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How to Have a Multi-Pet Family

How ordinary or extraordinary is a multi-pet family, comprised of, say, a dog, a cat, a parrot, gerbils, perhaps a skunk or boa constrictor — and people, too, children and adults of various ages?

In nature, of course, several different animal species live together and share the same habitat. Through evolution and natural selection, they all come to fit harmoniously into a balanced ecosystem. In a home environment, they may not fit together quite so well. There are many things you can do, however, to foster compatibility — and a number of hazards and pitfalls to look out for.

natural interspecies relationships

Some zoos today have mixed exhibits, compatibly and peacefully, ranging from elephants living with giraffes to penguins sharing space with seals.

Watching different species interact is more interesting and entertaining for the public; and the different species provide each other more varied and often psychologically beneficial stimulation.

In the wild, naturalists have observed very different species playing with each other. It is a general misconception that members of a given species keep strictly together and interact only with their own kind. A young baboon was once seen riding a gazelle; when it fell off, the gazelle waited for it to jump back on again. Elephants and buffaloes have been seen to engage in playful fights, and wild and domestic species of deer, horse, antelope, sheep, goat, and cattle enjoy games of chasing and mock combat together.

Sometimes special associations develop: the badger and coyote that some times hunt together, or a rabbit or ground-nesting duck that may share its abode with a she-fox and her litter. Crows and ravens often follow behind coyotes and wolves that are out hunting, and these odd pairs have been seen playing together.

Foxes trapped live and tested with raccoons responded very differently to raccoons trapped near their own home than to those caught in a different locale. Even so-called solitary creatures like the nocturnal red fox have not only an intimate knowledge of the home range but also more than a passing acquaintance with other species living there. A blackbird’s alarm calls are understood by other bird species — and also by squirrels, raccoons, skunks, deer, foxes, and other creatures; they alert each other to danger, though not necessarily consciously and cooperatively. Finally, different species of birds will flock together and mob a fox, owl, or hawk to drive it away.

There are four types of interspecies relationships identified in natural populations:

(1) Sympatric commensal: different species live together and share the same food source, often helping each other avoid predators. Crows and ravens, for instance, get scraps of food from a wolf or coyote kill — and their circling informs coyotes or wolves where food can be found.

(2) Symbiotic: more specific mutual benefits come from the association of two or more species. For instance, there arc benefits to both the tick bird or cattle egret, and the buffalo or rhinoceros. The birds feed on the parasites that infest their companions and on the insects disturbed in the grass as the large animal moves around. They help their hosts by alerting them to possible danger — they fly up noisily when another animal approaches. Similarly, the surgeonfish keeps other larger fish free of external parasites, get ting a meal from its “patients” — which sometimes line up in shoals to wait their turn to be cleaned. Another example is the remarkable association between the ratel, or honey badger, and a bird known as the honey guide. When the bird finds an active beehive, it will attract a ratel and lead it there. The ratel breaks open the hive, and both feast together — the ratel on the honey, and the bird on the bees.

(3) Parasitic: here the relationship is more one-sided, one species benefiting more than the other. Tapeworms and ticks are parasites — their association with other animals is to their own advantage only. Some would say that a cat has an essentially parasitic relationship with man, especially a fat and lazy cat that gives nothing in return for the food and shelter provided by its owner. The relationship, however, is commensalism, since owner and cat share the same roof— and, often, the same food. If the cat were a hunter and kept down vermin in the house or on the farm, the relationship would be symbiotic.

(4) Prey-predator: the final type of interspecies relationship, as between cat and mouse, wolf and deer, eagle and rabbit, fox and chicken.

