According to family lore, when my husband was a little boy, his bedtime request was always the same: “Tell me a story about a doggy and a kitty who made friends.” Those of us who have navigated the doggy-kitty waters know that he was definitely onto something. This topic has drama, surprise, even a bit of danger – all with the potential for a gleefully happy ending. Luckily, in real life, there’s much you can do to short-circuit the suspense and get to the “happily ever after” as soon as possible.
1. Plan carefully for the first minute, and stick to the plan.
If you take away only one thing from this article, make it this: You don’t get a second chance at the first minute.
The time to think about facilitating a good canine-feline introduction is way before you add the new pet. The very first moments in the house together can set the tone for this new dynamic. If you’ve taken a spontaneous, “Oh, they’ll work it out” approach, and the all-but-inevitable giant chase scene takes place, you have already blown it.
That’s so easy to prevent with just a little upfront planning. Remember that you’re going to have a lot on your mind as you enter the house with that new pet. The most frustrating call I get is this one: “Oh, I meant to have the dog in the crate when we came in with the new kitty, but we were so excited we just forgot. There was a chase. Honestly, Rover just wanted to play! He didn’t mean any harm. But, um, Fluffy hasn’t come out from under the bed for two days. What do we do now?” You’ll wish you could get that first hour back.
2. How to introduce a dog to a cat
The new pet in question, whether the dog or the cat, has a lot to take in at first: New people, new home, new vibe. It makes sense to postpone the much-anticipated dog-cat introduction until there’s been time settle in. For example, if a kitty is the newcomer to the home, you may want to keep her in a bedroom for anywhere from an afternoon to a few days as you bond with her.
In some cases, allowing the dog and the cat to sniff each other under a bedroom door can be a perfect start. Without that intense visual stimulus, the interaction is often calmer. You can exchange bedding materials to allow even closer investigation via the nose.
Once the new kid is a bit settled, it’s time for a formal introduction. Ideally, you’ll get a ho-hum reaction along the lines of “Oh, it’s the dude from under the door.”
3. Contain the dog.
There are two keys to the best introductions: canine containment and feline confidence. Think hard about how you can reinforce both at your house.
Typically, a dog is the more excited part of the new duo, which is why that’s the side you’ll want to contain. Please don’t assume the rules are different for a little puppy! People often discount the emotional trauma an exuberant (if physically harmless) puppy can cause. The bottom line is that if you want a dog and a cat to become friends, you’ll start by keeping the dog from getting in the cat’s space.
If your dog is comfortable with a crate, that’s the ideal place for him when he’s first meeting the cat. Alternatively, you can use gates or pens to establish a safe separation. Either option has the advantage of leaving you hands-free and able to move between the pets to manage the situation and deliver treats.
While keeping a dog on leash for the intro might be fine with a completely uninterested dog or the tiniest of puppies, it might be a challenge, and here’s why:
- Your hands are occupied with the leash, making it difficult to manage treats or petting.
- You get tired of holding on, which could lead to a slip-up.
- If you let your leashed dog pull you around after the cat, the cat will feel there’s no place that is dog-free, so her anxiety stays through the roof.
Tethering the leash to something fixed in place can mitigate some of these issues. Still, crates and gates will likely give you a better experience for the initial phase.
4. Give the cat a safe, high place to retreat to.
With the exception of the very young and the very old, most cats will be able to jump and climb up to spots a dog can’t reach. The faster the cat figures that out, the faster you’re on your way to a peaceful home. A high, safe perch gives the cat that all-important confidence that she’s got some control over the situation, which will allow her to entertain the idea of exploring a friendship.
Before the big day, ponder the possible cat perches in your house. The size and agility of the dog will determine whether that will be a chair, a table, a counter, or the top of the refrigerator! You may need to do a little rearranging to make sure it’s easy for the cat to reach and impossible for the dog to get to. Help the cat learn that this is her spot by putting a bed there and bringing her there often for treats and petting. (She can eventually learn that many tall spots will do the trick, but at first we want her to know about one for sure.)
If it’s in your budget and you can get over the impact it has on your decor, get a giant kitty condo tree. It’ll have a carpet grip that a scared cat can count on when seeking a climb to safety. The most fun ones have landings at different heights, too, so that as your cat gains confidence she can choose to hang out just a bit closer to the dog.
I bought a monstrosity from Chewy.com that I adore. (Goodbye, nice dining room.) It’s brought me peace of mind because Mr. Bojangles knows he can streak to his tall treehouse if some new foster dog decides to chase him. Bonus: We also feed him up there, which is a great way to keep the dogs out of the cat food.
5. Take a crash course in dog and cat body language.
Now that you’ve figured out how you’ll contain the dog and where you’ll encourage your cat to stay out of reach, it’s time to introduce the two. Sometimes, that moment will be such a non-event that you’ll feel off-duty almost immediately. More likely, though, you’ll be spending hours to days – and even weeks – watching body language and being ready to intervene.
Familiarize yourself with the big warning signs:
- If your dog stiffens and stares, take a break, because that’s what it looks like when his predatory behavior is kicking in.
