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How to Keep Your Pets From Fighting

By: Susan Rubinowitz

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Many of us don't take kindly to having an extra relative or friend move in suddenly. So it's not surprising that pets sometimes feel the same. Even a president's pets are not immune to such interpersonal tensions. The problems of cohabitation were put on national display when bad blood erupted between Socks, the cat – an eight-year veteran of the Clinton White House – and Buddy, a chocolate Labrador who arrived on the scene in 1997.

Socks took to hissing and baring his teeth whenever Buddy was around. Buddy reacted by barking and pulling against his leash to get to the cat. The feuding was bad enough that the Clintons split up the pets as they left the White House, taking Buddy with them to Chappaqua, N.Y. and placing Socks with Clinton's secretary Betty Currie.

But such bitter rivalries aren't inevitable, animal behavior experts say. There's a lot pet owners can do to smooth the entrance of a newcomer and to prevent war being declared on the living room floor. And there are ways to end the feuding if it's already under way.

Tips to End Feuding

Here are some tips from trainers and animal behavior experts, including PetPlace consulting veterinarian Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a nationally recognized specialist in animal behavior and head of the Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.

  • It's best to introduce the animals to each other when both are very young. If you plan to have two pets in the household – especially if they're a cat and a dog – it is best to introduce them during the so-called sensitive period of development, Dodman says. Between the first 2 to 7 weeks of age for cats, and 3 to 12 weeks of age for dogs, "you can introduce some wonderful, lifetime perceptions of one species toward another species,"' he said. The older they are, the harder it gets to teach peaceful co-existence.

  • Choose the newcomer carefully. If you can select the breed of dog that joins the household last, make sure it doesn't have an inherited trait that will automatically clash with your cat or any other smaller pet. Many dogs, like Clinton's Buddy, a chocolate Labrador, are bred to chase and catch small animals in the hunt – not a good trait for living with your cat.

    According to New York City dog trainer Steven Diller, "Even if you do have a cat that's cool with dogs, get a little dog in there that's not too active, and start right away to acclimatize them."

    "If you're picking up the new animal from a shelter, bring the resident pet with you, introduce them, and see if they get along," says Karyn Garvin, a pet behaviorist in Tucson.

  • Go slowly when you introduce the two animals. They will need time to build trust in each other. If, for example, you are bringing a dog into a house that has been home to a cat, you can try placing the new dog in a crate and letting the resident cat inspect and sniff it in its own good time. As the cat gains a sense of security, you can move the crate a little closer to the cat. If all goes well, try placing the cat's food in front of the dog's crate so it learns that it must come near to the dog to get fed and can do so in safely.

    "Look for windows of opportunity," advises Dodman. Use a head halter and obedience commands to teach your dog to lie down and relax before you introduce the cat at a distance, either with a harness fitted or in a carrier. It might help to attempt the introduction in a room they don't know "at whatever distance they remain composed and apparently comfortable," he says. Then reward them for their good behavior.

    "Again, it's gently does it, and everything in baby steps," he said, adding that both animals need adequate exercise and structure in their lives, a routine of activities that doesn't revolve around the other pet.

  • What if nothing seems to work and they're still fighting like, well, cats and dogs? Garvin says that even if the two animals refuse to mesh perfectly, they may learn coexistence.

    "That may not always look like they're going to love each other. It may be that the way for us to live harmoniously is for the cat to have this area of the house, and the dog is in the other room,'' she says. In one drastic case, when she was called in to settle such a dispute, she had to correct the dog's behavior with an electronic training collar that delivered a mild charge when the animal leapt at the other pet.

    Dodman says a last resort might be to try medication, if your veterinarian agrees. There are non-addictive prescriptions that don't impair intelligence or learning that may help an animal relearn its behavior toward another without getting anxious and defensive.

    If One of the Pets Has to Go

    But Dodman and Garvin agree that sometimes the only solution is to find a new home for one of the combatants by placing it with another family whom you trust will provide loving care. In that event:

  • Make the transition gradual. If it's a family relative or friend who will take the animal, "have them come over and spend a little time with the pet – or, if it's a dog, have them take it around to their place for a few hours,'' said Dodman. "Patience is the name of the game.''

  • Have the prospective new owner pay visits to your home and spend time with your pet. "Introduce them and make sure they get along – maybe take day trips,'' says Diller.

  • Let go completely. This may be the hardest part, but experts advise that, once the move is made, give the animal time to bond with a new master. According to Diller, "Once it's moved to the new environment, I wouldn't even suggest visits, because that just creates confusion."

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