How to Avoid Literal Catfights When Pet Owners Cohabitate

Your and your partner's pets deserve a stress-free living environment.

Before Mallory and Kyle Thierfelder got married in 2012, they wondered how Mallory’s teenaged paint horse Gunner and Kyle’s cattle would react to each other.

Mallory, one of my best friends, had already told me that Gunner seemed terrified of cows.

“When we rode around cows, he would do a 180 turn and try to take off in the opposite direction,” she said.

The couple was worried that when they put the animals together, fur would fly.

“There is always going to be a pecking order when you have a group of animals, even between different species,” Mallory said. “So our main concern was that the animals weren’t injured during the time that pecking order was figured out. I mean, my horse is like my kid, and the cows pay the bills. It was… important to us that they can coexist without issues.”

Illustration of dog and cat friends. Pet Owners Cohabitate pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
For dogs and cats, make sure the dog doesn’t chase or scare the cat and the cat doesn’t swat at the dog.

After a careful process of introducing the animals to each other, the cows and horses (they also have an older mare on the property) now happily coexist.

Animals are playing increasingly important roles in our lives, especially as a lot of us delay getting married or having kids (or skip it all together). You, a pet owner, might find yourself in a relationship with someone who already has pets of their own.

Is there a way to make sure everyone gets along? Experts agree that there are right – and wrong – ways to introduce animals that don’t know each other.

Plan ahead

Carol Griglione, leader of the cat behavior department at the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, said more people have been asking her for advice on how to plan for the peaceful blending of two pet-owning households.

It’s important to have conversations and make plans ahead of time, she said. If your partner’s stance is “Let’s just wing this,” meet with a neutral third party and discuss how a more nuanced approach is in everyone’s best interest, Griglione said.

Setting the stage

Often, the actual process of introducing the animals begins before moving day.

If you’re introducing two or more cats, getting them to accept each other’s scent is key. Rub a bath towel on your cat and then take the towel to your partner’s place and rub it on your partner’s cat. If they act relaxed after you do this on a few different days, that’s a good sign that they’re ready to move on to the next step.

If you’re introducing two or more dogs, Mick McAuliffe, director of animal services and leader of the dog behavior department at the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, recommends putting them on leashes and walking them past each other outside. You want them close enough that you can gauge their reactions to each other, but not so close that you couldn’t separate them if one of them gets upset.

Some barking and other vocalizations are OK if the dogs are bouncing around and acting like they want to play. But if the dogs are stiffening and staring at each other while they vocalize, those are warning signs that they won’t get along, he said.

[ICYMI: How to Move in With Your Partner and Not Hate It]

Into the home

The next steps for getting you and your partner’s animals used to living together depends on the type of pets you have. Regardless, the process of getting them used to each other shouldn’t be rushed, whether it takes two weeks or several months. The ultimate goal is long-term harmony, Griglione and McAuliffe said.

With cats, temporarily give them separate spaces, litterboxes, food and water, Griglione said. If your place is small, this might mean shutting one of them in the bathroom. Feed them near the door of the room. After they have settled in for a few days, switch them.

Before you move on to the next step, they should seem relaxed (no hissing and no dilated eyes). If you can get a baby gate and install it in the doorway, that’s a great option for the cats to get used to seeing each other, she said. You can even use wand toys to play with both of them across the baby gate.

For dogs, if the walk goes well, McAuliffe recommends bringing the (still leashed) dogs inside the home. He said you can tether them to sturdy furniture (such as a couch) for short periods of time while you sit with them. That way, they can continue to get to know each other without you risking them pulling against you and lunging at each other. He recommends repeating this walking and tethering routine until both dogs seem relaxed.

Even if things are going well, don’t leave the dogs alone for at least a few weeks, McAuliffe said. (In the meantime, crates might come in handy.)

He also recommends feeding the dogs in separate rooms or areas for at least two weeks.

For dogs and cats, make sure the dog doesn’t chase or scare the cat and the cat doesn’t swat at the dog, McAuliffe said. Use your vocal commands with the dog or keep it on a leash until you know they’ll at least tolerate each other.

For predators and prey, such as cats and caged rodents, the goal here isn’t to make them buddies, but rather to protect the prey animal from becoming dinner, Griglione said.

If you have enough space, put your gerbil or fish in separate room with the door closed. If you don’t, try to deter your cat from coming near the cage. She recommends against spray bottles, which she said might make your cat afraid of you.

Instead, she recommends putting oranges or orange-scented things near the cage (cats don’t like the smell) or cutting plastic carpet runners to size and putting them upside down (so the plastic nubs are sticking up) on or near the cage so the cat won’t want to go there.

Also, make sure your caged pet’s habitat is secure so you won’t have an escapee or an intruder.

Seeking help

Like human siblings, animals are going to squabble. But if you see an increase in the frequency or intensity of fights between animals, one of them gets hurt or seems too afraid to live their best life, it’s time to seek professional help.

Griglione recommends asking your vet’s office, a respected animal shelter in your area or a veterinary school to connect you with a qualified behavioral expert. McAuliffe recommends contacting a trainer that’s accredited through the Association of Professional Dog Trainers to help with issues involving dogs.

Rachel Crowell

Rachel Crowell is an Iowa-based writer exploring science and math. Rachel lives with Delilah, a golden retriever a stranger once called “the cutest thing in America.” Outside of STEM topics, Rachel also welcomes writing opportunities on everything from art to finance. Follow them on Twitter at @writesRCrowell.