Blending pet families: Yours, mine and me-ours

When Marcela Peres and her boyfriend, Kevin McGrory, decided to move in together last year, they knew they'd have to overcome a few issues.

Marcela Peres and Kevin McGrory have faced ups and downs after merging their pet families. Here, Mojo, Roger, Xavier, Mimi and Nuala dine together.

Pamela Fisher is mom — and sometimes referee — to four dogs and two cats. Here Sadie, top, and Sully, bottom, relax together.

Heather Cleaves' cat, Midnight, wasn't eager to share his home when Blackie first moved in. Today they're friends.

When Pamela Fisher's longtime partner, Paul Drinkwater, died in February, he left her his beloved 7-year-old poodle, Moose. Here Moose and cat Homey hang out.

Tips and tricks for merging pet families

* Think first and plan. Don't just toss the pets in a room together.

* Be aware of your pet's unique issues. Herding and sporting dogs are more likely to chase smaller animals, like cats, for example. Very young animals can antagonize elderly ones. Two alpha pets can struggle to find their place in the family. 

* Have your pets get to know the new human in your life before they meet that human's pets.

* Make sure dogs are well exercised, calm and under loose leash control before they meet the new animal.

* Feed old and new pets together and play with them together. This helps animals form a good association with each other.

* If an animal starts going to the bathroom in the house, that's a big red flag that there's a problem with the situation.

* Dogs should meet on neutral territory. Cats should meet in the home, but be separated and introduced first through scent. A dog should meet a cat at the cat's home, but should be on a leash, quiet and under control.

* Don't lose your temper and never be physical with an animal. That negativity will backfire, making the pets wary of each other and you.

* Be patient. It can take weeks or months (or sometimes longer) for pets to get accustomed to each other. 

Well, make that five issues, named Mimi, Roger, Nuala, Xavier and Mojo.

Cat lovers both, in their separate homes Peres cared for two while McGrory was devoted to three. The cats ranged from 2 to 10 years old, needy to nonchalant, social to skittish. What would happen when they all moved in together?

"I was concerned with some major personality differences, but more than anything I was concerned with what was going to happen when we both went to work," Peres said. "I hoped they'd all be alive when we got back."

When it comes to the blending of families — pet families — she's not alone.

It's a problem that's becoming more pronounced as the number of pet owners grows, and as more and more of those owners treat their pets as cherished children rather than property to be discarded at the first inconvenience.

So what's a human to do when Fido and Fluffy (or Mimi, Roger, Nuala, Xavier and Mojo) are about to become a family?

Tread carefully.

"The best thing that folks can do is to think it through first before they plunge in," said Portland-based pet behavior expert Karen Campbell. "Sometimes that's not the first thing that happens, but it's the smartest thing to do."

'She was serious about taking him out'

There are the horror stories: dogs attacking cats, cats clawing dogs, pets forced to live for years confined to separate parts of the same house because they can't stand the sight of each other.   

Campbell once had a cat — Snowball — who despised other cats to the point of attempted homicide.

"She hated other kitties so badly that she launched at the TV whenever the cougar jumped over the cars (in a commercial)," Campbell said. "Oh, she was serious about taking him out."

But most of the time, newly introduced pets aren't intent on murder. They're scared or stressed or upset over losing attention or territory, and that can lead to spats — and lots of acting out.

For years Pamela Fisher has had dogs, cats and rabbits, many at the same time, living in the same home. When her longtime partner, Paul Drinkwater, died in February and left her his beloved 7-year-old poodle, Moose, one more dog got added to the mix.

Today she's mom — and sometimes referee — to four dogs and two cats.

"I've had a couple of dog fights," Fisher said. "It'll be Ollie and Moose that will have a dog fight every once in a while, and that's usually over me. Because they both want my lap and my attention."

Sometimes bad pet behavior is not so much aggressive as it is stinky.

"When people think of stressed cats, most often they think of house soiling, like spraying," Campbell said. "A stressed cat is going to do something. It has to vent that negative energy."

Peres and McGrory knew the risks when they decided to merge households in Winslow and turn their separate, happy two-cat and three-cat families into one big hopefully-happy-but-would-settle-for-no-bloodshed five-cat family. They loved each other and loved their cats. They couldn't see giving up one for the other.

McGrory already lived in a little apartment with Nuala, Xavier and Mojo when Peres came with Mimi and Roger.

