Friends: A Kitten Who Adopted a Pack of Strays
This article was originally posted in 2011.
When it comes to adopting cats and kittens, many people who own dogs are afraid to try. They are afraid for good reasons. At first meeting, cats and dogs are instinctively at odds. Below is the story of how I was able to adopt a kitten who would grow up to be friends with my two tame dogs and my gigantic pitbull who had nearly starved to death before I rescued him. After finding out how long it takes for an abused dog to calm down -- 2 to 3 years for Boomer -- I was able to coax him into a friendship that few would think possible.
This kitten was just like a few I'd seen and rescued before, crouched and quietly resting on the sidewalk. Some kittens do this if they've lost their way, as when their mother has sent them from the litter. I asked a couple of neighbors sitting on their porch if he was theirs or if they knew whose he was. They said no, and encouraged me to take the kitten, whom they had seen on the block for a couple of days.
At first, the kitten let me get close but didn't want to be petted or picked up. He might have thought I was a two-legged dog from my scent. (My dogs do, and so do many of my human friends.) He just pranced a few steps away and looked back. Not so afraid, but not entirely trusting either. I went to the store across the street and got a few cans of sardines, and gave the first one to him. He wasn't starving, but he ate all of the contents of the first tin.
If I was a dog to this kitten, I was a friendly one. This kitten was not feral, and had probably been separated from a human family, but I knew of no one looking for him, and I saw no signs posted for a lost kitten. With a full belly, the kitten wrapped around my leg, as cats typically do with newly found friends, and let me carry him home. Easier than usual, highly adoptable. Had it just been a matter of my taking him home, getting rid of his fleas, and litter training him, this kitten would have been an easy rescue.
Introducing a kitten to any household requires sensitivity and patience, with or without other pets. With other pets, the process can be much more complicated, and should only be done with extreme caution. Few people would or should attempt what I am about to describe.
The trick for me would be getting the kitten into the house with my three dogs, two of whom are tame and friendly. Yona (5 lb. female white shepherd-husky-lab, 12 yrs) and Aeza (35 lb. female white pit-lab-beagle 7-8 yrs) had been raised with cats and adored them. Their companionship and nurturing had helped me calm the biggest and most recent, whom I'd unsuspectingly rescued 3 years ago from a violent past. Boomer (75 lb. male brindle/white pit mix 5-6 yrs) had severe issues over any non-human he saw as either a meal or a threat.
I had rescued Boomer around Thanksgiving 2008. He had been wandering for days near the neighborhood park with no tags or leash. I hadn't heard of any attacks, and he seemed to want an owner. He even followed a few people who had their own dogs. I hadn't heard any complaints among dog owners about attacks, so I figured he was friendly enough to adopt, especially with my other two female dogs.
A few hours after I put him on a leash, I was informed that he had killed a cat the night before when a well-meaning friend took him in for the night.
I then found out I had to also be careful about other dogs. He broke the leash a couple of times, even though he'd been neutered, and had several bad encounters the first year with other dogs. Some of these encounters were from other off-leash dogs who attacked Boomer, but the earliest fights were unprovoked attacks because Boomer had assumed the other dog was ready to attack.
Boomer has always been affectionate and protective of my other two dogs and me, so despite his problems, I have stuck with painstaking, often noisy behavioral training for the first three years. This training has included steering all three dogs away from cats and other dogs, often crossing the street to do so, sometimes even walking in the middle of a relatively quiet street. during the first year, Boomer barked constantly as we walked, letting all in the neighborhood know where we were at all times.
During the past year, I have sometimes been able to let Boomer sniff at other friendly dogs on the leash, and he has not had any attacks that way. Running around with other dogs (except Yona and Aeza) off the leash is still out of the question, though. He's still too paranoid, especially near mealtime and near other large male dogs. Most of his barking fits happen toward their pre-mealtime walk, but large trucks still set him off, as do horses.
What improved Boomer over the first two and a half was a lot of determination and companionship, with plenty of leash walking and patience, as well as a good diet. He was still, however, prone to attack cats, especially male, if they stood up to him. On the leash, I could pull him back from cats, and a year of verbal training got him to ignore them sometimes when walking. But the thought of Boomer's encountering a cat off the leash and in the house was an entirely different problem. A friend of mine assured me that since I'd had Boomer for a few years now, he could be trained to stop chasing cats, but not overnight and not too simply.
As I got to the front door where I live, I wrapped the kitten in my jacket as I opened the door, quickly said 'hi' to the dogs while distracting them, and dashed upstairs to the bathroom, latching the door behind me. I unwrapped the kitten, put him in the bathtub, set up his litter box, gave him another can of sardines and closed the door. The kitten would have to stay there for the time being. Boomer was already sniffing at the door. Yona and Aeza were close behind up the stairs. I came out, making Boomer backstride away from the door, and then closed the door fast, letting the dogs investigate for a minute or two, then brought them back downstairs.
All of them wagged their tails excitedly at the sound and scent of a new visitor, but I wasn't sure whether Boomer had companionship or prey on his mind. He kept rushing back up the stairs, in seeming disbelief at the meowing and litter scratching noises coming from the bathroom. Just for good measure, I closed the door to the room leading to the bathroom, calming Boomer down for the moment. A little while later the dogs and I went for our walk, as the kitten got used to the new surroundings. Not much room, not a permanent solution, but the kitten was safe.
Over the next several days, we continued a similar pattern. I only allowed the kitten to wander around when Boomer was behind a closed door. Yona and Aeza could meet the kitten, as a first essential step to acclimating them. From them, the kitten learned that dogs could be friends. Boomer, on the other hand, was too quick to rush at the kitten behind the bathroom door without even seeing him. I had to verbally admonish him over and over, as usual with Boomer when he non-violently misbehaves.
