Visiting Vet: Cats and dogs

They can be friends, but don’t forget the size difference.

After treatment, Sprinkles was feeling better enough to watch a bird show on TV. — Courtesy Michelle Gerhard Jasny

Sprinkles is a sweet, petite, 8-month-old cat who shares her home with her sister Sprocket, and her “cousin” Pippa, a 6-month-old Labrador retriever. Despite the stereotype of “fighting like cats and dogs,” there are innumerable households where canines and felines live together peacefully,even affectionately. At our house, Tiger Lily loves our dog Quinna, and often sits and licks her head, despite the 60-pound size differential. The internet abounds with adorable videos of interspecies friendships — everything from monkeys and ducks to hippos and tortoises. But one day this winter, something happened between Sprinkles and Pippa. The owner thought they were only playing, and didn’t see any altercation or injury, but the next few days Sprinkles just didn’t seem right. “I think she may have hurt her back,” the owner said. Sure enough, when Sprinkles arrived, she immediately growled when I tried to pick her up. Not an “I’m-a-fierce-lion” kind of growl. More of a “please-don’t-touch-me” growl. As I gingerly examined her, it was clear that Sprinkles’ neck and back were extremely painful. 

Some of the saddest trauma cases I have ever seen are ones in which a dog grabs a cat and shakes it. Most of these situations involve dogs and cats that don’t know each other. A family member brings a dog with them when they come to visit for the holidays. The dog is fine back home with his own cats, so no one worries. A person adopts an adult dog from the shelter, and is told it is “good with cats.” But for a dog, there may be a big psychological difference between his own cat and that strange cat. Attacks can be unexpected, swift, and traumatic for everyone involved. The injuries to the cat are frequently life-threatening. Deep puncture wounds may penetrate the chest or abdomen, and the shaking all too often breaks the cat’s back. 

In Sprinkles’ case, however, no one saw any such attack, and as far as everyone knew, the two animals had simply been playing. I ran my fingertips gingerly through the cat’s fur, feeling for any hint of a wound. Bite wounds can be deceptively small on the surface, but with significant damage under the skin. I did not find any punctures. Perhaps this was not a “grab and shake” injury but more of a “big goofy puppy smooshing playful little cat by mistake” injury …but Sprinkles clearly had serious neck and back pain. I gave the poor miserable kitty an injection of a morphine derivative for pain, and sent her home with oral nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce inflammation and provide continued analgesia. 

“Keep her quiet and confined,” I advised. I suggested the owner minimize the need for jumping or climbing stairs by providing Sprinkles with everything she might want all on the floor in one dog-safe room. Litter box, food, water, a cozy bed. There was no way to know for sure if the dog had injured Sprinkles intentionally or by accident, so I suggested they be very careful and supervise future interactions. Some dogs can seem very relaxed around cats, but if the cat gets spooked and runs, it can kick off the dog’s “prey instinct” and provoke an attack. On the other hand, Pippa might be an innocent if overly exuberant playmate.

When introducing dogs and cats, it is important to keep in mind that some individual dogs just have too strong an impulse to chase smaller animals. It’s an instinct that can be hard to override. A cat that gets too scared and runs may provoke aggression from the dog. Younger dogs may be more open to “making friends” with other species, but may also have a harder time staying calm and being “socially appropriate.” So how do you introduce a cat and a dog? One technique that works well is to put the dog in a kennel or crate and give them a delicious, special, long-lasting treat, like a Kong toy stuffed with frozen squeeze cheese or peanut butter. While the dog relaxes in the crate, let the cat explore. As long as the dog does not get agitated or aggressive, this allows the two animals to get comfortable in one another’s presence.

If your pup is too excitable, or hates the crate, start with basic training. Sit. Stay. Once he has these down, put him on a leash. Reward him for sitting quietly with special food treats while the cat is allowed to venture nearby. Try feeding the cat in the same room, but at a safe distance. Over time you can gradually allow the two to get closer, but always back off if things get tense for either participant. Never punish the dog. Just go back to sitting calmly and rewarding positive behavior. Yelling will only escalate the tension. Once you get to the point where you feel you can safely take the dog off the leash, make sure the cat still has an escape route. A tall cat tree to climb, with a hidey box at the top. A cat door she can slip through to get to a separate room away from the dog. Finally, if the dog in question is simply a visitor, or if you have any doubt at all about your cat’s safety, keep them separated. If this isn’t possible, then have the dog wear a “basket muzzle.” These come in soft plastic varieties that allow dogs to pant and drink comfortably, but protect cats from attacks.

Four days after I first examined Sprinkles, I emailed asking for a progress report. “Sprinkles is about 90 percent better,” her owner wrote. “She still seems ouchy at times, but overall is feeling a lot better. She even watched a bird show on TV.” For Sprinkles and Pippa, I suspect the injury was more a matter of two youngsters playing too rambunctiously, but the family will continue to monitor the situation, making sure any interactions are all in good fun and that the roughhousing doesn’t get too rough.