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Dog sees cats as prey or playthings
Dear Dr. Spiegel, We have an eight year old German Shepherd who has lived with us since he was six weeks old. He is an indoor/outdoor dog and has been the only pet in our home during that entire time. Our 21 year old daughter recently moved back home. She brought her two male cats with her (both are about one year old). They are indoor cats, declawed and neutered, and have never been around other animals. Needless to say, these three animals are now fighting over territory. My questions are twofold: (1) Do you think there's a chance they will be able to adapt? and (2) Is there something we can do to make things easier? Thanks. Sincerely, J.R., Wilmington
Dear J.R., This is a situation where much depends on the dynamics of the encounters. If the shepherd is seeing the cats and bolting after them in attempts to catch, grab, and shake a cat, then you are dealing with a predatory response. This is the most serious of the possible scenarios. More likely, however, is that the dog is seeing the cats, not as prey items, but as playthings. What typically happens here is the dog sees the cats, gets excited, chases after them, the cats fluff up, arch their backs, swat, hiss, and the dog responds by holding his ground and barking. In either case you have very scared cats, though the former is far more threatening to life and limb. In either of the cases, the fighting is not of a "territorial" nature. If it were, you would see the cats chasing after the dog. The root of the problem lies in the fact that none of these animals were socialized to the other species when they were young (5-12 weeks old). As such, they are not comfortable with and accepting of each other as companions. Rather, to the dog, the cats are a great source of stimulation and excitement (whether predatory or play), and to the cats the dog is most likely a source of terror. Much of your success in facilitating the adaptation of these creatures to this living situation will depend on how responsive the dog is to verbal control. If he is, then keep an eye on him. As soon as the cats enter his visual field start talking to him. Stand beside him with your hand resting on the back of his neck. This will usually act to inhibit him from following though on his instinct to start the chase. If he has already started after the cats, shout his name in a loud sharp voice and then call him back to you. If you consistently inhibit him from his pursuit of the cats he will, in time, begin to inhibit himself. You also want to provide the cats with a "safe haven." Put hooks and eyes on the doors to a few rooms (especially the room with the litterbox(s)). The hook and eyes should be set so the door remains ajar approximately 3 inches, so that the cats can easily pass in and out, but the dog cannot. Feed the animals together, but have the cats eat up on a countertop where the dog cannot get to them. At other times take the dog out for extended play/walk to tire him out. When he's tired, carry one of the cats into the room with him, and praise/pet him for staying so long as he doesn't struggle to get up and go after them. The more positive, "fight-free" encounters these guys share together, the quicker they will adapt. And then again, this could be just the right incentive to get your daughter out into her own apartment. If the interactions are of a strong predatory nature, this may be the solution that could save the life of one of her cats.