Pets are housemates that are forced to live together. They don’t get to choose. And while here at Sharing Housing we are all about teaching people how to choose whom they live with, there are lessons we can learn from our pets when we are in situations that aren’t perfect. I’ve been thinking about this as I observe our dog and our cat, who definitely did not choose to live together. It is clear that each would much prefer to be the only pet in the house!
Sasha, who is mostly a black Lab, came to live with us in late August. We adopted her from a local shelter, where she had been for a month or so. She was surrendered with another dog by owners who could no longer afford to feed them. (Isn’t that sad?) She’s nine years old and a total sweetheart. We chose her because her breed is known to be good with cats and at the time, we had an older active cat. That cat never came home one night in late September.
In late November, we adopted six-year old Minka from a different local shelter. Her owner had died. She was described as a “nervous Nellie” who needed a quiet home. Well, two sixty-somethings who work at home is pretty quiet. So, we brought her home. She then hid for three and half weeks, emerging only slowly.
How They Manage
Sasha and Minka co-exist in the house. The way that they manage is how I imagine humans who are stuck living with each other might behave. They are not friends but largely peaceable, leaving each other alone most of the time. They walk past each other. They choose different places to perch and sleep. Sometimes Minka will walk under Sasha. Sometimes, if Sasha is standing and a little too close to Minka sitting on the floor, Minka will hiss to get her to back off. Very occasionally, if Minka is on the floor and looks like she wants to jump on the couch with Sasha is lying, Sasha will growl and start to charge her. Neither animal’s protection of boundaries seems to have a long-lasting distancing effects. Sound like people?
Keeping it Equal
Strangely, for dogs and cats, it turns out that this cat is more interested in food than the dog is. The dog doesn’t always eat right away or finish her food. The cat on the other hand very much likes food. Minka is aware every time the dog gets fed; I’ve adapted her feeding schedule, so that she gets fed at the same time as Sasha. Also, when the Sasha is getting a treat, Minka shows up and expects one as well. She gets one. I work to make sure that I treat each equally and I’m sure they notice.
They each have their special places to sleep, though the couches seem to be shared territory. Occasionally they are interested in each other. Minka will approach Sasha while she’s lying on the couch and sniff. Sometimes they go nose to nose. I am safe territory. If I’m on the couch, both animals will snuggle with me and their bodies will touch. They both love to have body contact. On the bed, they each take their own side. They may not have chosen to live together, but they are making accommodations, and I’m hoping in a year will cuddle together without me.
There are analogies for us humans, especially when we are forced to live together. Housemates, like Sasha and Minka, can go about their home life without necessarily interacting. In my experience, the place housemates encounter each other is in the kitchen, preparing food. As home-mates adapt to sharing a kitchen there might be some analogy to the growling and hissing of Minka and Sasha. Much better to be human and to use words! Before agreeing to live together, talk through how the kitchen is to be shared. In fact, have a thorough conversation about how you will live together. Use the interviewing worksheet. Having that conversation will clarify right away if you have similar or different expectations. Much better to know what to expect before you agree to live together. That can minimize any growling and hissing.
That said, nothing is perfect and it’s completely possible that one or the other of you might want to growl. Please don’t. Use words and speak up. One of our principles for living well with others is, “Do it while it is easy.” Another one (there are only four) is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This golden rule is about making minor adaptations that create comfort for your housemate and therefore yourself. (And if you want to learn more about this all you might read the book, Sharing Housing, A Guidebook for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates.)
Minka and Sasha, though forced to live together, are growing comfortable with one another. I think the same is possible for home-mates.
What lessons have you learned from the pets you know and have known?
Read more about constructing a healthy lifestyle in shared housing: Sharing Housing with Pets , When Failing Health Forces You to Make Lifestyle Changes, Sun and Moon: Our Pets.