• More than a pet

Dealing with pets and other animals

Vet Jon Bowen shares his advice on how to cope with a pet who doesn't get on well with other animals.

As pet owners, the view we have of life with pets can be rather rose-tinted. We picture strolling through the park with the dog off the leash, happily meeting and playing with all the other dogs while the cats sleep in a sunny patch on the windowsill after chasing butterflies together.

Cats fighting (© Charles Tsai, Flickr Open, Getty Images)

Unfortunately, pet ownership isn't always as easy as this and conflict between pets is a common source of problems. The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors regularly publishes a breakdown of behaviour problem cases seen by its members. Typically, about 20% of those cases involve aggression between cats, or between dogs. On top of that, a further 25% of cats show stress-related indoor spray marking.

Cats try to avoid fights by keeping away from each other, but when they are generally unhappy about their social environment they do things that tend to get noticed; they pee in the house, spray on the curtains, and scratch the furniture. Dogs on the other hand are highly sociable, and they generally try to find a way to iron out their differences with each other, so we see less evidence of the strain they are under. Unfortunately, this also means that we regularly take dogs into situations that they can't deal with.

For example, at the weekend I was sitting outside a pub when I heard a dog fight break out behind me. A Jack Russell terrier that was being walked off-leash past the pub had wandered in amongst the tables looking for leftovers and was immediately attacked by a spaniel. That spaniel wasn't letting any dog near his owner's lunch. No physical harm was done, but imagine if at the next pub a similar-looking spaniel ran out to greet the terrier? That could easily result in another fight if the terrier anticipated an attack.

In a very real sense, aggression can become infectious, like a disease. I would estimate that half the dogs I see with aggression to other dogs only became that way after being attacked by another dog.

The cost of social conflict is also well known to most cat owners, who will have enjoyed the benefit of a vet bill for treating their cat for a bite or an abscess. Some cats will even bring the fight home - in a study of 3000 cat owners, 50% said that they had to deal with other cats coming in through the cat flap. SureFlap, a UK company that produces identity chip secured cat flaps also found that feline intruders were responsible for stealing food, fighting with resident cats and even spraying on the furniture.

Relationships between resident cats can also be shaky, with owners commonly describing their cats as tolerant of each other, rather than friendly. With cats, the problem is mainly about sharing and queuing; cats don't like to share food, resting places or toilets with other cats, and they absolutely hate to have to queue to eat.

Here are my tips on how to make an environment for your pets that will encourage social harmony:

Dogs fighting (© Darren Stone, Flickr, Getty Images)

For dogs

- When you get a puppy, devote your time to socialising it with people and other dogs. This helps to prevent behaviour problems later on in life.
- If your dog likes other dogs, make time to go to a busy park several times every week so that your dog can have some fun.
- If your dog doesn't like other dogs, be responsible and keep him on a leash. Find other ways to exercise your dog, such as playing games in the garden.
- If you see a fellow dog owner put their dog in a leash, you should do the same. Don't let your dog be a pest to other dogs.
- Combat boredom by giving your dog more to do. The ASPCA has some useful suggestions on its website.

For cats
- Make your home and garden as cat-friendly as possible so that your cat has everything it needs. That means food and water available at all times, plenty of resting, climbing and toilet places. The Feline Advisory Bureau has a comprehensive article on improving the environment for cats.
- Give your cat outdoor access using a secure lockable cat flap to prevent other cats from getting inside.

The views and opinions stated in this article are the author's own and are for the information of the public only. They do not imply or constitute the involvement, support or endorsement of More Than, More Than Pets Insurance or any other insurer or specific insurance product.