Our dog is making our cat stressed!
(Q) My beloved eight-year-old Butterball (Butters for short) has recently developed a very distressing habit. She has started to pull out tufts of her fur. My vet says it's a behaviour problem as she couldn't find any medical issues. Please help me stop Butters from becoming a bald cat!
(A) Behaviourist Dr Peter Neville says: Linda had recently moved in with her boyfriend Alex, and the two of them met with me to try and address Butter's fur pulling behaviour.
Linda had adopted Butters as a kitten from her local animal rescue shelter. She was an only cat, and spent her time exploring the garden or sleeping in a sunny spot. There were no problems at all, that is until Linda moved in with Alex and his dog Max, a Cocker Spaniel who seemed to flummox Butters.
No matter how much effort Linda and Alex put into introducing the cat and dog, Butters would hiss and run away every time, which of course, Max found to be great fun! The more Butters ran, the more Max would chase her, and then the more Linda and Alex would try to force them to be friends after each incident.
To Max's credit, he didn't hurt Butters but would try to sniff her, lick her, and then try and get her to play. All of that simply served to irritate and frighten the poor cat even more, and there was no chance of her being friendly after these interactions!
Instead, Butters would hiss and swat at Max whenever he came near her. Linda used a spray bottle with water to punish this 'unfriendly' behaviour as she felt quite embarrassed by her cat's unwillingness to accept a new friend. But now, in an unfamiliar house and with an unwanted canine companion, Butters started to pull her fur out by the mouthfuls - resulting in balding patches around her tail and back legs.
Sadly, Linda was even starting to wonder if she should rehome Butters as she was obviously so unhappy.
Dealing with stress
When I visited, Butters was calmly sat next to me on the sofa when Alex let Max into the lounge. The dog, as friendly as can be, made a beeline for me to say hello. Butters immediately puffed herself up, hissed at Max, jumped up onto the top of the armchair and glanced at Linda before starting to frantically lick her bald patch.
Linda tried to interrupt her by clapping and scolding Butters, but the more she told Butters to stop, the harder she licked.
I explained to Linda that Butters was a really stressed cat, and her fur pulling was her way of dealing with it. Butters was stuck in a situation that she didn't know how to resolve. She was not used to other pets, never mind dogs, as she was never socialized with them when she was a kitten.
When simply running away from Max didn't work, Butters moved on to defending herself if cornered, hissing and swatting at Max. But then, Linda's use of a water spray meant that Max was not only a scary intruder, but also a predictor of unavoidable punishment from her owner.
Butters had no way of escaping Max, and the more she tried to keep him away, the more she was punished. This led to her being so anxious that she resorted to over-grooming herself.
Grooming is an activity that provides pleasure for cats, and this emotional relief was so powerful for Butters that she started to do it in excess. The licking eventually led to her pulling her fur out, and the more she did this the more it itched, so the more she would pull out.
In order to solve this situation, we had to provide Butters with a multitude of better options to engage in rather than pulling her fur out.
First though, I asked the couple to cease all forms of punishment immediately. Butters wasn't being a 'bad' cat; she was very stressed and the more they punished her, the more stressed she became. I also asked the couple to create some dog-free zones in their home.
By installing a few baby gates and keeping Max out of certain rooms, they could provide Butters with areas where she could relax and unwind without the fear of running into Max. We mapped out the house and decided on keeping one half dog-free.
I also asked them to put her food, water, toys, beds and a scratch post or two in the dog-free zones.
Next up, we had to look at ways to improve how Butters felt about life in general. By introducing regular playtime and more stroking sessions we could elevate her mood state and make her feel a little better.
If the couple saw her pulling out any fur, they needed to distract her with toys or by flicking little bits of kibble in her line of vision. Butters liked her food and by flicking it across the floor for her to chase and catch, we could also tap into her natural chasing and pouncing skills, another activity that really makes cats feel good.
After two weeks of management with the above steps being followed, it was time for phase two.
Our next step was to build a relationship between Butters and Max to prevent relapses in future.
Initially, I asked the couple to have each pet on either side of the glass door between the kitchen and lounge. Alex would be with Max (who, thankfully, was a well-trained dog who knew all the cues) while Butters and Linda played a game of 'catch the toy'. Every time the pets looked at each other without being scared or running towards each other, they had to be rewarded with praise and a treat.
After a week of this, we had progressed to the point where the two of them relaxed and then actually started showing a tiny degree of interest in each other!
Butters also began to emerge from her dog-free areas more often to spend time in the lounge and whenever she did this, Linda and Alex made a huge fuss of her.
Max would be rewarded for being relaxed and calm too, and since his 'leave' cue was very well practiced, it became a lot easier to stop him chasing Butters.
What happened next?
Two months after Peter Neville went to visit Linda, he received an email containing an update: "The situation has improved beyond belief! Butters is once again her happy, relaxed self, and I am happy to report that she now gets on much better with Max and her fur is slowly growing back.
They aren't playing together yet, but Max can now lie next to Butters on the sofa without so much as a whisker twitching. In fact, I saw Butters grooming one of Max's back legs while he was asleep yesterday! It may be that she just licked the wrong leg or perhaps she is starting to lick his fur off in revenge! Anyway, thank you for helping us save our cat's sanity and for helping to integrate our pet's lives!"