Cats and dogs can learn to get along, but their owners must negotiate peace terms

April 22

Dear Dr. Fox:

My boyfriend and I are getting ready to move into a new-to-us home. We each have a pet: I have a 7-year-old formerly feral cat, and he has a 2-year-old golden retriever mix adopted from the pound. Both pets are extremely important to us.

My cat can be grumpy. She loves me and she loves my boyfriend, but it takes a while for her to warm up to most people — and forget about dogs. She has met a few in her life, but it usually ends with her hiding in various places and not showing her face for hours.

The dog is wonderful. She’s sweet and well trained, but she has no experience with cats, and she’s very energetic.

I’m nervous about how to introduce them. I’d really like these soon-to-be sisters to get along. My worst nightmare would be that the cat ends up spending her whole life in the basement, trying to keep away from the dog. We are designating the basement as a cat-only zone, complete with a cat-size entrance, to ensure that she feels safe.

Is there anything we can do to make sure our pets like each other?

E.P., Roeland Park, Kan.

DF: First, I trust that your cat is a good judge of character. That she gets on with your significant other is an important test!

Several days before the interspecies co-habitation commences:

→Have your boyfriend bring over a blanket or towel that his dog has been sleeping on for a week, and switch it for one your cat has been sleeping on. This way, the animals will get to know each other’s scent.

→Make a recording of the dog’s barks and play it occasionally at low volume for the cat.

→Keep the dog on a leash when she first comes into your home. The cat will probably hiss and run away. Putting a couple of drops of essential oil of lavender on your cat’s neck before this first introduction might have a calming effect.

→It is debatable whether one should allow the cat to run away and hide rather than having her face up to the dog, while being held in your arms (protected by a padded coat) or in a harness and leash. This is called “total immersion.”

My choice would be to take a weekend before dog and boyfriend move in, ideally the next long weekend, and keep the pets in the same room, one way or another. Leash the dog, but allow her to sniff around and settle down. Groom and pet the dog, and give her treats. Ditto for your cat, if she is not too out of her mind. Maybe put on some music or watch television. Then your boyfriend should leave with the dog and come back after two to three hours for another session, and more through the weekend.

Your cat-only basement safe zone might work, but she might hide there forever. If you don’t want that to happen, be sure there is no place down there where she might become trapped between a wall and pipes, because you will have to bring her up to spend time with the dog and overcome her fear. Set up a baby gate with sufficient space beneath it for your cat to slip under so she can get to her litter box. Otherwise, the dog might start cleaning it out.

You might want to set up a separate feeding and drinking area temporarily for your cat, with a similar gate set-up to keep the dog out, if you are not using the basement for this purpose.

If your cat is not too spooked, leave her drinking water in the usual place (presumably upstairs) and with the dog’s water bowl next to it. Eventually, they might share the same bowl.

Initially, after the dog has been fed (and let the cat see this), restrain the dog when it is time to feed the cat in her usual place upstairs. If you opt to use the basement for feeding the cat and put a litter box there, she might prefer to live in the basement.

Best wishes to all of you. Cats and dogs do not have an innate animosity so much as cats have an instinctual, self-protective fear of larger animals, and their flight response triggers the dog’s chase reaction.

Once these innate reactions are diffused, cats and dogs can be buddies for life. One cat I know of became a seeing-eye guide for her blind canine companion!

LOSS OF APPETITE

Dear Dr. Fox:

My 10-year-old cat’s appetite has diminished. I tried some dry food, but that helps only for a short time. He seems okay, but I worry. Normally, I feed him a small can of Friskies in various flavors.

I have been throwing out a lot of food, but I’m afraid of switching brands at his age.

J.H., Winston-Salem, N.C.

DF: One of the basic rules of knowing when an animal needs to see a veterinarian is when there is any significant change in appetite without any change in what the animal is normally being fed, and a change in thirst.

These behaviors can be easily monitored and quantified. It is advisable to know the weight of the animal, which will help determine, over time, if weight is being lost or gained. This is why an annual physical with the veterinarian is advisable. For cats, many veterinarians now do home visits, which are far less stressful.

There are some better-quality and probably more palatable manufactured cat foods that I endorse, listed on my Web site, www.drfoxvet.com. Note that the quality and kinds of ingredients in pet foods from batch to batch can change when companies get different ingredients from different sources and share manufacturing facilities with other companies rather than having their own facilities.

Gerber’s meaty baby foods often perk up a cat’s appetite, but this might not be the best course if proper treatment for an underlying ailment is delayed simply because the cat starts eating again.

Considering your cat’s age, the problem could be chronic kidney disease, so I would waste no time in making a veterinary appointment.

PANCREATIC DISEASE

Dear Dr. Fox:

A close friend has a police dog (a German shepherd, bred in Germany for that purpose) with severe health issues.

The major problem is pancreatic enzyme deficiency. His vet has him on pancreatic tabs, but he still has loose stools, is very thin, and his coat is dry and lackluster. He also has recurrent ear infections, but I think that is a separate issue.

Is there a natural diet or any type of supplements that could help this wonderful dog?

C.C., Fallon, Mo.

DF: This is a very prevalent issue for German shepherds that used to be confused with chronic colitis associated with stress and sensitive temperaments.

Chronic disease of the pancreas, producing insufficient digestive enzymes, is a problem more common in certain breeds, like your friend’s dog, and is thought to be a kind of exhaustion from having to digest a high-carbohydrate diet.

I would advise that the dog’s diet be gradually changed — over five to seven days — to one that is free of grains and soy, and that the dog be given digestive enzymes (a few pieces of canned pineapple will provide these) and a twice-daily human dose of good-quality probiotics. He should also be given a few drops of fish oil to provide essential fatty acids to help improve his coat and overall condition.

Check my Web site for more details. Let me know how the poor dog progresses.

A DOG MUST BE A DOG

Dear Dr. Fox:

Why do some dogs chase cars and others howl when they hear the tornado test siren? I live in a rural area, and these dogs drive me mad.

I have a dog who does none of these things, and I am the only person around who walks him on a leash. Most are chained up or let out to roam.

I.M., Galesburg, Ill.

DF: The answer to both questions is instinct. Dogs chase vehicles and kids on bicycles, which can be a hazard, as a displaced prey-chasing activity.

People in rural areas should take responsible and appropriate care of their dogs, which means not letting them roam free or live most of their lives on a chain.

Michael W. Fox, author of a newsletter and books on animal care, welfare and rights, is a veterinarian with doctoral degrees in medicine and animal behavior. Write to him at United Feature Syndicate, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, Mo. 64106.

2014 United Feature Syndicate

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