Many of us who want to bring a new cat home already have other pets. Others of us already live with a cat, and were wondering how well our Fluffy will do with the addition of a dog, ferret, bird, hamster, or even another cat to our happy home. According to Suzanne Hetts, PhD, a certified animal behaviorist, several factors will help us predict how they will get along.
How and when your cat was socialized is the biggest consideration, says Hetts, who practices in Littleton, Colorado. The period of development when kittens are most sensitive to learning which species and which individuals within those species are their social peers occurs in the second through seventh weeks of life. Some researchers believe this sensitive period can extend to the third or fourth month.
Whenever it ends, it is within this period that most cats learn who is a possible friend and who is likely prey or predator.
Exposure to other species with positive social experiences will increase the likelihood that Fluffy will later view that individual and others of the same species as social peers. If Fluffy had early experiences behaving as a predator with your bird, for example, he is more likely to continue stalking, chasing, and perhaps attacking it and other birds. A kitten may also have an innate tendency to respond to birds as prey, but that tendency can be modified by early experience says Hetts.
What really counts, however, is how a kitten is introduced to new house companions, including other cats. Introductions must be gradual, says Hetts, who recommends keeping the newcomer and the resident pets visually separated at first to allow them to get used to the sounds and smells of each other. Only in graduated steps and under supervision should you let them see one another and have contact. With pocket pets such as birds or rodents, innate tendencies to chase and attack will probably remain strong enough for the pocket pet to need to re-main safely confined when the cat is around. Although the kitty may seem affectionate to your bird or hamster, supervision is necessary. A few apparently socialized cats have regressed to innate predatory behavior and killed a pocket-pet housemate.
Although a grown cat gradually exposed to another smaller pet, such as a caged bird, may learn to ignore it, teaching her to interact in a non-predatory way requires intensive, steady training filled with patient rewards, not punishment. Even so, adult cats are most likely to learn no more than tolerance; the majority never seem to lose all their predatory responses.
If theres any mistake most people make, its rushing the process: Weve done so well with baby-steps … ah, lets just see how they do now when we put them together, some might say. Stick with baby steps, urges Hetts. Slowly let each animal adjust to closer proximity and awareness of each other.
Hetts is aware of no solid research evidence predicting which species are more likely to get along with cats. Her clinical and personal experiences, though, suggest that cats that come to live with consistently friendly, nonaggressive dogs more often learn to accept those dogs comfortably.
It is also worth remembering that not all social learning can be generalized in its use for different animals. Social acceptance between two animals is often animal-specific. A cat may live easily and comfortably with a dog at home, but in the presence of another dog, head for the hills! It takes some careful consideration – and realism – to predict whether Fluffy and new housemates will ever just get along.