Scratching, clawing, biting, hissing—no, I’m not talking about shoppers at the Jason Wu Target Sale, I’m talking about pet rivalries! Having two or more pets that just don’t seem to get along, be it dogs, cats, or a combination of both, can be frustrating, time-consuming, and even dangerous! That’s why we turned to Amy Shojai, certified Animal Behavior Consultant and author of over 20 cat and dog care books, to give us a little bit of help dealing with these “sibling rivalries.”
To begin with, Shojai wants us to think of rivalries as a sort of natural competition among our pets. Survival of the fittest has been a large part of evolution for all species, so competition can be seen as a sort of instinctual strategy for survival.
According to Shojai, “It’s a numbers game—two pets usually love, like, or at least learn to tolerate each other; three pets can create an odd-pet-out that gets bullied; four pets and above virtually guarantees serious pet-to-pet issues.” A lot of this has to do with the breed, gender, and sexual status of your pets. According to Shojai, “The worst issues seem to arise from same-sex and same-species pets.”
So what causes these rivalries in our pets? There are a number of factors that can cause tension and competition, including territory, personality, and resources. According to Shojai, “The most important territory for a pet is YOU and access to your attention.”
She also says that pets tend to get into more scuffs when there are limited resources, like toys or food. Another big factor can be personality: “two wannabe ‘top dog’ types who argue over who’s in charge can be misery to live with.” OK, if anyone's thinking 'Hey, this doesn't seem much different than the rivalry amongst my kids', there are some major differences in tug-of-wars with our four-legged friends.
What kind of behaviors should you look out for? Shojai points out that the ways in which pets display rivalries differs between the species. “Dogs argue with each other over a favorite toy or bone,” she says, “while cats argue over favorite sleep spots or ‘guard’ the litter box to keep others from using the facilities.”
She also says that cat rivalries will include more furniture-scratching or “hit-or-miss litter box behaviors,” which signal territorial claims.
These behaviors are all normal ones for a completely healthy rivalry among pets. However, if you start to notice that certain behaviors are provoking fear or physical harm to the pets, Shojai encourages pet owners to take notice.
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It’s not uncommon for pets to get a little bit rough when playing but, “You’ll know it’s play when both parties come back for more, rather than one hiding or running away from encounters.”
It’s normal for dogs to bark and whine during play, but any vocalizations from cats can mean a more serious situation because, Shojai says, cats tend to play in silence.
Whether or not your pets’ rivalry is dangerous, it can be irritating to have animals that are constantly bickering in your house. Luckily, there are things you can do to help ease the tension!
For starters, Shojai recommends getting all pets neutered: “Neutering helps level the playing field and reduces hormonal stress that can stir up rivalries.” Also very important is the way that we treat our pets.
According to Shojai, “the biggest mistake owners make is trying to force ‘fair play’ in their pets and treat them equally—this can make the situation worse.” Instead, she recommends that all pet owners recognize the “head pet,” who is usually the oldest or has been around the longest. The owner has to feed this pet first, play with him first—just overall, give this one the most attention!
Later on, Shojai says, when the “king” pet isn’t around, you can give the other pet all the attention it wants. This may not seem to be the most democratic approach, but behaviors like this are what animals understand best.
Another way to limit the presence of rivalries, according to Shojai, is to “provide multiple resources to the pets so they have no reason to argue.” If there is plenty of food and toys, your cat won’t feel threatened when the dog starts sniffing her toy! Finally, Shojai strongly recommends getting professional help if your pets’ rivalry is getting out of hand.
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For more information on Animal Behavioral Consultant Amy Shojai and the books she’s written, visit her website at: www.shojai.com