Is Fido Good With Cats?
Guest blogger Heather Mohan-Gibbons, MS, RVT, CBCC-KA, ACAAB, Director of Applied Research and Behavior at the ASPCA, offers some alternatives to using cats in assessments for the dogs in your shelter.
Working in Research and Development, we are often asked by shelter professionals why there isn’t a standardized assessment item in which a dog is introduced to a cat in a shelter setting. We hear that some shelters are doing these kinds of dog-cat introductions and want this information to make better placements. Also, potential adopters want to know how a dog will behave with their resident cat.
However, the lack of standardization means that every shelter has their own version of a dog-cat introduction with varying outcomes. Without follow-up, it is unknown if the dog’s behavior during the introduction with a shelter cat matches the dog’s behavior to the adopter’s cat in the home. Unfortunately, few shelters have resources for adequate follow-up to gather the necessary data to validate their method. Bottom line: Similar to dog-dog introductions, dog-cat introductions are unlikely to inform us about behavior in the home.
Why dog-cat introductions are not recommended in a shelter setting
Using dog-cat introductions can be a VICE and are not recommended due to the following reasons:
V = Variability. Behavior is variable between two individuals of different species during any interaction. How the introduction is conducted and the room design can also affect behavior of both the dog and cat. It is difficult to make broad generalizations about how each dog would behave with the adopter’s cats in the home due to this amount of variability.
I = Inhumane. We want to ensure that our efforts are in the best interest of the animals in our care and do not cause harm of any kind. Most dog-cat introductions require the cat to be contained while a dog approaches. Limiting a cat’s choice for escape changes the cat’s behavior and is not humane for the cat.
C = Cats. They have behavior, too! A cat may behave differently with each dog based on their past experiences with dogs, how the introduction is performed or the way the dog approaches. The cat’s behavior can then affect how the dog responds. We also don’t know what behaviors would make a good “helper cat” in order to have a standardized introduction.
E = Environment. A dog’s behavior is based on many specific cues in the environment and his past experiences. For example, if a dog only sniffs a cat who stands still, it doesn’t tell us what he will do when the cat runs away. If the cat is in a crate for the introduction, the dog’s behavior could be a result of the barrier, a result of a novel situation, or even the dog’s experiences with crates!
The danger is when shelters give recommendations based on behaviors seen during these introductions. Some will recommend euthanasia or place adoption restrictions for the dog (which, like all restrictions, reduces opportunities for adoption). Other shelters will have a false sense of security that the dog would do well with cats based on the dog-cat introduction, and the adopter may go home with unrealistic expectations. We know that your time is valuable and can be better used for more lifesaving work.
4 things you can do instead of dog-cat introductions
Play it SAFE by using these tips:
S = Support your adopter’s cat. Provide the adopter with management tips for the first few weeks or months to help support their resident cat and their new dog.
A = Ask good questions on intake. A behavioral history can help support dogs toward a live outcome. How the dog has behaved in the past in real-life situations gives you valuable information you can pass along to the new adopter.
F = Follow up after adoption. Ideally, a call at 3 days, 3 weeks and 3 months is adequate, but start with whatever you can do.
E = Expectations should be realistic. Even if a dog lived with a cat in his previous home, it doesn’t mean he will get along with all cats (or kids, or dogs). Counsel the new family on what to expect when they get home and let them know they can call you if the unexpected happens.
We all hope that every dog and cat can have a friendship like my friend’s dog, Phoebe (see above). On a nightly basis, Phoebe gets a “kitty face bath.” Interestingly, Phoebe came from a rescue where she chased cats! However, with support and management during that first month in my friend’s home, Phoebe has now found her new interspecies BFF.
As the Director of Applied Research and Behavior at the ASPCA, Heather empowers shelters across the country to implement research and programs that save the lives of dogs and cats. She has over a decade of animal behavioral work and research experiences working with a wide variety of species and organizations. She loves training new species, growing heirloom seeds and being outdoors with her rescue dogs.