By Diana Bocco
While you might not think of prey and predators as the best of pals, friendships between cats and small animals do exist. Roy Cruzen, DVM, has extensive experience working with birds and exotic animals, as well as a background working with wildlife rehabilitators, and he posits that domestication makes it possible for animals on opposite sides of the food chain to live together.
"In the wild, predators hunt their prey to fulfill needs such as hunger, but domestically, where these needs are taken care of by an owner, it is possible in certain cases for cats and prey species to live together peacefully," says Cruzen.
Understanding the Prey Instinct in Cats
Here's something to keep in mind: The hunting instinct varies greatly from one cat to the next, and while it's hard to guess how strong it will be in any particular cat, there are clues that can help you to determine how strong your cat’s prey drive might be, says Cruzen.
For example, he says, cats older than three years of age that are indoor-only are less likely to hunt. But, he cautions, “early spay and neutering is essential to reduce strong reproductive, territorial, and hunting drives,” especially since the hunting instinct becomes stronger after cats mature sexually
Another common indicator of prey drive is how fascinated your cat is by quick movements. A lack of interest in bird feeders could mean less predatory instinct, says Cruzen. "Size of the prey species matters too,” he adds. “For example, it is easier for a cat to live with a rabbit than with a mouse."
Choosing the Right Small Animal to Live with Your Cat
While there's no guarantee the relationship will work, larger exotic pets such as rabbits, ferrets, tortoises, and even guinea pigs are likely the best choices, Cruzen advises.
"Larger tortoises and iguana lizards are probably going to ignore cats, and vice versa, while ferrets and cats may bond by sleeping and having playtime together."
Small rodents such as mice, hamsters, and gerbils would be a much more challenging match. "These animals are small enough to quickly escape underneath a closed door and go out into the house; even the most sedate senior cat may respond to the flurry of motion and react by attacking the creature," Cruzen explained.
To understand how even a domesticated, well-fed cat can have a healthy prey drive, consider the ways you play with your cat, says Sara Schipper, DVM.
Schipper, who works for New England Animal Hospital in addition to being an expert on JustAnswer, says that when you want to engage a cat in play, you usually drag or bob something in front of them in a fast jerky manner to get their attention. "If you were to move something slowly,” she says, “a cat may not be interested. This is probably why a larger animal such as a rabbit or guinea pig is more likely to be compatible with a cat; they tend to move slower."
Introducing Your Cat to a Small Pet
When it comes to introductions, it's the age of the cat that matters, rather than the age of the other animal, said Schipper. "Younger cats are obviously smaller and feel more vulnerable themselves,” she explained. But "as they get older, animals try to be more dominant and exhibit more natural instincts."
Cruzen recommends letting potential housemates meet and interact in a neutral location, and not on the cat’s personal turf.
“If your cat loves to lounge on the couch, don't bring the new pet addition over to that space,” Cruzen said. “Instead, have the pets meet in the bathroom, or even at the vet office if that's possible.”
Cruzen recommends holding the cat firmly, for added safety, allowing him to smell the other animal without letting go. You might need to do this for several days, or even weeks, before your cat becomes accustomed to having the other animal around. "Try slow introductions and be sure to give them some space to avoid each other if they want to," Cruzen added.
Katie Grzyb, DVM, of One Love Animal Hospital in Brooklyn, NY, recommends an even more cautious approach. “Prior to any personal introductions, introduce a towel or a blanket that smells like the small animal to your cat. The cat can then get accustomed to this new scent prior to meeting,” says Grzyb.
The next stage can be simplified by keeping a partition between the two, such as a cage, until there is little to no reaction from the cat, said Grzyb.
Teaching Your Cat to Play Safely with a Smaller Animal
"If cats and rodents and other small animals are going to live together, there should always be supervision, and after play-time the [smaller] animal should be safely locked in their confined area," says Schipper.
Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that a small animal will be safe if left alone with a cat, and cages are not always the best defense. The first step to keeping everybody safe is by installing a cat-proof physical barrier around your small animal’s habitat.
When you allow your small animals to be outside of their cages, always err on the side of caution, said Cruzen. "It is the owner's duty and responsibility to protect their prey species at all times," he says.
Cruzen says to watch for any signs of unease, fear, or dominance behavior. "If there is any tension at all, they should be together only when supervised,” he said. This will protect not only the smaller pets, but also your cat — from bites, scratches, and other potential harm that can occur when a small animal is forced to defend itself.
"And lastly, be prepared to accommodate your pets if they do not like each other; possibly even dedicating separate spaces, where your cat and the other species can avoid each other," said Cruzen.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM