Conflict is the Mother of disagreements. This is true in people and it is especially true in our multi-pet homes when favorite possessions or places need to be shared. There are a few simple things we do could be causing distress between our pets and we don’t even know it. While things might seem fine now, we want to make sure we set our pets up for the most success in our home and with each other. Part of living their best lives together means feeling totally safe, happy, and at ease at home.
Feelings of conflict or feeling conflicted can be minor, but they can grow or become a bigger deal if not helped. What is allowed between an adult dog and a puppy can change seemingly overnight as a puppy grows into a teenager and starts to lose their “puppy license” with the other dog. What is allowed between two cats can quickly change when one cat oversteps the other’s boundaries. Because of these often silent conversations between pets, it is better to provide ample options for your pets and let them decide what they would like to share or not share.
Here are a few examples:
Food and water bowls:
Always have at least one food bowl for each pet. Very few pets enjoy sharing a bowl. I know I don’t like it when someone tries to take my fries!! Usually, bowl sharing is seen as one pet stealing food from the other. So, while one pet might love sharing a bowl, the pet who is being forced to share probably isn’t enjoying it. Put the bowls at least a six to ten feet apart so they don’t feel like they need to guard their dinner. If you put out separate bowls but one pet tries to share, give the pets more distance between the bowls (like across the kitchen or across the house) or put one pet behind a baby gate or a closed door.
For water bowls, I like to spread these out, as well. I have three dogs and two water bowls. Some dogs don’t like having anyone in their personal space and will be respectful and take turns at a single bowl. However, some dogs will try to drink out of the same bowl at the same time. Instead of making each other uncomfortable when they are both thirsty, place two or more bowls three to six feet apart (or more if needed) so everyone can have a drink at the same time in peace.
You may have heard the guideline “have one more litter box than you have cats,” but Katenna Jones of Jones Animal Behavior prefers “have one more litter box than your cats want.” She explains that cats often have a preference for which box they choose to urinate or defecate in, which they will share, and more. Start by providing a large number of litter boxes throughout your house and give them time to see if they start to develop any patterns. If there are boxes that are left empty after a week or two, you can start to remove those from the house. Having an appropriate number of litter boxes will help reduce or eliminate the number of messes your cats have outside of their litter box.
Beds or perches:
Sometimes cats and dogs each can bully other pets in your home for the best beds, cushions, or perch spots. By providing a large number of places and types of relaxation spots, you can help reduce tension and frustration among your pets. Some pets also need more space from their housemates. While it might be tempting to want everyone to relax together in the same room, your pet might be more comfortable adding distance between them and the other pets or family members. In addition to having multiple beds or perches for them in one area, try to spread them out across your living spaces. This will give them the opportunity to cuddle up close to each other, or find a cozy space to relax on their own. The important thing is to give them the option and opportunity.
While most pets subscribe to the “what my brother or sister has is better” philosophy when it comes to toys, it is still important to have several of each in a variety of toy types available for your pets. For example, if your dog likes to chew it might be good to pick up a multi-pack of Benebones or a handful of water buffalo horns. Rope toys or braided t-shirt toys can also be great options and provide a different texture for dogs to love. However, just because you have multiple toys doesn’t mean they will automatically play nicely together! You will still have to monitor them and make sure one pet isn’t bullying the others out of their favorite toy. Bullying can be easily missed, so watch closely! Hard staring until the pet leaves the toy is one example bullying. Use the same strategies mentioned for keeping them away from each others’ food bowls if they can’t play without interfering with each other!
Just because your pets seem “ok” with something, doesn’t mean they don’t feel conflicted or uncomfortable about having to share. They might be doing their best to politely share because it is their only option, but we shouldn’t assume that means they enjoy the set up. A lack of aggression is not the same as enjoyment!
The more options we can give them around sharing these resources mentioned above, the less likely they are to get into disagreements or fights over them. In some relationships, once a fight has occurred it takes intensive work with a professional behavior consultant to rebuild harmony between the pets. It could even lead to a pet needing to be rehomed.
Overall, it is better to avoid these challenges from the start and provide them with more choices instead!