- If the cat’s ears are pinned back and her tail swishes back and forth, take a break, because she’s very concerned. (Remember that the cat may be the one to do some harm!)
6. Introduce the cohabitants and reward calm behavior.
While you want to be ready to take action if you see too much intensity, also be ready to reward calm. Plan to have amazing treats ready near the introduction/bonding area. If possible, have a second person available for this moment, so that each pet has a handler throughout the session.
Here’s what it might look like: Perhaps your dog is in a crate with you sitting next to him, and another family member calmly brings the cat to her now-familiar spot up in her kitty condo tree. Or we’ve got the cat on her now-familiar kitchen counter area, and we bring the dog to the gate just outside the kitchen.
The moment the cat is in sight, offer your dog bites of hot dog, feta cheese, ham, or whatever is new and exciting to him. This is a three-prong strategy as you are:
- Distracting him from the cat.
- Rewarding him for doing something other than obsessively focusing on the cat.
- Building a positive association with the cat. “Oh! So the presence of this cat means I get amazing treats I’ve never had before! What do you know? I like this cat.”
Use tiny pea-sized pieces so you can keep up a stream of activity. If he’s too excited to take them, increase his distance from the cat. If he’s eating them, you can begin asking for sits, downs, spins, and touches to help take his mind off the cat.
Have one person standing near the cat, offering a sense of security, petting, and treats. If the cat realizes the dog can be in sight without being a threat, she may well go into “boring kitty” mode, which is ideal. The last thing we want is a cat who darts very provocatively – which is why you want to do everything you can to calm the cat without restraining her, which would set this whole scenario way back.
It may be that one 5-minute session is plenty for now. Help everyone go back to their separate areas of your home, and repeat this every few hours. Soon enough, both will anticipate what’s next. Ideally, your dog will run over and – rather than thinking “Oooh, a kitty to chase!” – he’ll think, “Oooh, time for me to sit for a hot dog!” As the cat sees the dog approach her perch, rather than thinking, “Oh no!” she should be thinking, “This is where he sits and doesn’t bother me, and I get those crunchy treats I never get any other time!”
HARD WORK PAYS LIFELONG DIVIDENDS
Make no mistake: These early sessions are a lot of work for the human. It’s fascinating, though, and in the end it can pay off dramatically with a smooth and relatively quick path to calm. As you witness both parties relaxing, it’s time to slow the stream of treats, and let them begin to focus on each other from time to time without trying to distract them.
If you’re lucky, your cat will decide it might be fun to reach down and experiment. You’ll know things are going well when the cat starts to dangle a tail, or a paw . . . You’re on your way to the two of them figuring out just how they can play together.
BRAVE CATS, CALM DOGS
Even if you do everything right, there are some dogs who will never be safe around any cat, and cats who will never be able to relax around a dog. When considering getting a second pet, think carefully about both personalities before you take the leap.
If you are in a position to choose the new animal (as opposed to, say, needing to take in your Aunt Matilda’s old cat) then you’ll want to stack the deck in your favor by picking wisely. The cat or dog who has already happily lived in a “mixed” canine/feline home is an ideal choice. Try to fall in love with that one!
If you don’t have a candidate who has demonstrated that she can live with the “other side” already, look for positive-indicator traits. The ideal cat will be confident and interested in new things. She’ll stand her ground, look at a dog calmly and say, “Nope, I’m not prey.” The nervous cat who runs is a disaster, because she’ll turn a dog who was otherwise inclined to be mellow into a drooling, chasing mess.
The ideal dog will be on the calmer side, exhibit some impulse control, and will respond to a few cues like sit, down, touch, shake, or spin.
DOGS AND CATS: HAPPILY EVER AFTER
With enough effort, a multi-species household can work out even when, on the face of it, the candidates don’t seem ideally suited for long-term cohabitation.
About 18 years ago, we had two dogs and a desire for a cat. On the face of it, it looked a wee bit ill-advised, since Shadow was a strong, athletic wolf hybrid (don’t ask) whose intensity around small running things indicated this could be dicey. On the plus side, though, our dogs were well-trained, and we knew Piper, the little yellow Lab, would be BFFs with the cat in no time.
I was wildly interested in this prospect from all angles, and I was the one who was home all the time to do the work.
So we headed to the shelter with the kids and asked those smart folks which of the 30 or so cats might be a good choice for us. They pointed out two. We chose one and headed home to start a months-long journey of gates and leashes and treats.
At first Shadow was a shaking, drooling mess any time he was near the kitty. But Fritzy the cat just looked at him calmly – almost rolling his eyes – waiting for him to become civilized.
At some point, the novelty wore off just enough, the treats smelled just delicious enough, and Shadow’s pack instinct kicked in just enough. His body language no longer worried me. Still, I wasn’t about to remove our gates. But then … Fritzy started leaping over those gates to be with the dogs – and Shadow paid him no mind. Once my heart returned from my throat, I realized we’d done it.
Soon they were the classic “doggy and kitty who made friends” curled up together on the bed, much to my grown husband’s delight.
