A Cat and Dog Learn to Get Along

When we first acquired our Irish setter, Coral, it took longer than we expected for her and our cat Buffett to learn to get along. At first, Buffett was clearly afraid of Coral's bouncy, enthusiastic puppy antics. He'd hiss whenever she got too close, and tried to avoid her when possible. Coral was intensely curious about Buffett, and seemed to be confused by his behavior. If given the chance, she loved to sniff him – particularly that "area-under-his-tail" – to try to learn more about him.

Coral  tried many times to get Buffett to play with her. She'd do a big play-bow (well, big for Coral's small size), paw at him, and bark in her high-pitched puppy way. Buffett of course did not view these behaviors as play solicitations, but unwanted threats. He'd puff up, hiss and swat at her. When he thought she was being particularly obnoxious he'd literally box her ears, although he never hurt her.

For awhile, Coral was frightened by Buffett's behavior, but only momentarily. She'd back off, but later would try once again to play. We of course were trying to stage calm and friendly reactions between the two.

As time progressed, things changed. Buffett was no longer afraid of Coral – he figured out she's not out to hurt him. Coral didn't give up on her play solicitations, but learned to be not as pushy as she once was. Buffett would often walk by Coral and ignore her in what appears (anthropomorphically) to be a very disdainful manner. And he still had to occasionally give her a big SWAT just to be sure she doesn't get too uppity. Coral reacted as though this was a game, by running away a few steps and then turning and barking at him.

What was fascinating to watch was how Buffett and Coral came to understand each other's behaviors. While Buffett's threats were pretty clear to Coral, her play solicitations were not at all clear to him. And Coral in turn was confused by Buffett's unwillingness to play.

Because cats and dogs have such different communication systems and signals, it's not surprising that they require much more time to get along, especially when neither has much experience with the other species. Although Buffett had lived with our dogs since he was 4 months old, none of them have wanted to play with him like Coral did as a puppy. Buffett was very attached to Mocha, our elderly Dalmatian we lost before acquiring Coral, but his idea of a great relationship was to snuggle up to Mocha when resting or sleeping. And of course Coral had no experience with cats until she met Buffett

When introducing cats to dogs, it's important to take into account their differences in communication. Give both plenty of time to learn about the other, and control their encounters to minimize fearful or threatening reactions. We have specific suggestions on introducing puppies to cats in our Raising A Behaviorally Healthy Puppy book.  We also have more information from the cat's point of view at www.HelpingKitty.com

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    Animal Behavior Associates, Inc.
    7900 W. Layton Ave. #905 Denver, CO 80123