Q Our cat, Louis, is a rescue we've had for 13 years. We were told he was a year and had been thrown. He had a fractured tooth. Louis is a doll and loves petting, belly rubs and being with us. However, he won't let us hold him. Could he remember being thrown, or some other trauma involving being held? We'd love to hold him and hug him, but never want to scare him.
— Wendy, East Williston
A It's possible that being held in someone's arms could conjure up an unhappy memory of being thrown. It sounds, though, like you have a very affectionate cat eager to be loved. With cats, it's not training, but trust and positive experiences that are needed before they will allow you to touch or hold them. You are halfway there with the petting and belly rubs.
To continue building trust, encourage Louis to come to you or sit on your lap and give him lots of affection when he does. One day, Louis may stand at your feet mewing to be picked up. (It could take months before he feels ready for this next step.) If he does, sit down on the floor and pick him up so he is still fairly close to the ground. This will make him feel safer and reduce his fear of being held.
Q Six months ago, I adopted Joey, a 3-year-old, mixed-breed dog. My vet thought he had probably been poorly socialized and possibly neglected for a while. He was terrified of just about everything -- getting in the crate, riding in the car, going for walks where he met other dogs, being groomed, for a while even being touched, and he was aggressive for the first two weeks with the resident dog. One by one, with lots of attention and positive reinforcement, he has overcome those fears and become a wonderful little companion. All in all, he's a star. There's just one last problem: He is predatory around Chica, the resident cat. Early on, Joey's predatory body language scared me. He got hard-eyed, stared at her, stalked her and never took his eyes off her. He still does this. I put up a baby gate. I keep him tethered when she's roaming the house. I make sure their meetings are always happy (treats for both). At times, he seems OK with her when she strolls by him. He watches but allows her to smell him and then he turns his head away from her. We seemed to be making progress, enough so that I let them be together with me being watchful. As long as the cat is relaxed and quiet, so is he, but he still watches her like a hawk. However, last night, she got startled about something happening outside the house and made quick, jerky movements. In other words, she acted like prey and he responded by getting highly aroused and predatory. After six months, I'm wondering if it's possible for a dog who behaves this way toward a cat to ever get relaxed and tolerant about it. What else should I do?
— Eileen, Tucson, Arizona
A I applaud you on how you have handled this situation so far. Making sure you're always monitoring their encounters, making their encounters positive, tethering Joey so he can't chase Chica, putting up a baby gate to keep them separated are all things I would recommend to keep your cat safe. These steps have already helped Joey make progress. When Chica strolls by, he is turning his head to ignore her, which is exactly what you want him to do.
The goal is to get Joey to ignore the cat and focus on you. First, train him to "sit" or "lie down" when Chica is in the room. Second, when he looks at the cat, say his name and reward him when he looks at you. Then, give Joey a toy to play with to keep him further distracted.
Finally, train Joey to "stay" when the cat walks across the room and reward him when he listens. Keep him on the tether for the training. It may take weeks or months, but eventually, you should be able to say his name to get him to look at you and tell him to "stay" to keep him from running after her if she bolts from the room.
Remain vigilant until you are absolutely sure he won't harm her.
Cathy M. Rosenthal is a longtime animal advocate, author, columnist and pet expert who has more than 25 years in the animal welfare field. Send your pet questions, stories and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, city, and state. You can follow her: @cathymrosenthal.