Sharing a space when everybody doesn't like each other is no fun. It's almost harder when the ones who are fighting have four legs and don't speak. That's every episode of Animal Planet's new show, Cat vs. Dog, where cat whisperer Jackson Galaxy and dog trainer Zoe Sandor help a household with interspecies fur children become one big happy family—or at least attempt to. If you're going through a similar situation, we grilled the stars for their best tips on getting along.
From the show, it seems like there's clearly a lot that can go wrong when you have cats and dogs cohabitating. What's the worst cat and dog relationship you've come across?
Zoe: There are some situations that aren't solvable. When you get a dog that has a really deeply ingrained prey drive, sometimes there's no way to distract away from that. But also that there's this perfect storm, there's a dog with a really high prey drive, but there's also a cat that is acting very much like prey, and so a very shy cat or a cat with zero confidence or what Jackson, I'm sure, would like to say, a cat with no mojo, is more of a trigger for these dogs with strong prey drives.
Sometimes, it's just the dog that can't shake it, but a lot of times, it's the combination of the dog's personality and the cat's personality that makes it a situation that will never work. Those are the hardest ones because we have to tell the owners that at that point, you have two choices, either re-homing one of the animals or setting their life up to have their animals live separately forever.
Do people blame the dogs or cats more in these bad living situations?
Zoe: What we're seeing a lot through the show is that the cats are treated like the villains, no matter what the reality of the scenario is. The dogs are really babied. I would say 8 out of 10 times, you walk into a house and they think that the cat is bullying the dog. I think it has something to do with the way that cats bond with humans and the way dogs bond with humans. The dogs are given the benefit of the doubt.
Wow, not what I was expecting. What can we do to better understand our cats?
Jackson: First of all, stop looking at your cat through dog-colored glasses. That's the biggest thing I can say because we so readily understand dog behavior we hold up cats to that same communicative length and of course they flunk the test every time because they're cats.
They've got four legs and have got fur and that's where it ends. There's no comparison. Where a dog will demonstrate to you what it is they need and do it in a way that pleases you, it's not how cats are wired. There was this constant excuses-making that I would hear that, "Well, the cat is evil and the dog is just trying to play with the cat and why doesn't the cat want to play?" We must have heard that one 10 times. It was the concept that A) a cat understands what dog play is and B) they're not going to take it like a death threat is bizarre. That's just coming from somebody who lives with cats and dogs and lots of them fail to communicate constantly. I think that's the first thing that we can do is look at cats on their own light and think that'll be a good start.
Zoe: Once you understand that and you accept it, it's a lot less frustrating when you're trying to communicate with your cat and translate between your cat and your dog. That's really what you are being for them. You're helping your dog understand cat language, and you're helping your cat understand dog language. You can't be that translator if you don't understand one of your animals or both of your animals.
I think there is a huge emphasis on training for dogs in our society. Since a lot of cats are indoors, there's no societal pressure to be felt when you have a misbehaving cat. Cats are a lot more subtle about their discomfort, they put up with it a lot more. Dogs are very pushy about when they don't like something. There's a lot of reasons that go into people not understanding their kitties well enough. If you did and you have a cat and a dog in your home, the problem is probably that you aren't understanding your cat and you're misinterpreting your dog and giving them too much credit.
What are ways to improve the living situation for both animals?
Jackson: Remembering that a cat is incredibly territorial. A lot of dogs are as well, but we know that most cats are. When cats and dogs are competing for the same geographic space—i.e. the floor—all the time, then cats are going to be consistently on edge because dogs are sort of like toddlers. They move through the space with no regard for others. Cats are strategic. They're always thinking about where the escape routes are, where their resources are.
Zoe: The wonderful thing about cats is that they can move vertically. They can go up. That's space that is often completely unused in the houses that we go into, the apartments that we go into.
Jackson: Catification. The idea of catification is providing areas so that cats can use 360 degrees of the territory. That helps because from a territorial standpoint, because it's like popping a level on your ranch-style home, and suddenly they have two floors. The roommates can get along much better.
Another thing: Zoe and I are big believers in not free feeding your animals, meaning there shouldn't be food on the floor at all times. There should be a meal time and everybody eats during that meal time and everybody has separate feeding stations and when they are finished eating, food comes off the floor. No reason for those things to live on the floor 24/7. It doesn't work from that competition standpoint, but it also doesn't work from a general training standpoint. If dogs and cats aren't food-motivated, you got one hand tied behind your back at all times.
What is the best way to introduce cats and dogs to each other?
Jackson: Let's start with the worst idea. Worst idea is putting them in a room together and saying, "Okay. They'll work it out." They're not going to work out.
The best way to introduce cats and dogs is by scent first and creating positive associations every time they smell that other animal. That is to say that when you are feeding their meals, you get to first do it on either side of a closed door and that way if the cat smells a dog, dog smells the cat and every time they smell each other, they smell food. It must not be a bad thing. It's a consistent thing with every meal. Once they're used to it then we can start slowly introducing visual contact.
Zoe: If you have a dog first, you could even start by doing something like asking yourself, "Can my dog listen to me, disengage, redirect when they're playing with one of their friends?" If the answer is no, then don't expect that they're going to be able to do that with a kitty. Step two is taking the introduction slowly, making sure the dog is always under control so the cat can feel and see that the dog's not taking over the entire house.
Jackson: I am 1,000% bipetual. I've got eight cats and three dogs and I love them all. But, you've got to train your dog. If you think that you can introduce a cat into your dog's world and if your dog can't hold a down and stay, then you're done. The dog is going to get interested in the cat. They're going to sniff them out. They're going to "want to play with them" and now you've ruined that introduction because the cat sees the dog as a threat from square one. You got to be able to have your dog sit as a cat walks across the room and reward them and let them know this is the behavior that we want to see.
Thanks, Jackson and Zoe! Cat vs. Dog airs on Animal Planet Saturdays at 8pm.