Dear PetLvr Mailbag,
My 4 month old kitten totally dominates my 8 year old Australian Shepherd.
The kitten, Freckles, is 4 months old. She’ll walk up to the dog, Luke, and he’ll freeze in panic. She’ll rub around his legs, purr, snuggle against him, and he’ll stand in one place with the most pathetic look you’re ever seen on a dog’s face.
Dinner time? If she’s in the same room, she runs to his dish and starts to eat his food, even if he’s already there. She’ll whap him on the nose, and start to eat his food. The kibbles are bigger than her mouth, but she’ll chew on one until it’s eaten, and them move on to another one. It’ll be a good 15 minutes of this before she’s finished and the dog can eat.
And no, I don’t under-feed her. She’s got a dish of her own Iams kitten kibble that’s kept full at all times.
Is my dog just a big wuss, or is there more to it than I’m seeing?
In multi-species households, it’s not unusual for pets to develop a pecking order that seems to fly in the face of common sense. For example, a friend of mine had a rat who chased her cats around the house, and I once rescued a feral rabbit with a broken leg who, after her leg healed, took up the hobby of terrorizing her adopter’s small dogs. The situation you describe, where a kitten or cat takes charge of a household that includes dogs much larger than herself, is in fact fairly normal.
To begin with, pets take many cues in their interactions with one another from you. When you brought your new kitten home, it probably spent a lot of time on your lap, being held, and receiving special attention. Maybe you, like many owners of both cats and dogs, even feed the kitten from a dish on a counter or dresser in order to keep your Aussie out of the cat food. All of these things tell your dog, “This new arrival is now above you in the household hierarchy.” The pet that gets fed first, gets attention first, and is fed in the most desirable location, becomes “top dog”– even if it’s not a dog at all.
It’s worth noting here that, while dominance partially explains behaviors observed between pets in the household, applying dominance theory to your interactions with your dog and cat is generally unwise. See The Dominance Myth for more on that subject.
Back to the kitten and the dog: Several other factors may be in play here. If your dog has been previously taught to be gentle with children, puppies, guinea pigs, chickens, or any other small creature, he may generalize this learned behavior to the kitten, and be reluctant to risk a scolding from you if he pushes the kitten out of his food dish. In addition, many dogs– particularly herding breeds– instinctually perceive small and young animals as deserving of tolerance. The same instincts that would lead your Aussie to treat a newborn lamb gently are probably kicking in to tell him that this kitten is a vulnerable member of the family. Herding breeds assign themselves numerous “jobs,” and it appears that your Aussie has decided that one of his jobs is to take care of the kitten.
That’s not a bad thing. If watching over the kitten keeps your Aussie busy (if a little confused by unfamiliar body language like rubbing and purring, and annoyed with the swats on the nose and stolen food), he’ll be more mentally stimulated and will feel as if he’s doing something useful even when you aren’t home. However, it’s probably best to curb the kitten’s habit of stealing dog food before the kitten develops a nutritional deficiency or gets big enough to eat whole bowls full of dog food, leaving the dog to stare mournfully at an empty dish.
Reinforce the roles your dog and cat have selected for themselves by feeding the cat first at mealtimes. Add an organic meat-flavored baby food or a high-quality canned food to your kitten’s diet, and serve it only right before the dog is fed. The addition of a moist food has two purposes: First, it makes the kitten’s own food more appealing, leaving the dog time to eat; secondly, it adds moisture to the kitten’s diet, which is very important for felines.
A raw, whole prey model diet is best for cats, but if feeding dry food is necessary, the addition of a moist component can reduce long-term risks of kidney and urinary tract disease. Many common health problems in felines are linked to feeding dry, processed diets exclusively.
Feed the dog only after the kitten is already snacking on the baby food or canned food in another room. Encourage your dog to eat quickly by removing the bowl after 10 minutes, whether he’s finished or not. If he’s a slow eater, he’ll become a quick eater after one or two removals of a half-full bowl.
Managing meals more efficiently should also eliminate most of the kitten’s nose-swatting behavior. A smack on the nose is an appropriate response to a pushy dog or to being chased, but cats that make a habit of slapping dogs on the nose without provokation risk a nip from a startled or fed-up dog.
In the long term, a pushy cat and a somewhat intimidated dog generally make for a harmonious household. The dog isn’t going to do too much cat chasing if he knows he’ll get a smack on the nose with sharp claws. The confusing body language and purring that currently cause your dog to freeze will eventually begin to make sense to him. By the time the cat is an adult, their relationship will be at least cordial, and may well develop into a close bond.
Oh, and a last note: Iams (and other grocery brands) are examples of basic nutrition processed foods. Processed foods are not the best option for dogs and cats, but when a processed food is preferred for reasons of convenience, a premium brand is a far better choice. Premium foods generally have a lower cost per metabolizable calorie than grocery brands, because they lack the indigestible fillers added to basic nutrition foods in order to hold down the price per pound.
I strongly suggest switching both pets to a premium brand; you’ll likely spend the same amount or less if you feed to an ideal weight, and you’ll earn dividends in the form of improved long-term health and lower vet bills. Canidae/Felidae, California Naturals, Wellness, Chicken Soup, Innova, Blue Buffalo, Solid Gold, and Natural Balance are all premium brands at a moderate price point which I would feel comfortable suggesting. At the higher end, Innova Evo, Taste of the Wild, and Wysong products are my favorite processed foods on the market.
Good luck, and enjoy the new kitten!
If you have a pet related question that you would like Jelena Woehr to answer here in our “PetLvr Mailbag” series … send your question to jelena (at) PetLvr (dot) com