"At first we had them in carriers, kind of in the kitchen, around the other cats, and that didn't take very well. There was a lot of hissing happening," Peres said. "So we put them in the bathroom where they could kind of bat at each other under the door."

And bat they did. Neither of the two feline factions was pleased with the situation.

Then, one day when Peres and McGrory knew they would both be home, the couple made a decision.

They would let Mimi and Roger out of the bathroom.

And with that crucial, climatic move came . . . quiet.

"It was more or less fine," Peres said. "They kind of avoided each other for a while."

If only it had stayed that way.

"Over time, actually, is when issues started emerging," she said.

Plan ahead

Campbell has counseled people about pet behavior issues for more than 30 years and has helped pet owners from as far away as the Virgin Islands, Canada and California.

In her experience, cats have long memories of first impressions, so a five-minute introduction-gone-wrong can result in years of hissing, fleeing and mistrust. Dogs may be more forgiving of an initial mistake, but if a situation does turn bad, they may have a greater ability to hurt another animal or human.

But each situation depends on the family's circumstances and the animals' personalities, history, breed, gender and ages.

"There's so much to be thought about. I always encourage people to either talk it through, think it through, Google it through or call someone to say 'Let's look at all those pieces.' Because it's totally different for every family," Campbell said

So, her step-one advice: Stop and think about it beforehand. Consider the potential pitfalls and possible solutions, and plan the introduction.

"You can't just throw them all together," she said.

Step two: No, really, don't just throw them all together.

Take it slow. Make sure the animals have all gotten to know the other human, then think about introducing the other animal.

For dogs, that introduction means bringing them to neutral territory (preferably outdoors), keeping them on a loose leash and watching for signs of aggression. For cats it means smuggling the new guy into the house, keeping the two factions in separate spaces, and spreading scent by wiping each cat with the same towel. For a dog and cat it means bringing the dog — quiet, well-exercised and under leash control — to the house for a meet-and-greet.

But even if a relationship starts off rocky, it can still lead to friendship.

When Kristine Adams and her now-husband decided to move in together in 2008, they had to introduce his kitten Cranberry and her 4-year-old cat Blackie. On her vet's advice, they initially kept the two cats separate and rubbed both with the same towel to get them accustomed to each other's scent.

When they got full run of the apartment, young Cranberry decided she wanted to rule.

"It was very, very tricky because Cranberry had claws and Blackie didn't, so Cranberry would use her front claws on the attack," Adams said. "We were constantly yelling at Cranberry because Cranberry was the instigator. It was an ongoing battle for a while."

Weeks later, things settled down.

"Finally, out of the blue, Cranberry started coming around. We had one cat box, so they had to learn to share. Eventually they both came around to like each other. Now I have multiple pictures of the two of them sitting together, cuddling, licking each other," said Adams, who lives in Lewiston. "Now they're inseparable."

Heather Cleaves' cat, 2-year-old, Midnight, wasn't eager to share his home either. Cleaves, of Farmington, had to introduce a new cat — not because a loved one was moving in but because her elderly neighbor was moving out.

She agreed to take her neighbor's 16-year-old cat, Blackie. As soon as Blackie walked in, Midnight sniffed him, grew skittish and followed him around suspiciously. 

"Like, 'This is my house, not your house,'" Cleaves said.

In an effort to foster some happy feelings, she started feeding the cats together and playing with them together. She wanted the two to associate good things with each other.

Today they're friends.

"I took Blackie to surgery earlier this year and Midnight was looking out the window and whining and crying and looking for him all through the house," Cleaves said. "And then when he got back from the vet, Midnight gave him the biggest lick on his face."

Hope

Unfortunately, a relationship can also start off OK and turn sour.

Months after their quiet, five-cat introduction, trouble started brewing in the Peres-McGrory household.

Peres' cat Mimi started terrorizing McGrory's cat Mojo. And Nuala, the oldest cat, started hiding and not using the litter box anymore.

"She doesn't get into much direct conflict with any of them. She's just very, very anxious all the time," Peres said.

The couple recently moved from a tiny apartment in Winslow to a house in Gardiner. They hope the added space will help reduce some of the cat conflict. And they hope, at least, to give 11-year-old Nuala her own room.

"That way maybe she'll be under the illusion that she's the only one there. That might be better for her," Peres said.

They're also considering the alternative that no pet owner wants: finding her a new home. For now, though, they're still trying to make it work. 

