How to help a cranky cat get used to the dog?
January 8, 2009 9:16 AM   Subscribe

(Pet harmony filter) A little over 3 months ago, we adopted Phoebe, an 18-month old poodle/bichon cross. She's a fantastic dog, very well behaved, perfectly lovable and playful and awesome in every way, and we adore her. We also have 4 cats, 3 of which have settled down and seem to have gotten used her. But not Phil. Phil hates Phoebe with white-hot kitty hate. And it's breaking my heart.

So the gist of things is that Phoebe's a very playful dog. She's completely non-aggressive and does not bark, bite, growl, or jump. However, she just LOVES to run. When we first brought the dog home, none of the cats wanted anything to do with her and they'd all dash away to hide, which the dog saw as "Oh boy!! We're playing chase! Hooray!! Fun fun fun!" and she'd bound after them. But things settled down eventually and most of the cats have figured out that if they walk around the house and go about their business normally, and don't speed around in a mad panic, Phoebe leaves them alone and everything's fine.

Phil, however, has not figured this out and relations seem to be getting worse and worse between him and the dog. He either runs in abject terror away from Phoebe (which causes the dog's chase impulse to kick in); or if the dog walks anywhere within Phil's eyesight then it's nonstop hissing, growling, ears-back, hackles up aggression on the part of the cat. Phil has advanced on Phoebe and bitten her at least twice (that I was there for) -- not enough to break the skin but enough that she yiped. The dog is now afraid of the cat. The cat's terrified of the dog. And the cat just seems to be getting more aggressive.

Last night the dog was following me around the house and we passed a room where Phil was. The dog didn't even know he was in there and walked right by him.... but when the cat saw us from his perch, he lunged across the room, out the door, and tried to attack the dog with a bite; which he would've done if I hadn't stepped in his way and yelled at him. He tried it again this morning in the kitchen. Phil has had the dog pinned in corners, as he stood growling menacingly at her (scaring the dog enough that she was shivering), multiple times. So now I'm faced with a very aggressive unhappy cat who is actively terrorizing the dog. I'm very concerned that either the cat will cause serious injury to the dog; or the dog will say "enough is enough" and bring tragic retribution back on Phil.

Some more background:
- The dog's access to the upstairs is blocked off but the cats have free reign of the whole house. I have been careful to give the cats lots of quiet, comfy, safe space to call their own.
- Phil has pretty much sequestered himself to the upstairs and rarely comes down to the main living area with us any more. The other cats are back to their normal routines.
- The dog is crated for 4-6 hours a day while we're at work, and the cats can move freely anywhere they want all day. The dog also sleeps in the bedroom with us (with the door shut), so the cats have run of the house every night.
- All cats still receive tons of affection & attention (well, for Phil, it's at least when he chills out enough to come down & say hello)
- The dog leaves the cats' stuff alone: she doesn't eat their food, try to steal their toys, or use their furniture.
- They're all indoor cats & everyone is spayed/neutered
- The dog is about 16-17 lbs. Phil is about 15-16 lbs (similar size)
- I've tried anti-anxiety meds (diazepam) on Phil, but it made no difference. He stilled hissed & growled, drowsily.
- The vet had no constructive suggestions
- I understand the reasons the cat is behaving this way (feeling threatened, upheaval in his home, his territory has changed, etc.), so I'm not looking for opinions on WHY we're having the problem, but how to fix it.
- I've tried talking to Phil and reasoning with him, but unfortunately he doesn't speak English.

So is there any hope that Phil & Phoebe will come to a truce? How? My husband seems to think they'll eventually work it out. I'm not so sure. Phil is (was?) my favorite cat, and I admit I even had dreams of him & the dog being good friends. And though I hate to think about it, I'm afraid that it will come down to re-homing Phil. (My husband thinks if anyone needs to go, it's the dog because the "cats were here first." My perspective is that the dog is perfectly happy, but it's Phil who's miserable so he may best be served by another home.) But let me reiterate, I really, really don't want to re-home anyone. Has anyone gone through this? Does it just take time? Will an animal behaviorist help? Other resources?
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy to Pets & Animals (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The dog doesn't get to chase cats. EVER.

We have had the same issue and instantly came down pretty hard on both of our adopted pups anytime they looked at the cat funny.

