I want to adopt a dog, but how do I know I'm adopting the right dog for my cat?
Dear Sinéad, Siouxsie and Thomas:
I saw you covered this topic in an earlier column, but I need more information.
We are getting an older dog that is slightly afraid of cats (he avoids them).
We have a beautiful male cat named Garr, about six years old. He was with
dogs when he was younger (a kitten), then we got him and we don't have dogs.
He's met the dogs in our neighborhood (he's an indoor/outdoor cat) but they
were jumpy so he didn't like them.
We first wanted to see what the dog would do around Garr and see how Garr liked him, so we brought him to our house for a meeting. Garr ran upstairs as soon as the dog came; when he finally returned, Garr rubbed against the table (he's a LARGE cat big fur ball) and it looked like he was arching his back. The dog growled but didn't attack. Garr got scared again and ran off. If I foster the dog (I was going to foster first because if it didn't work out I wouldn't be forced to keep the dog), would they get used to each other?
We have other pets (four ferrets) and Garr didn't like them when he first came. He's the only male in the house (no human males and two male ferrets but they are in a cage) and the dog is male. Could this be a problem? Should we look at other dogs that are more familiar with cats? Garr knows he is king of the house (we always tell him that) and we do want a dog, but we don't want either of the animals to get hurt.
Sinéad: Well, Ashley, as you mentioned, we did discuss this subject in a column last year. Anyone looking for the basics on how best to introduce a dog into a cat-ruled household can look at this column for some initial steps to take.
Siouxsie: Judging by what you tell us in your letter, it sounds like the first meeting started as these things usually do when a dog is introduced to a cat.
Thomas: Garr disappeared upstairs to a "safe place" as soon as he saw the dog in his house, and then came down to check things out when he was ready. Then he marked his territory (by rubbing against the table). If he did in fact arch his back, this was an effort to make himself look bigger. This arching of the back and turning sideways toward a potential threat is common defensive body language for cats.
Sinéad: If you want to read more about body language, we wrote two columns on the subject last year; one was about the language of aggression and defense, and the other was about the language of tails, ears and whiskers. Understanding feline body language will help you know how Garr is feeling about the new dog in his home.
Siouxsie: But then things got a little weird. The dog then growled, and Garr ran off. Like cats, dogs can use aggressive behavior such as growling or baring their teeth when they are fearful or anxious. Dogs that are "cornered" -- either by being on a leash or by having no escape routes -- in a situation that scares them are much more likely to attack. It's possible that the dog was scared by Garr's defensive aggression, felt he had no place to go, and growled in response.
Thomas: And Garr, having had encounters with dogs before, decided the best choice was to leave as quickly as possible, before making the dog even more upset.
Sinéad: We are quite concerned about the dog's growling. If the dog is so anxious about cats that he growls, there is a chance that he could become anxious enough to actually attack the cat.
Siouxsie: If you do decide to foster this dog, Ashley, you must make sure that you do not leave the dog and the cat together with no supervision, until you are absolutely sure that they are comfortable with each other and that neither one will attack the others.
Thomas: With a dog anxious enough to get into defensive aggression mode, this is particularly important. Most medium-sized and larger dogs can kill a cat before you can even react. This is especially true of dogs that were bred to be ratters, prey chasers and the like, because their breed instinct tells them to chase, catch, and shake their prey till it stops moving.
Sinéad: Just about any dog, no matter what the breed (or breed mix) can be trained to be gentle with cats, but this training is best undertaken during a dog's critical socialization period. This period is between the ages of 2 and 12 weeks. Puppies between these ages should be exposed to as many people, animals and social situations as possible so that they will not become scared by, say, cats or small children and react aggressively.
Siouxsie: We know there's an old saying that goes, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." We don't believe this is entirely true, because we have seen older dogs learn new behaviors and skills. But you will need to be very careful during the fostering period to make sure that the dog will do OK with the cat ... and the ferrets.
Thomas: No matter how much you may want this particular dog, you must always consider your present animal companions' needs and desires first. Your first commitment was to Garr and to the ferrets, and if the dog doesn't get along well with any of them, the dog is going to have to go.
Sinéad: As for your other questions, we don't think gender is an issue here. If you were dealing with other cats, it certainly would be an issue. Two unfamiliar cats of the same gender will be much more likely to fight than mixed-gender pair, and males are more likely to fight than females -- particularly if one or both of the cats in question is not neutered.
Siouxsie: We're not surprised that Garr showed some aggression toward the ferrets when he first arrived in your home. It's very common for cats to be hissy and growly for the first couple of weeks in a new home until they settle in and get their territorial disputes resolved.
Thomas: We do recommend that if you want to adopt a dog, you look for one that is more familiar with cats. Most reputable dog breeders socialize their puppies with people, other animals and humans, and teach them about as many different social situations as possible. And if you adopt from a shelter, often the dogs there will have been behavior-tested to see how well they deal with other dogs, children, loud noises, and cats.
Sinéad: We are concerned that the dog you want to adopt growled at Garr. We've seen a lot of dog-cat introductions -- and even had a few dogs introduced to us in our time -- and even though the cats have done a lot of growling, hissing and swatting, we've never seen a dog growl back or display aggressive behavior.
Siouxsie: Just to be on the safe side, we do think you'd be best off to adopt a dog that is proven to get along well with cats.
Thomas: Good luck, Ashley. We hope this helps!
Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. None of the material in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.