These four major categories must be taken into account when one considers which species are most likely to fit together harmoniously in a multi- pet family. Naturally, the parasitic relationship is undesirable — and the prey-predator relationship could be a short-lived one, though animals can be trained to control aggression or be prevented from developing their natural predatory instincts. Commensal and symbiotic relationships are the most promising.

unnatural relationships

Different species raised together may develop relationships that, in the wild, occur almost exclusively between members of the same species. These relationships can be quite bizarre. A duckling has been known to attach itself to a dog, following the dog everywhere as it normally would its mother. Sexual and maternal relationships between different species may develop, and a peck order, or dominance hierarchy, may be established. One veterinarian has a rooster that lords it over all the cats. Jealousy within the social rank of the menagerie, where different species vie for human attention, may erupt. Worse, a low-ranking and defenseless member of the mixed social group may become the scapegoat for the frustration and anger of other animals at a superior they dare not attack. These problem relationships can be alleviated only by discipline from the owner or, in the case of jealousy, attention and indulgence, as with a child.

Genetic factors may subtly influence how an animal responds to another species. In one home, a hamster escaped from its cage and one dog in the house, a skipperkie (a breed developed to hunt down and kill vermin), tried to catch it, while the other dog, a sheltie (selectively bred to herd and protect livestock), opposed the skipperkie and defended its hamster ward.


Playful interaction between two animals, one of which is more powerful physically and lacks restraint or awareness of the other’s frailty or distress reactions, may lead to serious injury or death. A cat or a dog may get carried away, for instance, and play too roughly with a pet bird, rabbit, or tortoise. Even among animals brought up together, intense play may switch into play- with-prey, a natural prelude to prey killing. The reactions communicating distress, nipping, struggling, or passivity, inhibit rough play — but they may not be sufficient to prevent a highly aroused and playful predator like a cat or dog from suddenly — even accidentally — killing its companion. A quick escape movement can release an immediate, reflex-like bite, which kills.

Once, as I was playing tug-of-war with one of my young wolves, using a rag as “prey” for it to seize, it accidentally bit my hand. The wolf instantly knew from my reactions what it had done, and rolled over in a submissive apology. Rough play with a wolf or dog can result in accidental nips and scratches, but the animal quickly learns to control the intensity of its bites so as to cause no injury and to enjoy an unbroken play sequence. An owner who wears a protective glove while rough-playing with a puppy will raise a dog that bites hard later in play. “Soft mouth” and “soft paws” (sheathed claws) can be learned by dogs and cats respectively; they have the capacity to control precisely how far they go with a companion during playful fighting. Pups raised in isolation with no opportunity to play with others bite hard and hurt each other when first put together, but within hours, they learn to control the intensity of their play-bite. If one bites too hard, the injured companion, like me with my wolf, yelps and snaps and the play stops. Play is a rewarding activity, and the animals rapidly learn that they must bite each other gently or play will cease.

However, if the signals given by the injured party are inadequate — for example, if a young bird, rabbit, or fawn “freezes” passively when frightened or nipped too hard by an over-exuberant cat or dog companion — it may be injured or killed. Human supervision is necessary when one animal is weaker and incapable of cutting off the other’s playful but potentially injurious actions. Say “no” and “gently” to a dog, for instance, placing your hand in its mouth to be chewed instead of the kitten or skunk it has been harassing. Be careful not to move too fast, though, for the animal may think that you are going to steal its prey or toy, which may trigger a grab-bite reaction. Also, if it believes that you approve of its reactions and are joining in the hunt by rushing forward excitedly, it may kill or injure the other animal.


In the early 1930s a psychologist from Ceylon named Zing Yang Kuo experimented with various species that normally kill or are killed by each other.

He successfully raised cats, dogs, rabbits, rats, and pigeons together, demonstrating that social experience early in life, presumably before prey-killing reactions develop, can lead to harmonious relationships between prey and predator. Some supervision was needed, however, when conflicts arose, especially over food.

Kinship bonds can be established between different species, early in life, during a critical period when they are open and receptive to developing attachment. After this period has passed, relationships with other species not encountered before are established with difficulty, if at all. The critical period ranges from five to twelve weeks after birth for a dog to twenty-four to forty-eight hours for a chicken.