You kind of created this by basically not doing the job that Phil has now taken into his own hands. You need to step in and enforce the boundaries. Likely they aren't going to be friends but the dog will learn to give Phil his space.
posted by bitdamaged at 9:23 AM on January 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: We have, actually, been working on training Phoebe out of chasing the cats. We do actively block her (when it's physically possible), we give verbal correction, we redirect her attention to other things (treats, toys, etc.). So no.... I don't believe we have actively been creating this situation. I no way, shape, or form, do I or my husband ever encourage the dog to chase the cats. I have had the dog in for several weeks of training and talked to a professional trainer about this specific situation. The trainer even admitted that it's a very difficult problem to work with and she suggested using one of those training collars that squirts water or citronella with a remote control, so we can correct the dog that way when we see her chase the cats. I'd rather not go that route if I don't have to. And the dog is improving regarding the chasing thing... that's not the main problem. The biggest problem, as I see it, is that the cat is becoming increasingly unhappy and potentially dangerous.
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 9:29 AM on January 8, 2009

Response by poster: I guess I should clarify a little more: The dog rarely chases Phil. The dog actually cowers most of the time when she's near the cat. The cat has been "proactively" aggressive toward the dog without provocation that I could see. The cat's behavior is not always a reaction against something the dog dig.
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 9:33 AM on January 8, 2009

I don't know, bitdamaged, I've been in a household with a cat and a dog who chased each other all over the place. The first time they met, kitty took a swipe at el pooch, but after a few days, they kind of figured things out. Most of the time, they'd basically ignore each other, but then cat would scat across the house with dog in hot pursuit, only to chase the dog the other way seconds later. Then they'd do this once or twice then go about their business. When for various reasons kitty left the house (unrelated to dog issues), he spent most of the next few weeks tearing ass up and down his new domicile hoping someone would give chase the way his canine friend used to. He just loved it when someone would, but human friends apparently didn't provide the same thrill, so he tired of it within a few months. Still, the idea that dogs and cats can't ever interact this way doesn't strike me as being entirely accurate.

That being said, the cat is a bit weird. As is the dog, come to think of it.

I'd suggest keeping them physically separated when you're not home, then keeping yourself armed with a water bottle when you are. If one of them starts to go after the other, lay into 'em. The dog doesn't seem to be the biggest problem here, but I've never seen a cat keep doing what it was doing after a few well-placed shots of water.
posted by valkyryn at 9:37 AM on January 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Maybe give extra attention to Phil in full view of the dog? That way the cat can feel dominant in some way.
posted by Pants! at 9:42 AM on January 8, 2009

Is it possible that Phil is extra jealous because Phoebe gets to sleep with you? I know you'd want to keep them separated if they're only going to fight all night, but if that weren't an issue, would you still have to lock the cats out of the bedroom at night?
posted by amtho at 9:45 AM on January 8, 2009

Especially if Phil was you favorite cat. Man, that would hurt my feelings, I guess, if the bedroom-door-closed policy is new since you got the dog.
posted by amtho at 9:46 AM on January 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The bedroom thing shouldn't be a factor: None of the cats have ever been allowed in the bedroom. The door's permanently closed.
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 9:48 AM on January 8, 2009

Yay Phil! Kick some ankle-shark ass!


What would happen if you did nothing to interfere? Worst case? Somebody loses an eye? Seems like if the dog is cowering when Phil's around, then Phil's message is getting across. I kinda agree with your husband that they'll work it out. It may not be your preferred solution. It may harsh Phil's mellow. But they'll come to terms. Just keep them from killing each other.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:54 AM on January 8, 2009

Not sure how applicable my experience is, but we had a similar conflict between a new beagle puppy and a pre-existing cat. The cat was terrified of the new creature, and definitely preferred fight to flight. During the first couple of weeks the dog received several scratches on his face, and finally a small tear in the edge of one ear where a claw went all the way through and then tore out sideways. The poor dog flapped its head and sent spectacular blood spatters around the room. I was pissed at the cat, and rushed the dog to the vet, who was thoroughly unimpressed. They gave me a tube of triple antibiotic ointment and sent me on my way.

