How to help your pets get along

Contrary to popular belief, cats and dogs can get along, but cats and cats? That could be a different story! We find out how you can safely introduce new pets to your home and how to help them live in harmony.

You've probably heard the phrase ‘Fight like cats and dogs', but most pet owners will tell you that this is not completely true. Yes, cats and dogs are opposites by nature – cats being independent adventurers, while dogs are better known for being friendly companions, but their differences don't make them natural enemies.

Believe it or not, your pets can, and probably will, get along. So what do you need to consider before introducing a new pet?

With cross-species cohabitation, the cat's welfare is paramount – after all, there are no recorded instances of cats killing dogs. What’s more, cats are sensitive and more easily put out by changes to domestic arrangements than dogs.

What to consider with cats and dogs

First of all, consider whether a new pet is a good idea at all. An adult cat or dog that hasn't ever socialised with another species may never learn to make friends. Are you prepared to rehome the newcomer if things don't work out?

When you adopt from a rehoming centre, some dogs are described as not suitable for homing with cats. This isn't because they are dangerous, but when you don't know a dog's full history, you can't guarantee how it will react to a cat. Many animal rehoming charities now 'cat test' dogs by introducing them to a moggy in a supervised environment. Dogs that become overexcitable are unlikely to make the best companions for families with cats.

It's hard to override basic instincts in dogs, so breeds with a strong urge to chase – such as terriers or sighthounds – are generally less suited to sharing a home with a cat. Each dog is an individual, however. An honest assessment of your dog's character is required before you bring any cat home.

If you've decided to attempt cross-species cohabitation, upon the initial introduction, the dog is likely to be excitable and the cat cheesed off. But, it can be a success in the long term.

Introducing a cat to a dog

Try introducing them in a neutral space. This will help to reduce any territorial feelings and if tension begins to arise, be sure to intervene before it escalates, since a bad first interaction may be hard to rectify.

During the introductory stage, a toddler safety gate is useful for keeping your pets separate. If you should leave your pets home alone, ensure they are left in separate rooms. If you are introducing your pets at an infant stage, take extra precaution by using a crate.

Scent swapping is key when introducing a new pet into your home. For many pets, particularly dogs and cats, their sense of smell is essential for navigating their environment.

Before pets meet, try introducing both pets to each other's smell by swapping their bedding and toys.

Introducing a new cat to an existing cat requires as much caution as bringing in a dog – an adult cat is not likely to welcome a fellow feline. This is as nature intended: all species of wild cat, except the lion but including the ancestors of our own domestic moggy, are solitary creatures. They are also territorial and prize personal space above companionship.

Faced with an intruder, cats can become nervous or aggressive and may spray the house to define their territory. Cats are not naturally social creatures and most will function happily on their own, so don't expect instant harmony.

Neutering is the first essential step – as well as the obvious advantage of preventing unwanted litters, it will help your cat to better socialise with other felines, according to Cats Protection. As with dog-cat friendships, feline harmony is possible so long as you take steps to reduce competition for food and, crucially, space. Consideration and care make for contented cats.

Dogs, by contrast, are highly sociable and love company. 'Being in a stable social group helps reduce anxiety, fear and gives a general feeling of security,' says Dogs Trust training and behaviour adviser Victoria Horsley. But you do need to take into account the individual temperaments, the dogs' previous experiences and how you deal with dogs.

'In general, the best canine pairings are where the dogs are as different as possible,' says Carolyn Menteith, a dog behaviourist and author of Dog Manual. It works because different types of dog don't compete for the same things.

'If you have a wired, obsessive dog, get a breed that is known for being more laid-back,' she advises.

Siblings can be a bad idea, as they'll be such firm friends that they'll be less likely to form a bond with their owner, making them difficult to train and manage. Same-sex dogs are also more likely to squabble than opposite-sex pairings.

Every dog is different, however, and common sense is invaluable when getting more than one. Are you going to carry one of them home from the park because it can't handle as much exercise as the other? Most importantly, think about whether you have the time and space to accommodate the needs of both dogs.

Rabbits and guinea pigs also like company and are ill-suited to solitary confinement. When introducing a rabbit to another rabbit, or a guinea pig to another guinea pig, start by putting them each in their own run or cage, within view of the other. Then allow them to become used to each other’s presence for a few weeks before you formally introduce them face-to-face. Ensure that both animals are neutered before the formal introduction takes place, to minimise the risk of fighting.

Because of their sociable dispositions, some pet owners allow rabbits and guinea pigs to share a hutch, but it's not always a good idea to house different species together – even if they are introduced slowly and carefully, in the way outlined above. 'There's a lot of debate among vets about this,' says Elaine Pendlebury, senior veterinary surgeon at the PDSA. 'I would always err on the side of caution.'

To start with, rabbits and guinea pigs have different dietary requirements. Guinea pigs are unable to make their own vitamin C, and if a rabbit companion eats more than its fair share of fruit and vegetables, the guinea pig will lose vital nutrients.

Also, these two creatures originate from different continents and would never meet naturally in the wild. What’s more, they can't communicate, which can cause confusion and conflict. And rabbits can seriously injure guinea pigs. Peaceable though they are, rabbits have very powerful back legs.

Create a pleasant environment

As a pet owner, it is your responsibility to set the tone for your house and how your pets should behave. Your pets should have their own space, especially if there is a mixture of animals under one roof. Try creating separate areas for each pet in different rooms.

Prevent quarrels

Try to prevent conflict between your animals by having separate places for their food, water and toys. Food is one of the main causes of conflict between animals. Try to enforce scheduled eating times and place their food in separate areas of the house. When tensions arise, always intervene immediately, diffuse the altercation and try to make each pet feel relaxed. If you see no improvement in their communication, speak to your local vet, since continuous negative interactions are not healthy for either the pets or their owner.

Reward good behaviour

Positive reinforcement involves giving incentives for good behaviour, to encourage similar behaviour in the future. Positive reinforcement can be used for pets that are responsive to training e.g. dogs, cats and rabbits. This method is great when introducing pets or changing undesirable behaviour. For example, try rewarding your pets for friendly interactions or even for no interaction at all.

Let it come naturally

Ultimately, do not force the relationship between your pets, let it build naturally. Forcing your pets to spend time together may not have the result you hoped for and it's not the safest option. They should gradually form a bond that will continue to grow over time.

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