Kinship bonds made early in life may be limiting: a crow, pigeon, or duck may be so attached to its human foster parent as to be indifferent to its own species. A dog or cat raised exclusively with people may be indifferent and even aggressive toward its own species and may even refuse to breed. Some animals so attached to an alien species subsequently develop a sexual preference for that species, or behave maternally toward it, or even regard some members of the species as sexual rivals or sibling rivals for the attentions of the leader of the household “pack,” “flock,” or “herd.”

Just as these kinship bonds between species can be formed during an early time in a pet’s life, there appears to be a similar critical period for learning to kill and eat prey, especially in cats. If a kitten has no experience with prey early in life, it may be friendly and playful toward a bird or small mammal and never injure it. But be careful! The behavior of the potential prey may eventually release killing reactions in some older cats anyway, independent of prior experience.


Whenever feasible, introducing animals as young as possible will enhance the establishment of harmonious interspecies relationships. Always assume, though, at first, that you will have to strictly supervise any play-fighting, to protect the weaker animal and to prevent the release of prey-catching and killing reactions. Avoid introducing two adults that have had no prior experience with each other’s species.

Prior experience itself can be disastrous, since a cat, skunk, raccoon, or duck socialized to a dog at home, for example, may approach a strange dog and be injured or killed. The expectation of safety — of not being attacked by a potential predator — can place an animal in danger, an extreme example being a tame deer or fox that is shot by a hunter in the neighborhood.

It is often safer to introduce a young animal to an older one, because infant animals can evoke care-giving reactions and neutralize aggressive responses by virtue of their infantile actions and displays. Distress calls and care-soliciting actions are similar in the offspring of many different species. An animal acquired soon after birth or hatching will quickly imprint on, or become attached to, an older animal that is not inclined to attack. At a later age, it will have had some experience with and therefore developed some attachment to its own kind. This will block its propensity to become attached to an animal of another species. A fear (of the stranger) intervenes, which is not fully developed in most very young birds and mammals.

This fear response, when developed, may take one of three forms: escape (flight); “freezing,” or immobility; defensive aggression (pecking, hissing, biting, and so on). These fear-motivated reactions may in turn evoke prey- chasing, uninhibited biting or mauling, and counteroffensive aggression in the other animals. Therefore, the introduction of alien species to each other must be carefully supervised. Gentle handling and gradual exposure may help the young animal to relax and overcome its fear.

You must also be alert to the possibility that the older animal, such as a cat or dog, may be possessive of its territory and resent the intrusion of a strange animal, no matter how young. It may react aggressively if the newcomer violates its own personal space, such as approaching too close or going near favorite chair, basket, or feeding area and food bowls. I often advocate introducing animals for the first time on neutral territory. The resident animal is more likely to accept a new kitten or pup encountered off its property (in a park or neighbor’s yard) than one placed immediately in its own home.

If the resident animal is closely attached to its owner, it may feel jealous and threatened by the presence of a newcomer (even a human infant), especially one that is given a lot of attention. The older resident animal should •be reassured with attention and indulged in order to allay these reactions, analogous to sibling rivalry in human infants.


Hormonal changes can profoundly affect how one animal will respond to another. Sexual maturity increases aggression and status rivalry in both males and females of many species. In some species, there is a definite season when sexual hormones will drastically modify behavior and disrupt social bonds. Male dogs — and cats and roosters — are exceptions, lacking, like man, a breeding season per se and being, instead, constantly potent.

With sexual maturity of one member of a mixed family of animals, conflict and aggression may increase and bizarre sexual relations develop, especially between species that became attached early in life. A female cat in heat may solicit its owner, or a companion dog. A male dog, when aroused, may direct sexual actions toward any number of animals, including cats, skunks, chickens, ducks, and man.