I guess what I'm getting at is that a bit of conflict, respect-earning and a scratch or two is not the end of the world. Our dog learned to keep his distance, and the cat calmed down dramatically when he realized the dog didn't care to tangle with him.
posted by jon1270 at 10:01 AM on January 8, 2009

Response by poster: It is a bit of a comfort hearing that it will probably just work itself out. I just really hate seeing one of the cats so miserable right now, and I don't want anyone - cat or dog - to get injured. Plus, I don't really get why Phil (who's never shown such aggression, or been so neurotic before) is having such a huge problem, but all the other cats are doing fine.
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 10:07 AM on January 8, 2009

When we brought our dog in, our three cats all had markedly different responses. It took them a good long while to settle into what now seems to be "normalcy". This normalcy means that one cat is BEST BUDDIES with the dog, one cat spends half her time ignoring him (or being borderline angry at him) and half her time playing with him. The third cat does little more than tolerate the dog's existence in His Domain.

I've read that cats are constantly re-negotiating social structures, but for dogs it's different. Our dog (a corgi) has had to learn what the boundaries are with each member of his pack, and although we've provided the dog with training and guidance, they have largely sorted it out themselves. The stability we have now definitely took MUCH longer than 3 months to achieve.

It will change, probably calm down, and you'll find a new normal. The dog will get older & mellow out some. Eventually Phil will figure himself out. I would not consider re-homing a cat I'd had for a long time after just 3 months with a new animal! (When we brought in cat #3, it took one of our other cats more than a year to adjust. Now they are fine together.) Just give it time, and set firm boundaries for Phoebe.
posted by dryad at 10:17 AM on January 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Plus, I don't really get why Phil (who's never shown such aggression, or been so neurotic before) is having such a huge problem, but all the other cats are doing fine.

Because some cats hate dogs. Some cats even hate other cats. Phil will probably never think Phoebe is the best thing since wet food, but they'll probably settle down into a truce that only occasionally will flare into hostility. My youngest cat hates my dogs. He goes out of his way to avoid them and the dogs in turn do their best not to cross him. It's been years and none of them are any worse for wear.

Also, FWIW, I agree with your husband. The cats were there first.
posted by crankylex at 10:20 AM on January 8, 2009

You mention paying attention to Phil when he chills out and comes downstairs. Might it make sense to try to give him lots of attention in the areas of the house where the dog isn't allowed? In other words, leave the dog and other cats downstairs (or wherever they are), and make a point of finding Phil and giving him treats and scratching his head and whatnot, to remind him that you're the nice lady who gives him treats and toys, and there's a nasty dog downstairs, but overall life's pretty good because upstairs there are treats and toys and scratching behind the ears.

Our family cat never warmed to the dog, but calmed down eventually. It really helped, I think, that we spent time with him where he was comfortable (i.e., where the dog couldn't get in). The only way we could get the cat to hang out with the dog was to put some catnip out and let him chew it and roll around, and then the dog would come over to see what was going on, but the cat was too enthralled with his catnip to care.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:38 AM on January 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

It will most likely work itself out alright, but crankylex has a point - some cats don't even like other cats. We had two felines at one point, and when a third was added, she hated the first two. She never got over it, and basically lived in parts of the house they didn't frequent, only coming down for food. They reached a point where they'd be snarky with eachother, but basically leave well enough alone. This went on for years. Nobody lost an eye.
posted by mbatch at 10:53 AM on January 8, 2009

This might be a long shot, but maybe the local SPCA or a rescue organization would have some ideas? I'm thinking they have probably seen a lot in the dog/cat integration realm?

I want to say they will work it out themselves (no re-homing!!), but I know I would be freaking out if it were me, so I completely understand.
posted by KAS at 11:47 AM on January 8, 2009

Give it time. After about 10 months, our one cranky cat is starting — just starting! — to get on non-hate terms with our adopted dog. Give the cats lots of places they can go where the dog can't get to them. Our cats have an entire floor of the house that they can relax in and the dog can't access. It'll take a while, but it will work out. Give Phil some tuna from me.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 12:07 PM on January 8, 2009

You might want to put Softpaws on Phil in order to lessen the likelihood of significant harm coming to the pup.

They're going to need lots of time, individual reinforcement, and, above all, consistency.

