by Beth McEwen
Many households successfully combine multiple-pets — dogs and dogs, cats and dogs, birds and dogs, rabbits and dogs. This peaceful coexistence doesn’t always come easy, especially when it involves different species that communicate in contrasting ways. Sparks (and fur) can fly during the transition period. Even multiple dogs may not always get along. The dogs’ breeds, physical characteristics, ages, health status, temperaments and backgrounds can all affect their relationship.
Whether adding another pet by choice or by life circumstances (like blending households), there are steps you can take to establish positive relationships between your pets from the outset. Be prepared to take things slow and orchestrate introductions carefully. Here are several tips to bear in mind when fostering a healthy bond between your furry friends.
Consider the Players
When deciding whether or not to add another animal to your household, consider the species and personality of your pets. Dogs are natural pack animals. Cats, not so much. Birds of a feather flock together, but don’t necessarily view other furry critters as part of their flock. Small animals, like bunnies, chinchillas, guinea pigs and hamsters, are natural prey animals, while dogs and cats are natural predators. While some interspecies relationships may grow to be strong, there are far more that end up requiring constant supervision and management to keep the peace. For instance, a beagle may be tortured by the addition of a pet rabbit into the home. Even in same-species homes, personality is a major factor in the successful addition of another pet; a senior Chihuahua may not appreciate a bounding adolescent Labrador pup! Be thoughtful in your planning when making the decision about adding a pet and consider the safety and comfort of all animals involved.
“The biggest influence we have on the success of a multi-pet household is in creating an environment that allows for our pets to feel secure.”
Create a Safe Space
The biggest influence we have on the success of a multi-pet household is in creating an environment that allows for our pets to feel secure. Crates or kennels mimic the feeling of a dog’s den, and allow for safe management of multi-dog households. Cats seek elevated spaces for security, so plan on a cat “tree” or make arrangements for a cat-friendly area off the floor. Birds should have a sturdy and secure cage of an appropriate size. Small mammals will also benefit from an appropriately-sized secure home. Reptiles and amphibians require very carefully managed and maintained environments for their health and well-being. Once an appropriate safe space is created for each pet, you can begin to look for ways to introduce the pets to each other.
Few and far between are the animal relationships that are “love at first sight.” Frequently, cohabitating animals learn over time to tolerate — and even enjoy — each other. As natural pack animals, dogs are typically the quickest to adjust, but not as quick as you might think! It can take anywhere from two weeks to two months for a dog to grow accustomed to a new home, and that is without the added stress of another dog in the dwelling. Bringing a new pet into an established household is stressful for all animals (and people) involved, so expect progress to be slow. For dogs, an introduction in a neutral environment, like a local park, is a good first interaction. Once at home, start your pooches outside with a potty break before moving indoors. Relationships take time. Pushing our pets too quickly may result in a bad experience that taints their entire relationship, so go slow. Young animals that are not yet set in their ways may adjust more quickly than older ones, so even if the new pup thinks the old dog is his best friend, the older canine may have a different opinion. Baby steps built on successful interactions are your best bet for building a positive relationship. Keep interactions short and sweet, and always supervise new pets together.
Everyone Gets a Turn
Pets of any variety will benefit from one-on-one time with their owners. While we may be worried about our fuzzy buddies liking each other, ideally a well-bonded pet will look to you for information about how to react to other animals in the home. Plan to spend time with each pet individually. Take Fido for a walk, cuddle with Miss Kitty, put other pets away while Mr. Bunny has some free time, and use those times to gauge your pet’s emotional and physical health. Watch for signs of anxiety or depression, such as changes in eating or bathroom habits, and discuss concerns with your veterinarian or animal behaviorist.
Keep It Positive
During supervised interactions, observe responses to encourage. A grumpy old cat may growl and swat at a new puppy, and we certainly do want our pets to feel comfortable expressing themselves when appropriate. Rather than punish the cat for setting boundaries for the pup, instead look for opportunities to reinforce the pup for respecting the old cat (for instance, when you see he wants to pounce on the cat, but decides to walk away instead). We humans are responsible for maintaining reasonable behavior on the part of both animals, but avoid the impulse to micromanage interactions. Animals can and will figure out how to communicate with each other, and are generally reasonable in their attempts to do so. You may have to intervene if you notice that one pet isn’t respecting the other’s reasonable attempts to set boundaries (the puppy ignores the cat’s warnings and continues to pester him), or if a pet’s boundaries become unreasonable (the established dog decides the entire bedroom, rather than just his crate, is his space). If you are unable to find good behavior to reinforce during interactions, that is an indicator it’s time to give each pet their space again. That may mean sending each pet back to their safe space, or simply putting the spunky puppy on a leash and keeping him with you to allow the old dog or kitty cat to move about more freely. Limit initial interaction time, and try to end on a positive note.
Introducing multiple animals into a household requires patience and a watchful eye. Having a good relationship with a veterinarian and a trainer or animal behaviorist will be immensely helpful during the transition. Even though multi-pet households can be challenging at first, given time and management, many pets learn to live together in harmony, and may even learn to enjoy each other’s company!