I got three dogs; they went crazy mad when I showed them the new cat. When dogs recognize you as the alpha, they will immediately understand that the cat is under your care. In just two days, they’re ignoring the newcomer. Same goes with feeding, they tend to eat the cats’ share so I have to feed them in different rooms. Thanks for sharing your tricks and tips.
Thanks for sharing. We don’t subscribe to theories about “being alpha,” but we’re glad things worked out for your family.
As a new subscriber this is the first I have heard this and might be just one more reason to like Whole Dog Journal.
How about an article on working with a dog that was raised with cats, house rabbits and 2 other gentle cat/rabbit loving dogs; learns to kill small furry things.
A very large woodchuck got into the yard, it was “played with” until it wore out. That afternoon we had a terrifyingly close call with one of the cats; kept them strictly separated from then on.
That was 6 years ago. Many many moles, opossums, raccoons and wild rabbits have met a sad end since. Basically anything that gets over or under the fence dies.
I’ve had cats and dogs together for my whole adult life. There was some trial and error, but I learned that maybe the most important thing is to learn to read the dog’s body language, make sure the dog will listen to me and/or that I can control the dog if nobody’s listening, and to have safe places for the cat or cats to go. I use a baby gate set maybe 7 inches or so in the doorway to the bedroom so the cat can escape there and the dog can’t follow. I have tall cat towers where a retreat can be made, and I’m fortunate enough to have a cat’s section of the patio that only the cats can access from the living room. I’ve only had one dog in all that time that really wanted to eat the cats, and he was quite elderly and had a horrible life prior to going to the shelter and being rescued. He was pretty okay with settling comfortably in his crate while inside, and that allowed him to get used to the cats coming and going without giving chase. Cats are so different – my Mollie loves the dogs, and at 3 months old the first day here she walked right up to the biggest dog and rubbed on her front legs. Her “sister” Giselle, adopted at the same time, has only recently begun to be fully comfortable with the dogs, and I’ve had these girls for 14 years. My Siamese, Gio, was terrified of them at first, but came to understand that they wouldn’t hurt him, and he allowed them to live in his world. Patience and constant unwavering vigilance are key.
My dog is a skittish territorial spaniel a few years ago I adopted a five year old cat from a breeder who no longer wanted her.The dog came with us to pick her up she stayed in the front seat he stayed in the backseat with me -it wasn’t an easy ride .When we got home she ran under a large dresser in the bedroom .Oddly the breeder I got her from said to not let her stay there which is contrary to the usual advice to separate them.I finally got her out from under into the living room- she was hesitant and headed to a higher area.Then somehow after an hour or two they were OK – the dog did get a scratch close to his eye a day or two later it was checked by the vet and there was no damage.They have never been friends but they peacefully co-exist .The cat went through a territorial period where she slept in his crate and his bed to the dogs credit he never challenged her..From time to time she swats him which elicits surprise on his part but it’s playful -delivered when she is hidden in her scratch pad house and he innocently strolls by.The cat has a lovely temperament she is very calm never hisses and I think if they had been raised together as a puppy and kitten they would be closer.A few months ago when I took the cat to the vet the dog whined and cried when I put her in her carrier so I assume she is a valuable part of his environment.They often sleep very close to each other they just don’t interact I think considering that she was an older cat who was never exposed to dogs and he is a high strung dog things have gone very well.The dog is very alert to noises but he never reacts to her making noise though he will bark his head off if he hears a noise from the street .
“We don’t subscribe to theories about “being alpha,” could have been left out of your response to someone’s outlook. She probably already knows this and it seems unfair rely to subscribers like this. IMHO
You’re assuming she does know this (i.e., WDJ not subscribing to the “alpha” theory); but she might not.
Nancy wasn’t being unfair, IMHO, and it didn’t hurt for her to clarify this. I’m glad she did.
I agree with you. I saw no harm and am glad to see that stance clarified by WDJ.
Looking at the positive side of this, perhaps there are people who saw the comment who hadn’t realized till then that there are other methods for good training and then sought out more information like the article Please Don’t Alpha Your Dog which was very enlightening. I for one appreciate this about WDJ.
I agree; I was thinking the exact same thing. The original poster made a very good point about her dogs acknowledging her leadership and understanding that her authority protected the cat, but that was ignored because of sensitivity about the word Alpha 🤦🏻♀️
When I was a kid my divorced mom got married again…to a bachelor who had a little terrier (who hated us kids). Their solution was to get a second dog and a cat for the family. There was no plan….everyone just had to get along…..and they did. We had a large fenced in yard (tall solid fence) and the cat and dogs went in and out together for potty breaks and exercise. It was just good luck….we were all clueless.
In my experience it really depends on the individual dogs and cats.
Our current cat studiously ignores the dogs, it drives the dogs crazy.
A previous cat actually trained the dogs — they all knew what his particular stares meant.
An earlier one used to sleep curled up with the dogs.
That’s awesome. Loved that your cat trained the dogs… so very typical for a cat!!! 🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