Moving in together? Take your time combining pets

| 14 Feb 2012 | 02:42

    By Leanne Italie Associated PressNEW YORK — Kelly Lucas blissfully wed three years ago. For her cats, it was more like hell.

    Happy to have married a fellow cat person, she and her husband were hopeful they could blend their pets: two males for her and a plump old moody female for him. It was a no-go, then and now.

    “I wouldn't call them oil and water," Lucas said. “It's more like gasoline and fire. BOOM! It's been over three years and they still hate each other with a passion."

    The Atlanta couple, who also have an 18-month-old human baby, keep their animal camps apart using a Plexiglas-reinforced screen door on the stairs of their two-story house. It's a measure they had hoped would be temporary.

    “Basically all it serves as now is a buffer so they can hiss and swipe at each other," Lucas said. “We rotate them around so that they all get the opportunity to be in all parts of the house and hang out with all of us. It's nerve-racking, to say the least."

    Merging pets when moving in together usually has a happy ending, but it can take time, patience, medication (for the pet), or the help of an animal trainer or behaviorist, said Dr. Chessie Green, who heads the North Carolina Veterinary Medical Association in Raleigh, North Carolina.

    “It goes pretty well for probably eight out of 10 of my clients who blend their families," she said. “Most people don't consider their pets before moving in. Sometimes people are forced to find them new homes because they don't get along or somebody is allergic."

    Suzanne Finch in San Diego didn't have allergy issues, but she's had her share of CATastrophes.

    The fur flew in 1990, when she realized just how much her boyfriend's cat hated her three cats — and herself for that matter — after the whole gang moved in together.

    “My boyfriend's cat loved him and was a jealous mistress. One of mine was a queen bee," Finch said. “His would pee on the carpet and my Queenie would poop on the carpet. We finally had to put plastic drop cloths all over the floor for the entire time we were together."

    That turned out to be four long years, until he and his cat moved to Detroit and she stayed in California. The following year, she met the “love of my life" and a fellow cat owner. Combining their four-legged brood went off with only minor hitches.

    Does love — or, for platonic roommates, simple convenience — trump all when pets can't get along?

    “I'll admit the thought of finding them a new home has crossed my mind, not so much for our sake but because I hate that they have to go through rotations and get annoyed at each other," Lucas said. “But I'm selfish and can't stand the thought of being without them."

    Making it work involves many variables. But Valarie Tynes, a veterinarian and behaviorist in Sweetwater, Texas, has one key observation:

    “The first thing pet owners should be aware of is the importance that early socialization plays in future behavior of a dog or cat," she said. “A cat or a dog that has not spent much, if any, time around other dogs and-or cats during their adolescence will be much less likely to ever get along well with other animals."

    Getting two adult cats to live in peace can take longer and pose greater challenges than blending unrelated dogs, Tynes said.

    “It's very important that people realize that some cats and cat-dog combinations may never work great," she said. “Some animals just don't like to live with other animals."

    Giving away her cat, Kitty, is under consideration for Liza Gonzalez in Miami. After two years of dating, she plans to move in with her boyfriend next month. She also has a rat terrier, Jules.

    “My boyfriend is allergic to cats but takes medicine. He has a large German shepherd, Guinness, who has harmed two stray cats in their neighborhood," Gonzalez said. “He asked me if I can give my cat to someone and my response was, `Why don't you give your dog to someone?' We settled that we needed to figure this out and giving up my cat was not the solution."

    The dogs regularly spend time together and get along, but Kitty is another story.

    “I'll probably need to assign a special room for Kitty since she tends to be anti-social and likes to have hiding places," Gonzalez said. “This will most likely be very emotionally stressful for her."

    Gonzalez is making the right moves, Green said.

    When combining dogs, Green suggests introducing them on neutral territory first, using leashes. “Do it in a neighbor's yard or the park or a friend's house, where the dogs don't have a stake."

    Don't convey your own anxiety by holding the leashes too tight. “Dogs can read that," Green said. “Everybody in the environment needs to stay calm."

    Let them sniff each other and investigate, and pay attention to their body language. Are their ears down or back, indicating anxiety, fear or aggression? Are their tails up or down? Down might mean they're feeling anxious or scared; up signals confidence. A tail straight out can mean either neutral feelings or aggression, Green said.

    Barking is OK. “It's just another means of communication for dogs. They may even growl or snarl at each other a little bit, and that's OK initially because it's establishing who's dominant and who's submissive. They have to get that straightened out first. You've got to let it happen."

    What happens on neutral ground may or may not carry over to cohabitation, Green said, noting that some breeds, such as terriers, are more territorial than others. “You might have to do it all over again" when you get home, she said.

    Providing separate spaces at first is a good idea. That can mean giving dogs their own rooms or crates, especially when nobody is home. Make sure to reward good behavior and set up separate feeding stations to avoid conflict, Green said.

    But if a truly bad situation doesn't improve over time — it could take six weeks or longer — and health issues have been ruled out, an animal behaviorist should be consulted, Green said.

    “Behavioral medication may be needed," she said. “Or it could be a medical problem that can exacerbate behavior problems and make them aggressive or not get along."

    Much of the same advice goes for cats, or mixing cats and dogs.

    When mixing dogs and cats, Green said, “make sure the cat has a place to get away from the dog, whether it's on a counter or in another room separated by a baby gate."

    Let cats sniff each other through a barrier at first, or try a pheromone spray lightly around the house to create neutral territory. Hard-luck cases can take a year or two.

    “Some cats end up preferring their own space," Green said. “They won't necessarily be buddies, but in the majority of cases they won't kill each other either."