Dog professionals everywhere are rolling their eyes at the news that the Bidens are adding a cat to the White House. While we love that the president and first lady are making up for the four-year absence of pets during the last presidency, their rush to close the gap may be detrimental to everyone. Our major concern is, well, Major.
While baby gates might not match the White House decor, they are essential safety equipment.
Major, a 3-year-old German shepherd and the Bidens’ younger dog, has been involved in two biting incidents since arriving at his new Washington residence, necessitating additional training for the apprehensive canine.
NBC's "TODAY" show co-anchor Craig Melvin was right to drill down on how Major would react to living with a cat during an interview with the Bidens in which the pending arrival of another pet was revealed. Shepherds are herding breeds and tend to chase things that move fast, whether that's squirrels, children … or felines.
"That was part of his training. They took him into a shelter with cats — and he did fine," Jill Biden said. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that. Major's reaction to seeing cats behind glass windows or in shelter cages has little bearing on how he will behave if he sees a cat on his own turf. For instance, sometimes behavior is suppressed when an individual is overstimulated. It's very common for dogs who are overwhelmed to simply shut down. This can be misunderstood as "doing fine," when in reality, it's quite the opposite.
It’s not that dogs and cats instinctively hate each other — that’s like assuming that all Democrats and all Republicans can’t get along. It’s just that they have different communication styles and instincts. While a cat may run to safety, a dog is triggered to chase. With the right chemistry and a slow introduction, we can help cats and dogs cross the aisle and develop a cordial, if not outright friendly, relationship.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges, particularly to a dog that’s already had problems adjusting to a new home — and not just any home, at that. Moving him in and out of the White House, a bustling environment with a wide variety of unfamiliar faces, and a failure to keep him tightly controlled (he should have his own Secret Service minders!) have contributed to Major’s behavior. Adding a cat to the mix will mean another level of complexity that needs to be addressed.
Previous life experiences such as these play a big role in how pets adapt to each other. While kittens are less likely to be fearful of dogs, older cats may have emotional baggage from unpleasant encounters with dogs. Personality matters, too. My dog, Barley, acted completely differently around each of our two cats. Emma, a classically temperamental cat, consistently ran away from Barley, triggering the dog’s predatory instinct. Jasmine, on the other hand, thought she was a dog and rolled on her back, inviting Barley to play.
Whatever the personalities — and partly because it can take time to sort those out — introductions take time and structure. And that’s another reason that introducing a cat into the White House menagerie might not be the best idea. Time and structure may not always be available in the frenetic White House environment. Yet for cats and dogs to have a harmonious relationship, their relationship needs to be consensual, which is something that evolves rather than happening on the spot.
It’s best to separate the cat and dog completely for a little while so the humans can lay the groundwork for a more successful integration later. Ideally, the cat will begin in a quiet room with a bed, litter box, food and water, and the door firmly closed. After a few days, the dog should then be petted with a clean cloth, which can be wiped onto different surfaces inside the cat's room. Ditto for the cat. This allows the cat and dog to become familiar with each other's scent before they have any added pressure to meet face to face.
While baby gates might not match the White House decor, they are essential safety equipment for the next phase. By providing a physical barrier, Major and the cat can now see each other for the first time. If either get too excited, the gate can be partially covered with a towel or blanket. The dog should always be on leash to prevent any attempts to leap over the barrier to get access to kitty. Fortunately, cats come armed with an arsenal of toe daggers to defend themselves — but the goal is to make the cat feel safe enough not to use them.
If Major is whining, growling or straining at the leash, he should simply be moved farther away until these behaviors stop. Dogs repeat what they practice, so allowing Major to bark and lunge increases the chance that this behavior will happen again. And by rewarding the dog for laying on a mat or playing games with us, we can improve the chances that the cat will remain safe. And of course, the cat and Major should never be left alone together; when they are in the same part of the house, Major should be on a leash.
In shared living spaces, cats need safe places to retreat from their canine housemates. Cat trees and a network of shelves along the walls can take advantage of the cat's natural instinct to climb and avoid competition between the animals for floor space (though these, too, might pose challenges for White House interior designers).
Introducing and integrating cats and dogs can take several months. But given Major's challenges with adapting to the ever-changing conditions at the White House, they may need even longer in this case. Is it possible? Maybe. But one lapse of judgment or a moment of distraction could lead to a fatal mistake, which may be the final straw for Major’s residence in the White House.