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Have more than one cat without catastrophe

Published Aug. 28, 2005

Many people believe cats are solitary. Pam Johnson-Bennett disagrees.

"In general, two cats are better than one," she says. Many people also think cats are antisocial because they don't hunt cooperatively, as dogs do. And for those who maintain that people are no more than food dispensers to cats and that dogs care more about us than cats, Johnson-Bennett says, "That's just wrong!"

Johnson-Bennett, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants Inc., is one of the most successful authors of books about cat behavior. Her latest is Cat vs. Cat (Penguin Books, 2004, $15).

Though Johnson-Bennett acknowledges that cats are generally more independent and less needy than dogs, "that doesn't mean they don't require companionship." Cats enjoy having feline pals. The secret to making friends, however, is a proper introduction.

"There's also a right and a wrong way to introduce a new cat (to other pets), which is the foundation of how their relationship will be built," Johnson-Bennett says.

The wrong way to introduce a new cat is to sneak the newcomer into the house, tiptoe to the center of a room, drop the new cat and head for the hills. The new pet will be terrified, and existing cat(s) will be offended by the interloper. Instead, Johnson-Bennett suggests the following Eight Step Program:

1. Have a new cat examined by a vet. Cats can pass infectious diseases to one another. "If one of your existing cats is ill or is having some sort of behavior issue, this is not the time to add a new furry family member," Johnson-Bennett says.

2. Create what Johnson-Bennett calls a sanctuary room for a new cat. This can be a den, sunroom, basement, bathroom, extra bedroom or closed-off indoor patio or porch. "If you can't devote a room, you shouldn't be adding another cat," Johnson-Bennett says.

The sanctuary room shouldn't be a jail; the more often family members visit, the better. The cat's food, water, litter box and something appropriate to scratch on should be provided.

Provide toys, but even more important, play with the new cat, using an interactive toy (such as fishing pole-type toy with feathers or fabric) at least twice daily.

Encourage the new cat to come out from under the bed or sofa. Create alternative hiding places by using boxes or paper bags. Cats will gain confidence if they can climb. Using tape, securely stack boxes in a way that the cat can climb. Cut the bottom out of several paper bags and create a tunnel, a great hiding place for a shy cat and lots of fun for a playful kitty.

While you're busy entertaining your new cat, don't ignore your resident cat(s).

3. One purpose of the sanctuary room is to allow your resident cat(s) to sense that the newcomer is there. For one thing, they'll hear one another. However, if the new cat complains too loudly, move the existing cats as far away as possible, or turn on a radio to drown out the noise.

4. The sanctuary room also allows new and existing cats to smell one another. After a few days, help the process along by rubbing a clean sock on the cheek pads of the cat in the sanctuary room. Then deposit the sock near your existing cat(s)' food dish. Next, reverse the process, wiping the resident cat(s)' scent on a sock and dropping that in the sanctuary room.

After two or three days, switch other things around. Place toys and/or bedding from the sanctuary room to where your existing cat(s) can get a good whiff. Also take toys and/or bedding belonging to the resident cat(s) and place them with the newcomer.

5. Put the resident cat in the bathroom or basement with a family member for 20 to 30 minutes while you give your new cat a tour of the house. Along the way, kitty can't help but deposit his/her scent. Also, the new kitty will become familiar with the layout of the home.

6. Finally, the cats will be ready to see one another, but for only seconds at first. Remember, "with cats, less is always better," Johnson-Bennett says.

Start by opening the door to the sanctuary room and offering the new cat a tidbit of tuna, salmon, baby food or other treat. At the same time, have a family member do the same on the other side of the room for the resident cat(s). All the cats will learn that they get treats (as many times as a day as you want) only when each faction is present. Keep the meetings short at first, gradually lengthening them and shortening the distance between the new and the resident cat(s).

7. After each treat session, if the cats remain curious about one another, Johnson-Bennett says, "now begin parallel play. Take a toy and play with the new cat while another person (or you can use your other arm) plays with your existing cat(s) using an interactive toy."

8. Finally, have the cats meet up close and personal. Make sure an adult is there to supervise until they're consistently getting along.

"It's perfectly natural for there to be some posturing and hissing. That means the cats are working things out on their own, which is fine," Johnson-Bennett says. "Remember, through this entire exercise, watch your cats. They'll tell you when it's okay to proceed to the next step."

Strange bedfellows

My neutered male cat makes a nightly ritual of climbing on top of our 20-pound female dog, rocking back and forth, using his paws to swim through her coat. It's as if we're watching an X-rated movie. The dog, who is spayed, tolerates this until the cat bites her once too often. Then she simply jumps away. She doesn't otherwise act angry.

What's happening? Should I get involved or leave it alone?

"You may need to call in a rabbi," jokes Dr. Wayne Hunthausen, a veterinarian interested in behavior. "All cats have a hard-wired prey drive. All domestic cats will generalize to chase feathers and pingpong balls, even though these items aren't edible, like a real mouse. Similarly, your altered cat is generalizing his sexual drive with your dog. There is no female cat around, so a small female dog will suffice because she's the same general shape. Well, at least close enough for your not-so-discriminating cat."

Don't worry, Hunthausen says, your cat isn't actually sexually interested in your dog. Obviously, he likes the dog, but it works both ways; the dog apparently likes the cat or wouldn't tolerate this strangeness. The pooch may even enjoy the display of affection, however bizarre. What was first an impulse for the cat has turned into a self-reinforcing habit.

As you describe the scenario, your pooch is being very decent about it. It won't be surprising if one day your cat bites too hard once too often, your pup snaps back, and that will be the end of it.

However, if the bizarre nightly scene is getting on your nerves, Hunthausen suggests hiding a plant mister behind your back. Just as kitty is about to mount your dog, give him a squirt. Unless your dog doesn't mind getting splashed, be sure your aim is good; you don't want to punish your dog.

Cat fleas bite dogs, too

Is there a difference between dog and cat fleas?

Yes, there are fleas known commonly as cat fleas and another species commonly called dog fleas. The fleas most always responsible for infesting dogs are, interestingly, cat fleas (Ctenocephalides felis felis). Cat fleas also most often occur on cats. According to a 1987 study at the University of Florida, 92.4 percent of all dogs suffering from fleas are plagued by cat fleas, and 99.8 percent of all cats with fleas have cat fleas. However, veterinary parisitologists say those numbers are low and they haven't seen a dog flea for years. No one knows why. Bottom line, it doesn't matter because dog and cat fleas are prevented the same way with the same products.

Write to Steve Dale at Tribune Media Services, 435 N Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611, or send e-mail to Questions of general interest will be answered in the column.