Sunday, May 4, 2014

Minnesota Animal Welfare Conference: Suzanne Hetts on The Differences Between Cats and Dogs

I swear I didn't stage this.
I don't write about him much, but I have a kitty. Nicky is a 13-year-old boy I've had since he was a kitten. Although I consider myself more of a dog person, I also can't imagine my life without at least one cat. This is probably why the last segment on of this conference was probably the most interesting and most useful for me: promoting successful relationships between dogs and cats.

Suzanne pointed out that about half of the pet owning households have both a cat and a dog, but unfortunately, very few are concerned about the quality of their cats' lives, and even fewer do anything to prevent problems and improve things after the fact. She believes this is because owners are too accepting of the cat feeling unsafe or scared, possibly because they don't recognize hiding behavior as abnormal.

Although cats and dogs can get along, they are very different species. This starts with domestication. Where dogs were likely domesticated around 14,000 years ago, domestication only happened in cats about 4,000 years ago. That 10,000 years of co-evolution means that dogs are more predisposed to social living with each other and with humans. Cats can and do exist without social groups. They don't really have friends, instead having what Suzanne called “preferred associates”- others that they spend time with. They don't really have packs and they don't have hierarchical social structures.

Body language is another huge difference, especially it comes to ritualized behaviors like greetings. While cats greet one another nose-to-nose, dogs... don't. They might be okay with it, but we all know their go-to place is at the other end. Cats also indicate that they are friendly and approachable by holding their tail up with a curve at the tip. In dogs, this is a threatening gesture. Cats also don't have a ritualized invitation to play. While dogs will play bow first, cats often just pounce. This can be misunderstood by dogs and lead to an unfortunate altercation.

Chemical communication, while poorly understood by researchers, is another area of believed difference. Not only does it seem to be more important to cats, but they use it as a distance increasing behavior, while dogs use it more of a “I was here!” thing. Rubbing and scent marking (which, to be honest, I'm not sure how to distinguish from chemical communication) plays a huge role in social attachment in cats, and dogs... don't seem to do this.

Finally, dogs have active and passive submission behaviors, and cats don't. When a dog rolls over on his back, it's a reconciliation gesture. When a cat does it, it's a defensive behavior that will likely culminate in an attack. What's more, cats do not “make up” with each other.

To have a harmonious home, you need to have good early socialization, complementary personalities, and good experiences as adults. Let's look at each of these.

First, he best bet lies in socialization, when an animal learns his species identity, who to hang out with, and who he should eat. Unfortunately, cats have a short socialization window which starts at about 2 weeks and has already ended by the time they come home at 8 weeks. What's more, kittens have an earlier fear period that happens right at that time. Fear periods mean that bad experiences during that time have a bigger impact.

Next, you need to have complementary personalities. Unfortunately, there aren't really temperament tests for cats... not that they're perfect in dogs. Beyond that, though, Suzanne doesn't think that meet-and-greets really give you any useful info.

Finally, you need to make sure that the animals have more good experiences than bad. You also need to be prepared to accept mutual tolerance over genuine affection. Keep in mind that individuals vary in their desire for social contact, and that minor conflicts are normal and can be ignored. Serious threats or frequent conflicts, no matter how minor, will erode quality of life for everyone.

Conflicts with cats are almost always about space. They rarely fight over social status or resources, so cats that are on the receiving end of resource guarding by a dog finds this unexpected and stressful. Cats who live with other living beings really thrive when there are plenty of spaces- especially vertical spaces- that they can retreat to. Conflicts between dogs and cats usually result from excessive curiosity from the dog, which can lead to predation. Dogs can also just start with a predatory response to the cat. Either way, the result is fear and a reduced quality of life for the cat.

Finally, forcing experiences for any animal never works. “Showing” the animal that the other won't hurt him does not work, and often backfires and makes things worse. Interactions need to be carefully managed until everyone is familiar with each other.

Bottom line: It is not okay for any individual to be afraid of or harassed by the other. Having a peaceable kingdom is possible, and the best way to accomplish this is by proper introductions. This is such an important (and lengthy) process that I will spend the next entire post on it. 

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