Living in Peace in a Multi-Pet Household

Why can’t they just all get along? Are we asking too much for a cat and a pet rat or budgie to be best buddies?

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Last Updated on February 23, 2023 by Natasha Medvetsky

The expression may be, “They fight like cats and dogs,” but dogs and cats mostly do get along, as today about United Nations isn’t called in to broker peace. However, adding a different species can be trickier than pulling a rabbit out of a hat. After all, in nature, cats and gerbils or leopard gecko lizards might not be best pals.

“Merging species can certainly work out, but do so with your eyes wide open,” warns veterinary behaviorist Dr. Elizabeth Feltes of The Behavior Clinic near Cleveland, Ohio.

“All animals of any species have their own histories and their own personalities,” adds Dr.  Valarie Tynes, veterinary behaviorist at SPCA Dallas, Texas.

It’s tricky in part because a cat is born with a prey drive and amplified a hundredfold if there’s a history of hunting rodents or birds. In these instances, adding a pet guinea pig or budgie might not be the best plan to even try.

Keep critters from being stressed

The decision about who can live peacefully with whom can be nuanced. What’s more, today we know about not only considering the physical well-
being of, say, a domestic rat or bearded dragon lizard living with a cat so the pet doesn’t turn into lunch, we also acknowledge the importance of psychological welfare or well-being.

“Imagine being stared at all day by an animal who would, given the slightest opportunity, eat you up,” Dr. Tynes says.

“Definitely being in a situation where the prey animal can see the cat — even if the cat is merely curious — can be the source of stress,” says Dr. Feltes, who is also a contributor to Decoding Your Cat (authored by members of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists). “Prey species hide their distress. By the time the pet parent is seeing actual signs, like a bird feather picking, the anxiety and stress has probably been going on for some time. And most certainly, stress can lead to illness. I am all about prevention.”

Keep small critters away from the predatory eyes of cats, so they don’t feel constantly stressed, Dr. Feltes says. A few ways to do that are:

  1. House small mammals or reptiles in cages or aquariums with opaque or obstructed views, so they have no clue a cat may be staring.
  2. Keep the cage or aquarium out of the cat’s way, so he can’t possibly get close. Keep the critter in a room that’s off-limits to the cat or high up so the cat can’t jump up. Make sure there are no other close pieces of furniture allowing the cat easier access.
  3. Keep doors closed. If kids are involved, stress the importance of the door always being shut.
  4. Put a bell on the cat’s collar so you always know where the cat is in the house. If the cat is by the cage, remove the cat from the room.

How to keep the peace

If you have a multi-species household, Drs. Tynes and Feltes offer tips for different species living with cats.

©fotojagodka | Getty Images

Birds: Small parrot species, like budgies or cockatiels, or ornamental birds, like finches and canaries, just aren’t  going to mix well with cats. Both Drs. Tynes and Feltes express concern about the small birds’ well-being, even if in a secure cage.

Very large parrots such as African greys, Amazon parrot species or cockatoos are formidable, and their beaks can seriously injure a cat.

“If it’s a confident bird, which has a positive history with cats, I feel better about the situation,” Dr. Tynes says.

Parrots are brilliant, and there are even stories of some becoming “cat trainers,” such as imitating the sound of a can opener so that the cat comes running to the fridge to seek tuna. This might be a parrot’s idea of entertainment. Dr. Feltes says that with patience (and perhaps professional guidance) you can positively habituate young parrots around a kitten, so they’re growing up with one another.

Rabbits: Stand-up, larger rabbits who assert themselves to a kitten can set the record straight from Day One. However, timid rabbits who run for the hills when a cat is around can activate that feline prey drive, and suddenly a hunt is on. “When introducing a cat to a rabbit, do so gradually as you would introducing a cat to another cat,” Dr. Tynes says. “Certainly a cat with no previous experience hunting and a rabbit who has never been hunted are most likely to work out.”

Reptiles: Starting with the obvious, a large snake or monitor lizard might make a meal out of a cat, and this combo would never be an appropriate mix. What’s more complicated are other species who aren’t a threat to cats, such as a green iguana or bearded dragon lizard.

“A full-grown iguana can definitely hurt a cat, but it doesn’t mean the lizard isn’t feeling threatened sharing living space with a cat,” Dr. Tynes says. “We think of welfare and psychological stress with mammal species, but we don’t exactly know what lizards are feeling.”

Other small Mammals (guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, rats, chinchillas):

Many YouTube videos show various small mammal species getting along just fine with a cat, even grooming one another. Dr. Feltes simply wonders, “Why take that chance? With a daily view of the cat, the animals may not want to come out and eat and may feel unsafe.”

In all of the above cases — whenever there are any of these animals interacting with a cat, adult supervision is required — don’t leave it to chance.

About the Author

Steve Dale
Steve Dale

Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior consultant who’s authored several books, including the e-book Good Cat, and has contributed to many, including The Cat: Clinical Medicine and Management, edited by Dr. Susan Little. He hosts two national radio shows and is heard on WGN Radio, Chicago, and seen on syndicated HouseSmartsTV.

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