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Published May 16, 2014, 08:30 AM

Pet Care: Ease dog and cat into cohabitation

By Dr. Michael Fox, Dear Dr. Fox: My boyfriend and I are getting ready to move in together into a new-to-us home.

By: Dr. Michael Fox, INFORUM

By Dr. Michael Fox,

Dear Dr. Fox: My boyfriend and I are getting ready to move in together into a new-to-us home. We each have a pet: I have a 7-year-old formerly feral cat, and he has a 2-year-old golden retriever mix from the pound. Both pets are extremely important to us.

My cat can be grumpy. She loves me and she loves my boyfriend, but it takes a while for her to warm up to most people — and forget about dogs. She’s met a few in her life, but it usually ends up with her hiding in various places and not showing her face for hours.

The dog is wonderful. She’s sweet and well-trained, but she has no experience with cats, and she’s very energetic.

I’m nervous about how to introduce them. I’d really like these soon-to-be sisters to get along. My worst nightmare would be that the cat ends up spending her whole life in the basement, trying to keep away from the dog. (We are designating the basement as a cat-only zone, complete with a cat-sized entrance, to ensure that she feels safe.)

Is there anything we can do to make sure our pets like each other? Thank you so much!

– E.P., Roeland Park, Kan.

Dear E.P.: First, I trust that your cat is a good judge of character. That she gets on with your significant other is an important test!

Several days before the interspecies co-habitation commences:

- Have your boyfriend bring over a blanket or towel that his dog has been sleeping on for a week, and switch it for one your cat has been sleeping on. This way the animals will get to know each other’s scent.

- Have a tape recording of the dog’s barks and play it occasionally at low volume for the cat.

- Keep the dog on a leash when she first comes in to your home. The cat will probably hiss and run away. Putting a couple of drops of essential oil of lavender on your cat’s neck prior to this first introduction may have some calming effect.

- It is debatable if one should allow the cat to run away and hide rather than facing up to the dog while being held in your arms (protected by a padded coat) or in a harness and leash. This is called “total immersion.”

My choice would be to take a weekend before dog and boyfriend move in, ideally the next long weekend, and keep the pets in the same room, one way or another. Leash the dog, but allow her to sniff around and settle down. Groom and pet the dog, and give her treats. Ditto for your cat if she is not too out of her mind. Maybe put on some music or watch TV. Then your boyfriend should leave with the dog and come back after two to three hours for another session and more through the weekend.

Your cat-only basement safe zone may work, but she may hide there forever. If you don’t want that to happen, be sure there is no place down there where she may get trapped between wall and pipes because you will have to bring her up to spend time with the dog and overcome her fear. Set up a baby gate with sufficient space beneath it for your cat to slip under so she can get to her litter box. Otherwise, the dog may start cleaning it out.

You may want to set up a separate feeding and drinking area temporarily for your cat with a similar gate set-up to keep the dog out if you are not using the basement for this purpose.

If your cat is not too spooked, leave her drinking water in the usual place (presumably upstairs) and with the dog’s water bowl next to it. Eventually, they may share the same bowl.

Initially, after the dog has been fed (and let the cat see this), restrain the dog when it is time to feed the cat in her usual place upstairs. If you opt for basement feeding and litter box for the cat, she may prefer to start living down there.

Best wishes to all of you. Cats and dogs do not have an innate animosity so much as cats have an instinctual, self-protective fear of larger animals, and their flight response triggers the dog’s chase reaction. Once these innate reactions are diffused, cats and dogs can be buddies for life. One cat I know of became a seeing-eye guide for her blind canine companion!

Dear Dr. Fox: My 10-year-old cat’s appetite has diminished. I tried some dry food, but that helps only for a short time. He seems OK, but I worry. Normally, I feed him a small can of Friskies in various flavors. I have been throwing so much food out, but I am afraid of switching brands at his age. Thank you.

– J.H., Winston-Salem, N.C.

Dear J.H.: One of the basic rules of knowing when an animal needs to see a veterinarian is when there is any significant change in appetite without any change in what the animal is normally being fed, and in thirst. These behaviors can be easily monitored and quantified. It is advisable to know the weight of the animal, which will help determine, over time, if weight is being lost or gained. This is why an annual physical with the veterinarian is advisable, and for cats, many veterinarians now do in-home visits that are far less stressful.

There are some better-quality and probably more palatable manufactured cat foods that I endorse, posted on my website, DrFoxVet.com. Note that the quality and kinds of ingredients in pet foods from batch to batch can change when companies get different ingredients from different sources and share manufacturing facilities with other companies rather than having their own facility.

Gerber’s meaty baby foods often perk up a cat’s appetite, but may not be best if proper treatment for some underlying ailment is delayed simply because the cat starts eating again.

Considering your cat’s age, the problem could be chronic kidney disease, so I would waste no time and make a veterinary appointment.

Send all mail to animaldocfox@gmail.com or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns. Visit Dr. Fox’s website at DrFoxVet.com.