Growing Pains: Managing a Multi-pet Household

Lea Jaratz

A pet adoption counselor once told me, “I'm actually more surprised when all is 'perfect' from the beginning of an adoption,” calling the rough spots “growing pains.” Cats and dogs need to adjust to a new pecking order and learn each other’s quirks when a new pet joins the home - which can take time. Sometimes, it helps to take a deep breath and remind ourselves of all of the dynamic shifts going on.

Choose companions wisely

Introducing new pets is sort of like a blind date: even though you may be smitten, you can’t assume your resident pet will be. Some dogs only get along with certain cats. Some female cats are only tolerant of male cats. Remember, your existing pets will probably spend more time with the new pet than you do, so factor in their needs before setting them up together.

Big Paws to Fill

Every time I adopt a new dog, I hit a phase where I think I will never love that dog as much as dogs I’ve had before. But, I have to remind myself that it’s not only unfair, but completely unrealistic to compare new pets to long-standing resident pets. The bond between a person and their pet doesn’t happen overnight.

For newly adopted pets, the learning curve can be pretty steep. While the rules and standards need to remain consistent across your pack, the unspoken routine and queues that you’ve set with your other pets is new and unfamiliar to the new adoptee. It’s going to take time, training and patience to get the rookie up to par. Look at it as a fresh start, an opportunity to teach the new pet even better habits.

First Impressions

Don’t rush introductions. Take time to let dogs meet on neutral turf - take them for a walk or to the dog park -  and let them get to know each other before putting them in your living room where resident dogs may feel territorial. Cats should be introduced at a snail’s pace, over 10-14 days. Keep them separated by doors and barriers until they’ve become used to each other’s presence. Taking the necessary time to prevent fights is not only safe, but will help everyone to get along better in the long run.

Know the Triggers and Respect Limitations

One animal’s triggers may not be the same as another’s and it can take weeks, or even months, to find out what can set a pet off. Two-year old Kayden had lived with us for 14 months and had never shown signs of food aggression - but it was because we’d always fed our dogs separately. When we unthinkingly moved the dogs’ dishes into the same room, senior dog Lyger learned a painful lesson about respecting personal property after a quick nip to the face. We learned a lesson about taking our pet’s tolerance for granted. Keep everyone honest by keeping feedings, play-time and downtime managed, no matter how well you think you know your pet’s “pet peeves.”

And, no pet has unlimited tolerance. Even a dog that likes cats may bite the cat if the cat comes too close to his favorite toy. So just remind yourself that there’s no harm in giving everyone some space - you may need to keep everyone separated when unsupervised, sometimes for months, sometimes longer. Even pets appreciate a little “me” time now and then.

Life Happens

People move, get married, divorced, have kids, change jobs. Life changes can cause dynamic shifts or tension between pets. Natural instincts may drive a younger dog to pick on an older or sick dog, for example. Watch your pets for cues that they are having troubles and consult a trainer before issues can escalate.

And, even when the going get’s tough, it’s important that you remain consistent and in charge. Just because your routine has to change, that doesn’t mean your role as the head of the pack has to suffer. Maintaining your leadership role means that your pet’s don’t have to worry about sorting out who’s boss.

The only thing better than having a pet is having two pets. Be patient, setting up your multi-pet household up for success, and in the long run, it’ll all be worth it.

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