Don't let your upset with Phil limit the amount of time you spend with him, or he'll put that away in kitty-grudge storage and it'll come out in some even more spectacular fashion (IME).
posted by batmonkey at 12:12 PM on January 8, 2009

Also: have you tried Feliway, for easing the stress-response in the house?
posted by batmonkey at 12:16 PM on January 8, 2009

I've never had dogs, but what I would do for kids (which often is amazingly similar to what you can do with pets) is keep them separate for a while. Tensions are high. Maybe if Phil has a couple days in a room by himself (with visits by you) or where he doesn't see the dog at all, he can get used to his scent and presence without having to confront him.

I second the softpaws, they're fairly easy to get on and as long as you can keep them from chewing them within the first few minutes, once the glue dries they stay on about a month, in my experience.

My first cat was not pleased at all with our new addition to the home, and it was about 10 months before I ever saw them within a couple feet of each other without her hissing and running off. They'll never cuddle with each other but they can now be chilling on the bed within a foot of each other with no problems. I did have to make sure that my old cat got more attention than the newcomer, and that her time with me was never interrupted by his intrusions. That seemed to helped reduce the "stay away from my mom!" arguments. Don't give up! I felt like such a bad CatMom at first because the "kids" didn't get along, but now they get along peacefully and I can't believe I ever thought of having to rehome my younger cat.
posted by gilsonal at 12:34 PM on January 8, 2009

Discipline Phoebe when she chases, no matter how rare it is. And let Phil prove to her that he's the alpha animal. A scratch on the nose is not going to permanently scar your dog, and it will help immensely with the working things out. (Make sure you're there watching, just in case.)

Furthermore, I would bet a large amount that you *are* treating Phil differently than before, since you're saying he is (was?) your favourite cat. Give him way more attention, especially in front of the dog, but also in general. Kick the dog out of the room when he comes in. These things, though they didn't make the cats love the dog, made them tolerate him enough to get out from under the bed during his waking hours.
posted by jeather at 12:38 PM on January 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One thing you may try is to give them their favorite treats simultaneously. Find out what Phil loves to eat more than anything and what Phoebe (who is ADORABLE!) loves. Then sitting between them in a relatively territory neutral, quiet room (a room that is NOT Phil's at least), divert the focus to the treats in front of them. As they eat, pet them both at the same time and tell them what good boy/girl their being. As long as Phil is quiet and Phoebe is quiet, keep treating. If assholery erupts, end the session and try again the next day. Phil will eventually come to realize that being in the same room with Phoebe might just result in nummy treats and the desire for nummy treats might dampen his rage a little.

I've done this with dog/cat infighting before. I have three dogs/four cats. It has succeeded in simmering down the overt kitty aggression to a manageable point but the kitty hatred is always there. The four cats are sort of a spectrum of dog tolerance, ranging from "I'm okay, you're okay" to "If looks could kill, you would be a greasy spot of death right now". And I sort of don't blame them because the dogs are sometimes boisterous and act like dogs, something the cats just don't. like.
posted by hecho de la basura at 12:48 PM on January 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

It's all about time, I completely agree. We comixed a 7 year old going-blind dog with a VERY cranky 18 year old cat last year, and it took MONTHS for her to not hiss at the dog whenever she came within a few feet of the cat.

But now, we're 15 months in, and the cat has chilled. Sometimes it just takes them a looong time - both with dogs, other cats, or any other major change in their lives. This will not get fixed overnight, but not to worry - it's pretty rare that these things get so serious you have to think about rehoming, as long as you give it enough time. Like, months.
posted by twiki at 2:45 PM on January 8, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you so much, everyone for all of the encouragement and constructive suggestions. I feel much better about the situation after hearing that this isn't all that unusual. Phil's mellow may be harshed, but at least he'll keep his home. :-)
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 5:26 PM on January 8, 2009

My cats have "trained" both our dogs. Now that they've gotten used to each other, my tiny 5 pound cat can walk up to the 90 pound chow and get the dog to lay down so the kitteh can give the dog a bath. Apparently, dog smell offends.

They'll figure it out. Your best hope is that the cat comes out as the alpha, in which case, once dominance is assured, the aggression will stop.

Good luck!
posted by dejah420 at 7:39 PM on January 8, 2009

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