After a few days, I decided that it was time to find someone to adopt the kitten. It didn't seem fair to keep the kitten locked behind a door, and it was a great deal of commotion to keep them separated. Walking the dogs, I ran into a friend who already had a female cat, and told her about the kitten I had just found. Just on a hunch, I also asked her if she could take him. She wasn't sure at first whether she could take another cat, but a day or two later she let me borrow her cat carrier to bring him over. I was surprised at how well it worked out, given that finding homes for stray animals can so often be daunting and time-consuming.
I went home, put the kitten in the carrier, with a bit of disappointment that I couldn't keep him. The dogs watched their new friend go with me, perhaps a little saddened themselves. His new family was happy to take him. They named him Lucky.
When I got home, Boomer rushed up and down the stairs as if the kitten was still there, hurriedly sniffing for Lucky even after seeing him go out the door. For the next week or so, Boomer did the same thing every time I came through the door. He could still smell Lucky, but was completely stumped because Lucky wasn't there. Even when I went past Lucky's new house and Boomer could see him on the porch with his new family, Boomer would still run up and down the stairs looking for him when we got home. It took over a week for Boomer to realize that the cat was no longer in the house, he was so sensitive to Lucky's scent..
For the next few weeks I'd pass by to check how Lucky was working out, and all appeared to be about normal. Lucky was growing by leaps and bounds, and getting all kinds of human affection and attention, except from Princess, the cat who was already there. She slowly came to tolerate Lucky, but not without scrappy and noisy sparring.
About a month later, Lucky had disappeared. No one knew what had happened; maybe someone had taken him, maybe he had wandered away. Another week went by. Then one morning I found Lucky back on the block where I lived. He must have followed our scent several blocks despite having to cross a busy road and travel through several back yards and lots.
Now I would really have to keep Lucky. Somehow Boomer would have to figure out what was going on.
I used the closed door technique again, but this time with the Lucky in the bathroom and back room for a day or two, with more frequent encounters between Yona and Aeza and Lucky. Then Boomer stayed in the front upstairs room while the other three had run of the house for an hour or so in the first few days before I left for the day. When I left, I put Lucky back into the upstairs back rooms.
During the first few days, Boomer and Lucky sniffed at each other through the closed door. A few times Aeza nudged her way between Boomer and the door and sat down, as if to say 'you'll have to go through me if that door opens.' Aeza had been Boomer's "older sister," and knew how to play with cats. If the door were to come open, Boomer wasn't going to get to Aeza's new friend Lucky. She'd distract him.
Still, I wasn't so sure about Boomer. He still seemed to fiercely want the kitten, and I knew what he could do if the door came open. Of course all the running up and down the stairs on my part was starting to get to my knees. Good exercise,l but soon I would have to let the cat and dogs socialize for themselves. I just wasn't quite sure how long it would take before I'd feel comfortable introducing Lucky and Boomer.
Boomer took a long time to ignore the fact that a cat was around, though. Companionship with Yona and Aeza had taught him how to play normally, retracting his bite reflex (a behavior normally taught during puppyhood), but cats were a different story. I had heard from several people that once a dog has tasted a cat, there is no training the dog not to kill cats. Those people are right, as long as the training is expected to take less than a few years. Although Boomer knew I didn't want him to hurt other animals, it took about two years of physically holding him back and verbal intervention before Boomer could help seeing a cat without a kill-lurch. Boomer's worst behaviors were so ingrained that training him away form them took constant, fatiguing effort my part, along with the better example set by my two females.
One day I came home to find one of the doors upstairs open. Boomer had probably pushed it open and now was waiting at the bathroom door whining and barking at the door. I chased him back downstairs. Lucky was yawning at me from the bathtub. He didn't really seem to care about Boomer. He knew he could get away and Boomer didn't faze him. Sometimes Lucky leaped at the door from the other side in an effort to get through.
Over the next few days, I started finding the doors separating Lucky from the rest of the house open more often. All I had to do was leave for a few minutes. Once I found Lucky hiding behind the bathtub and Boomer standing at the door looking for him. Aeza and Yona sometimes followed me up to see what was going on, but didn't seem to sense any danger from Boomer.
At this point, Boomer was showing signs that he might be closer to ready, since he was finding it easier to look for Lucky but not lunge. I still preferred to err on the side of caution. If they were ready to meet, I needed to see a few more signs.
Lucky saved me from further worry one day by jumping out of the bathroom as I opened the door. Boomer was right on top of him, and my heart skipped a few beats. Lucky had rolled over, and Boomer just sniffed fiercely at the kitten's belly. Lucky pawed at Boomer's eyes and then just looked at him. Boomer opened his mouth. I verbally intervened, but didn't scream at them.
Boomer pulled up his head and looked at me and I gave him a big bear hug. Lucky hadn't threatened him, and Lucky knew how to retract his claws. Therefore Boomer retracted his teeth. Lucky could tell how big Boomer's mouth was. All Boomer had to do was yawn at him.
Now Boomer looks forward to the chase rather than the kill, and has found it much easier to ignore cats when we are leash walking. Lucky can paw him in the face without Boomer's even blinking an eye. Boomer routinely licks Lucky's ears clean.
I'm not sure Lucky and I could have retrained Boomer without Yona and Aeza. Their friendliness rubbed off on Boomer, and they gave him the natural training he had not gotten as a puppy. They were able to teach him in their own symbolic language of barks and sparring moves. They also showed Lucky that they were no threat to him, an example that Boomer was compelled to follow.