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Sibling Rivalry

Solving Puppy Sibling Rivalry

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Sibling Rivalry

Puppies often play and roughhouse but when it becomes a fight over your attention, you need to stop the contest.

Image © Amy Shojai, CABC

It’s fun to think of pet-to-pet angst as sibling rivalry but puppy aggression can be serious. I doubt the parents of two-legged kids put up with a tooth-and-claw terror campaign. Unfortunately, pets face serious injury if puppy aggression gets out of hand.

More often, the behavior is simply healthy competition. In terms of evolution, competition offered a way for the “winner” to gain the most and thus survive. Therefore, rivalry could be considered a normal survival mechanism.

How Many Matter?

Pets can compete but still get along well for the most part. The more pets you have, though, the greater the chance of pet rivalries getting out of hand. It’s a numbers game—two pets usually love, like, or at least learn to tolerate each other. That’s the situation at my house, where Magic-dog would like to be buddies and Seren-kitty keeps the “interloper” in line. Three pets also can get along but often create an odd-pet-out that gets bullied. Four or more pets virtually guarantee serious issues that require management.

Territory, Personality and Resources

Territory, personality, and resources impact whether or not rivalry conflict develops. The most important territory for a pet is YOU (the owner). That's flattering to think how much puppies love you. Access to your attention can be a biggie. Magic becomes quite the pester-bug whenever Seren demands lap time. Territorial disputes usually arise over arguments about limited resources (food, toys, litter box, beds, and more). Seren shows up to cage treats only when she knows Magic just finagled a taste.

Complementary pet personalities can keep the peace, with a confident in-charge pet not challenged by a laid-back pet personality. Choose compatible pups to prevent problems down the road, and then introduce them properly.

But two wannabe “top dog” types who argue over who’s in charge, or a bully-pet matched to a shrinking violet type can be misery to live with. Thank goodness, in my house the dog knows and accepts that the cat’s in charge—but that doesn’t stop his teasing, just like a human little brother pesters big sister.

The animals’ breed, gender, and sexual status matters. The worst issues seem to arise from same-sex and same-species pets. That is, two girl dogs or two boy dogs (or two female cats, or male cats) seem to butt heads most often. Neutering helps level the playing field and reduces hormonal stress that can stir up rivalries.

Socialization Is Vital

When pets are well socialized to other species, dog-cat relationships have the least rivalry because they compete mostly for different resources (different toys, toilets, and beds). Well adjusted dogs also tend to get along. Cat-to-cat rivalry that results in feline aggression is most common, especially when a new cat comes into a resident kitty’s home and territory.

What Does Puppy Sibling Rivalry Look Like?

There are a range of behaviors that arise from pet rivalry/competition. We think of pet rivalries as being knock-down-drag-out fights—and those can happen, but only when it’s gone too far! Most of these behaviors are so subtle, that owners may not understand the puppy’s paw placed on top of a toy—or your foot—that claims ownership.

Owners should become concerned about pet rivalry if/when the behaviors provoke fear and/or risk physical harm to the other pet(s). Pets can indulge in play behaviors that might be mistaken for aggression. You’ll know it’s play when both parties come back for more, rather than one hiding or running away from encounters. Dogs signal play with exaggerated behaviors (play bow, for example), and may whine and growl and bark during play. Cats play in silence—so vocalizations from a cat mean business.

Pets Don’t Play Fair

The world of dogs is not a democracy. There WILL be a pet that comes out on top—that winner may be different from room to room. Or one dog may call the shots in the back yard while the cat rules the roost in your bedroom. Forcing your pets to be fair, or treating them equally potentially can make competition worse. If the dogs in the house know that King should win but the owner keeps throwing the race to Wimpy, then King must redouble his efforts to show he’s the true winner. Here are three important steps to keeping sibling rivalry at bay in your house

  1. Recognize who should be “king” and support him/her. Usually that’s the oldest and/or pet that’s been in the house longest, the healthiest pet, or (in a dog/cat household) the cat. Feed the king first, play with him first, allow access to the best spots (like your lap), and generally let the other pet know the king rules. Then pay special attention to Wimpy when King isn’t around to see or object. Magic gets special time outside, plus car rides that Seren doesn’t get—but she could care less. In the house, though, she gets priority.
  2. Second, create a house of plenty. That means you provide multiple resources so the pets have no reason to argue over the single bone or ball.
  3. Third, if you do have a dangerous situation and have already had or fear physical injury may happen, get professional help! The longer pets “practice” a behavior (even bad ones) the longer it takes to change that pattern. Veterinary behaviorists, dog trainers, and animal behavior consultants experienced with the dynamics have the expertise to offer very specific help based on the individual pets’ circumstances.

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