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New marriages can be tough for couples' pets
By Cheree Franco
MSU Ag Communications
MISSISSIPPI STATE – In the chaos of organizing a wedding, brides and grooms sometimes overlook how tough the transition may be for their furry, feathered and hoofed friends.
Blending pet families can be stressful for both humans and animals, but foresight and attention to detail help ensure a successful adjustment.
“The biggest mistake pet owners make is not planning ahead,” said Dr. Joey Burt, chief of community veterinary services with Mississippi State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Don’t throw pets together and hope they’ll work it out; they won’t.”
While the animals still have separate residences, Burt recommends a towel exchange.
“Rub your furry pets with a towel and send it to the other animal’s home, so they can begin getting used to each other’s scent. Then switch back, so the scents are blended. This may neutralize the actual introduction.”
He also cautions pet owners not to believe the cartoons.
“It’s not dogs and cats that have problems with each other. Usually it’s dogs and dogs and cats and cats,” he said. “We all have bad days. If your pet is particularly grumpy today, don’t push it. You want everybody in a positive mood when you start this process.”
For dogs, Burt advised finding a neutral place--that is, neither home--for the initial introduction. At first they should be leashed and given simple commands in each other’s presence, to ensure responsive, obedient mindsets.
“If things are going smoothly and the dogs seem curious, bring them into contact while leashed,” Burt said. “Then you can take the dogs off lead and allow them to play. This may happen in one session, or it may take several meetings.”
He recommends removing toys and food during the introduction and offering these items only under supervision for a few weeks.
“Use a barrier during feedings,” he said. “With a bowl on either side of the door, dogs can hear and smell each other and sense each other’s presence while something pleasurable is happening. It’s positive reinforcement. And when you’re ready for toys, give each dog a toy at the same time, so they don’t have anything to be territorial over.”
Introducing cats is even trickier, according to Burt.
“Cats have a certain threshold, and you never know what that threshold is,” Burt said. “One cat may want to be the only cat in the house, while another may tolerate five cats but gets upset with the sixth.”
Burt encouraged owners to give each cat time to explore.
“Bring the new cat in while the old cat is put away,” he said. “After the new cat has explored, put it away and bring the old cat out, so that it can wander around and smell the new cat in its home.”
Until the cats grow comfortable with each other, pet owners should provide extra litter-boxes. In general, a good number of litter boxes is the number of cats plus one.
“If you have two cats, you need three litter-boxes, so that there is neutral area,” said Burt. “Cats are territorial with smells and marking.”
Synthetic pheromones are safe and may help calm cats, but Burt advised using them only if necessary.
“Consult with a veterinary behaviorist so that you know how to use them appropriately,” he said.
Burt often encounters pet owners who don’t get professional help soon enough.
“If a couple of months have passed and you’re still having problems, you should contact a veterinarian or a behaviorist,” he said. “I might forgive the first fight, but the second time animals attack each other, it’s time to try other remedies. These may be specially designed antianxiety toys or in extreme cases, antianxiety medication.”
When pets have a natural predator/prey relationship, such as the one between dogs and rabbits, owners should be extremely cautious with introductions and may not ever be able to leave their pets alone together.
New spouses must also be cautious when introducing large animals.
“Horses need to meet with a stall or fence between them,” said Dr. Heath King, a reproduction specialist at MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
A few months ago, King and his new wife, Dr. Cathleen Mochal, blended their own horses.
“Horses need to be supervised for their first few hours in the pasture to make sure no one gets chased through the fence,” he said. “This should happen early in the day, because horses can’t see fences well near dusk. And avoid bringing food into the mix. Food could instigate aggression.”
Although displays of aggression are rare, they do happen.
“It depends on who a horse was in the social network it came from,” King said. “If a horse was boss, it may be an aggressor. Mares are more aggressive than geldings, and stallions are the most aggressive.”
Burt emphasized that owners should be receptive to their pets’ individuality.
“Even when things appear to be going well, owners should watch for signs of stress in their pets: hiding, changes in eating and elimination habits and excessive grooming,” Burt said.
Contact: Dr. Joey Burt (662) 325-3234