Photos and videos of birds with other pets tend to start wars on social media. There are many people that swear their dogs and/or cats are best friends with their birds but there are just as many tragic stories where those friendships end in disaster. It’s a tough topic.
There are two main reasons to be concerned about letting your birds interact with your dogs and cats. The first and most obvious is the fact that you’re trying to work around the instinctual relationship between a predator and its prey. The second is the fact that dog and cat saliva is extremely dangerous to your bird. Their saliva contains gram-negative bacteria that your bird has no defence against. Likewise a cat’s claws are usually coated in these bacteria. This means that even friendly play can be a fatal activity for your bird.
Despite this, I live in a multiple bird household along with multiple cats and dogs. Even knowing the risk, I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are some very real benefits to having all three types of animals in your home. My neighbours’ cats won’t visit my birds when they have their own cats and dogs defending them. My cattle dog came and got me when my Eclectus had fallen and caught his wing. I don’t have a rodent problem. I know if a prowler even breathes near my house. That’s just the start of my list of benefits. In short, my cats and dogs aren’t going anywhere.
So the real question is, how do I get them all to get along safely? What training do I do to make that happen? How do you introduce a dog or a cat into a bird’s home? It’s a question I’ve seen come up a lot and I’ve seen a lot of different answers to it. Everything from it works better if you get them young enough so that they don’t know any other way, to different techniques of getting them all to become friends.
There is one golden rule to remember: It is NOT possible to train instinct out of an animal. You can do some training to get the animals to socialise and help minimise the risk of a tragedy but the risk will still be there no matter what you do.
A big part of how my household works is by establishing my own version of “normal”. I make a point of getting the animals accustomed to each other. A dog or a cat is much more likely to chase something small and feathery if it looks like a new game to them. If small, feathery bundles are a normal sight, the novelty isn’t there. That’s not to say instinct won’t kick in and make them chase the bird anyway – so other precautions are still necessary but it pays to make sure your dogs and cats know that birds are around.
There are several ways of achieving this. The safest way is to allow your dogs/cats to observe your birds playing through a window. My bird room has an internal glass door and internal windows, so I can do this safely from a number of different angles. The birds can do whatever they want, whenever they want knowing that a barrier safely protects them.
The other way that I get my dogs and cats accustomed to my birds is to have them around when the birds are out playing. However, the dogs or cats aren’t left free but are held firmly either by me or by someone else. It really isn’t enough just to watch or supervise, because it only takes a split second for something to change. If your hands are on the dog or cat you will feel their muscles tense when they’re taking too much interest in your bird and you’re already there to react to that.
I have found that the result of the dogs and cats being familiar with the birds and them being used to what the birds usually do around the house has made the dogs & cats largely ignore the birds’ presence. Consequently my macaw can be opening the refrigerator door, throwing the milk on the floor while my cattle dog will remain sound asleep on the couch with all 4 feet sticking up in the air. This is “normal” for my house but it has taken years to get there. There are still the days when the animals are awake and more playful and that’s when I know I have to be extra careful.
Aside from having a secure bird room (that my dogs and cats can’t access without help), I have found it helpful to choose my birds’ aviaries with some safety features in mind. For example, my lorikeets are overly friendly. They will climb down and say hello to anything that moves. So consequently, I have them in a raised cage. They can’t climb down all the way to the ground, making it more difficult for them to get casually licked by a dog or swiped by a cat. Similarly my galahs spend a considerable amount of time on the ground so their aviary is made of a fine mesh that a cat’s paw can’t fit through.
There is one house rule here that is never broken. Cat toys made of feathers and dog toys that resemble small animals are banned. Under no circumstances will I ever encourage my cats and dogs to consider birds as playthings. Instead, I provide toys such as balls, ropes, tunnels – basically anything that doesn’t look like a small animal or bird.
In terms of age making a difference, it is true that you can raise animals as friends. That doesn’t get rid of the animal’s instinct though and even a friendly lick can kill a bird. I’ve found the younger the cat or dog the less predictable their behaviour. I have a young rescue kitten here now and she seems to either be asleep or trying two things. The first: she pounces on anything that moves in order to see what happens when she pounces. Secondly, she pounces on anything that doesn’t move in order to see if it will move (at which point she pounces on it to see what happens next). My hands and arms are covered in tiny scratches and I’m under no illusion as to what that would mean for a bird.
I have trained my birds to make certain alarm calls if they see a cat or a dog. They do seem to be able to distinguish between when they should see one or not, so they tend to only make those alarm calls if the cat or dog is around when it is not supposed to be. I’ve done this using standard “talk on cue” techniques but the cue is the appearance of the actual dog or cat rather than a cue from me.
I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that cats, dogs and birds can be the best of friends. I only have to listen to my macaw’s off-key attempts at opera with my cattle dogs high-pitched simultaneous howling if I want to understand that they’re company for each other. My birds call the cats and dogs frequently and they will throw food to/at them when they have the chance. Similarly I’ve seen my cats and dogs chase other neighbourhood animals away from my birds. They guard their friends.
I’ve never regretted creating my own sense of “normal” around here. Especially as my cat Oscar recently slipped past my feet unnoticed into the bird room. He got locked in for the night – which if he were inclined to hunt my birds, could have been disastrous. It also could have been stressful for the birds. Instead, Oscar slept on top of my elderly galah Cocky Boy’s covered cage. He was happily purring when I found him in the morning. He really appreciated the heat coming from Cocky Boy’s heat lamp and had made himself quite comfortable. Cocky Boy meanwhile was completely ignoring the cat and sound asleep too. It could have been a different outcome if they weren’t used to each other and suitably caged.
Whether they’re friends or not, it only takes a split second for something to go wrong. So make sure you take whatever precautions you can to keep your birds safe.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.