pair that have bonded well and have enough space will play together and groom each other. They need to be neutered, though, to avoid fighting between same sex pairs or unwanted litters between bucks and does.

When it comes to other pets and your bunnies, rabbits and guinea pigs are very sociable creatures, but shouldn’t be kept together as their diets are different and can cause harm to each other. Sarah adds: ‘Other pets, such as cats and dogs, may see rabbits as potential prey, so you need careful management for them to get along. Your rabbits may never feel safe around other species, though. Company of their own kind plus gentle interaction with humans in a safe environment is usually best for them.’