And the newly merged household has paid off for some furry members. Roger and Xavier, the gentle giants of the group, have found new friends — in the other cats and in each other.

"It's still worth it," Peres said of merging their pet families. "We do have a couple of them who have really, really gotten along. Roger and Xavier . . . they constantly snuggle on the couch together now, just hanging out. I think the two of them, because they're very needy and they're very sweet, they're benefiting from having the other one around."

Experts, and those who have gone through it, say there can be hope in even the most extreme cases.

Campbell's cat Snowball — the one for whom even TV cats sent her into a murderous rage — became friends with Amos, a stray cat Campbell found living under her porch. Campbell started by feeding Snowball only when Amos appeared outside.

"I said, 'Oh, we have to be a good hostess. So here's a bite of food for you and let's throw a bite out for him. We have to be a good hostess.' I only fed her when she saw him. It started with her glaring at him like, 'You're kidding, right?' But in a couple of weeks she was looking forward to seeing him," Campbell said. "Finally I had a glass of wine, fed them both, opened the door slightly, stood back, and he walked in and she sat there and looked at him."

Eventually, Snowball would live happily with three other cats.

"It ended up without too much time that all four cats were sleeping on our bed at night," Campbell said.

Fisher, too, has formed a happy family among her four dogs and two cats, despite the occasional skirmish. She credits equal attention, lots of love and lots of praise when they're getting along. 

"It is doable. You just have to have the time and patience for it," she said. "If you don't have the time and patience, don't do it."

ltice@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Gary Grenier's picture

Interracial Blending

I had two cats and two parakeets, when my girlfriend moved in, nearly two years ago. She came complete with two full-grown black labs and a cat. My neighbors have dogs, so my cats were familiar with dogs, but didn't get along with them. One was scared to death and the other would hide in a bush and fly out at them when they went by. Amazingly enough, it didn't take long for them all to get along. Nowadays, the "fraidy-cat" rubs around the labs' legs and under their chins all the time. It's funny to see. Sadly, my "tough guy" passed away earlier this year. We have recently added a Senegal Parrot to the zoo. He has made the adjustment very well.

Betty Davies's picture

What we did...

Our vet prescribed cat Valium, the same that's for adults but in special *small* doses (even half a human-sized pill might kill a cat).

Once they'd had a few weeks to get used to the fact that there are now 3 cats in various parts of the house, we experimented. One Valium did nothing for the biggest cat but sedated the smallest so much that she wandered drunkenly into the way of both aggressive cats, like she was saying, "Uh, hi. I'm a cat. Are you a cat?" I had to grab her before she became their breakfast.

The best dose turned out to be 1-1/2 pills for the big angry/scared male, 1 pill for the middle-sized spitfire, and 1/2 a pill for the scaredy-cat.

I mash the pills in little bowls, mix the powder well with a couple Tbsp. of soft cat food, feed them separately, wait 30-45 minutes, and let them be together. At first they could only be together an hour, with me as guard and referee. Gradually they've come to tolerate each other pretty well for longer periods, even after the medicine wears off.

After 10 days we started letting all of them roam the house all day. Next step: no more Valium. Still not decided if we'll ever let them be on their own with open doors all night. We have 3 food dishes, 3 water dishes, and 3 cat boxes, but the spitfire is very territorial and tries to guard all three!

We chose Valium because their aggression seemed to be based in fear... that's often the case with people, too...

CAROLYN LIBBEY's picture

Now let me get this straight.

Now let me get this straight. Three cats on Valium--a bad idea. I'd steer clear of any vet pushing Valium use for cats. There are other ways to deal with the situation other than feeding cats a potentially fatal drug, especially if there's the chance they may eat from each others bowls. Why do you think Valium use in humans has decreased so much over the years?

Betty Davies's picture

Excellent vet, excellent result

We've been going to the same veterinary service for 40 years. We like and respect all the vets there, past and present.

We fed the cats the medication when they were in separate rooms--no chance to eat each other's medicated food.

The cats show no ill effects. I mentioned that Valium could be fatal IF you give a cat a human dose, or even half a human dose, just in case someone reading my comment might think they could save on a vet bill by using their own medication on a cat. A cat-sized dose, prescribed by a vet, is not harmful.

This method worked. Our 3 cats now tolerate each other even when unmedicated.

If you don't like this method, don't use it. I presented it because it worked for us, and others might want to discuss it with their vet.

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