Sex hormones may increase an animal’s intolerance for the closeness of others, especially of the same sex, and make the animal difficult and even dangerous to handle. For many species, such as coyotes, this is the time when they set up their own territory and break ties with their parents and litter mates. In other species, such as raccoons and foxes, this intolerance develops before sexual maturity, but the effect is the same: aggression in creases — in nature, this serves to disperse the family, an ecologically adaptive mechanism. In the confines of a home with a multipet family, this could be disastrous and is often the reason for people’s getting rid of a pet fox or raccoon. Surgical sterilization prior to maturity may help in some species, but it is no guarantee. Many species are relatively solitary as adults and consequently do not make good pets, notably ocelots, margays, otters, and raccoons, although there are individual exceptions. In nature they undergo a natural separation from parents and peers; similarly, in captivity, the bond with the human foster parent may be broken, as well as any attachment to other species.

Other more gregarious species, which live in packs, like the wolf, or in flocks or herds, such as the duck and goat, do not go through this separation stage. Instead, the bonds with parent and peers persist throughout life, and the human foster parent will continue to be regarded as a parent/leader figure. This is why gregarious species are more easily domesticated than more solitary ones — one exception being the domestic cat.

Because so many wild animals mature to become independent, as well as for reasons of ecology and because they can carry disease, domesticated animals — born and raised in captivity — are best integrated into a multipet family.

Maternal hormones also affect behavior and may cause drastic changes in the social relations of a multipet family. In some cases, females become intolerant of proximity during pregnancy or brooding — they do not want other pets or any humans near them — and they aggressively defend their young when they are born. In other circumstances, another animal in the menagerie may be adopted, treated as a substitute offspring, and protected from other animals. One farm dog I know of enjoyed hunting baby rabbits, which it would kill and leave on its master’s doorstep. When the dog became pseudo-pregnant, and its maternal hormones were active, it brought baby rabbits home alive instead, and attempted to nurse and guard them.


A maternally motivated, lactating cat, dog, or goat can be enormously helpful in raising an orphan animal. A cat may accept an orphan pup, skunk, raccoon, or fox cub, and a dog will often accept a kitten, skunk, raccoon, or cubs of fox, coyote, or wolf. To facilitate acceptance, rub the orphan animal with a damp cloth that has been first rubbed over the body of the foster mother and, if she has her own young, over them as well. Odor is an important factor in the acceptance or rejection of another animal. Even a cat that is well known to a companion cat in the household may be attacked if it has been outdoors and in contact with other species.


It may seem a little farfetched, but a pet may need a pet of its own and for this reason, mixed-species families are on the increase. I first realized this several years ago when a friend had a poodle that was a house wrecker. It did this out of boredom and -loneliness since its mistress went out to work and left it alone all day. I suggested she get a kitten or another puppy for her dog, but this was put off since the dog was due to have pups. As soon as the pups were born, her dog was in seventh heaven, busy all day and night with her own growing family. Then the time came when the pups were all sold and the dog was again alone in the apartment. The dog became depressed, would not eat, began to mess in the house, and returned to destroying things as well. I happened to have a land turtle and decided to give it to my friend as a potential puppy-substitute and companion for her dog. The dog immediately responded to the bold turtle: she licked its hind parts, as she would a puppy, and followed it everywhere. The two became inseparable companions. The dog snapped out of its depression and never messed in the house or destroyed things again.

A kitten is often a good companion for a dog or cat that has to be left alone for extended periods, as when the owner or owners are at work all day. Follow the rules of introduction outlined earlier to restrain the resident animal from attacking the newcomer — and also reassure the original pet, so that it does not become jealous. If you have a cat and a dog, keep the cat food and litter tray behind a gate that gives the cat access but keeps out the dog, or on a high shelf out of the dog’s reach. Most dogs will try to snitch the cat’s food, and some enjoy eating or rolling in its stools.

An indirect way of providing entertainment if not companionship for cats is to have an aquarium that they can watch (but not get into). Another source of stimulation is an outdoor bird-feeder by a window where the cat can see it.

A multi-pet family can be a rewarding experience. Although it may never be an idyllic Garden of Eden where lion and lamb lie down together, you can help to foster some seemingly extraordinary animal relationships, and become part of a microcosm of relatedness that embodies the natural qualities of trust, kinship, and love in both animal and man alike.

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