Pet Lady Article
Surviving the Multiple Pet Household
Q: I have seven dogs and four cats and sometimes it just feels like a zoo around here. It can be total chaos, especially when I first come home. The dogs all bark and jump around and the cats get under foot. I love having so many animals as I live alone, and they really do keep me company, but there are days that I’m just ready to pull my hair out. Is there any prayer of ever having a calm household?
A: With 11 animals in the house, you pretty much do have a zoo! You didn’t really go into what chaos you experience other than homecomings, but I can pretty much guess—jumping, barking, fighting, and marking are involved. So what can you do to control all these animals—be a good leader!
Leadership is the most important skill needed in a multiple animal household. The human must be able to control all the animals involved with voice commands. All animals (yes, all includes the cats) should know come and sit. You can do a lot of controlling with these two simple commands. The animals need to be taught the skills separately first and then once they know what the words mean, work with them as a group. Find a word for all the animals (or one for the dogs and one for the cats) to come at once, so you don’t need to call out each name separately. In my house it’s “pup-pup-pup,” for the dogs and a clicking noise for the cats. That means everyone needs to come to me now—young and old alike. For the dogs, not only do they need to come, but they need to sit in front of me and wait for further instructions. This can all be obtained by individual training and then lots and lots of practice. Use treats in the beginning to reinforce that coming is good, and gradually fade the food from training (with cats you can rarely fade the food). My dogs also learn to take turns. While they are all sitting and lined up in front of me, I will call out their names as I hand out treats. The order always varies and if a dog tries to take a treat out of turn, they get to go last. Delilah, my St. Bernard is the worst at this as she is so tall, she feels she can grab the treat before I get it down to the others. She goes last a lot and is starting to catch on. See, even the trainer’s dogs aren’t perfect! After all, they are dogs and will constantly test and try to get away with things—just like children. I don’t expect them to be perfect and embrace their little quirks (which there are many). False expectations of our dogs often lead us to disappointment. However, we should all expect that our dogs can learn manners—IF we take the time to teach them what those manners are. They don’t learn them on their own.
With cats, I use the come to redirect the cats if they look like they are going to start a fight, mark, or any other behavior that I may not desire. I often use toys to do the same—a tin foil ball rolled in front of a cat who is stalking another can redirect that cat’s attention to stalking the ball instead. I always praise the desired behavior so the animals know what they can do as an alternative behavior.
Spaying and neutering all animals is a must in a multiple animal household. Testosterone and hormones can really upset the balance of things. Of course, altering the animals is not a cure-all; training still needs to occur to avoid problems. Ignoring some problems is also very effective, especially with the excited homecomings. Make coming home no big deal. Walk into the house, pass (or push) by all the animals and act as if they aren’t even there—even if they are barking, jumping, etc. There should be no talking to the animals, no eye contact, nothing, until they are settled. Then you turn and say hello when all is calm. If they get excited again, turn your back and ignore them. If fights are breaking out every time you come home, it’s time to think about separating dogs so they aren’t all there in the same area when you come in.
Management is often the other key to a multiple pet household. Currently my cats have an area all to themselves, while I’m training a new foster dog who is learning all about life with cats. Our daily mantra is “Cats are our friends, not food.” He hasn’t quite gotten it yet, but we’re working on it! Training is a daily process with lots of repetition and rewards for appropriate behavior. With patience, love, and lots of training, managing a multiple pet household is possible so you can enjoy the unconditional love of all your furry friends.