There are lots of aphorisms that address the cultural rift between dogs and cats. “Cats have staff, dogs have family.” “Cats rule, dogs drool!” “Cat people vs. dog people.” “Fighting like cats and dogs.” While society likes to humorously polarize dog lovers and cat lovers, plenty of dog lovers share, or want to share, their homes with feline friends. A little planning and a lot of patience can lead to a less hair-raising experience.
How readily will your dog accept a cat friend? And vice versa?
You might remember your childhood dog accepting a feline friend no questions asked, but not all dogs will be as accommodating, nor will all cats be as cooperative.
Breed type often offers insight into the likelihood of peaceful acceptance between species. Although there are exceptions, breeds developed to chase and catch animals (such as terriers and sighthounds) often display natural proclivities that challenge calm co-existence. Age plays an important role, too; it’s often easier to teach young animals to accept each other.
It’s important to be realistic as to the likelihood of your dog safely sharing his home with a cat. It goes without saying that homes with dogs who have previously chased and killed small animals are not likely considered a safe space for feline friends – at least not without a considerable amount of skilled behavior modification paired with carefully crafted, consistent management protocols. Chasing by itself isn’t always a deal-breaker. Many dogs chase stray cats and squirrels for fun while still learning to respect the cats with whom they live.
The cat’s personality matters, too. Cats who are more naturally timid or skittish, or who have previously had negative experiences with dogs, will be harder to successfully introduce to a new life alongside a canine companion.
When considering adopting an older cat, if possible, look for one who has been observed around dogs in a foster situation. A cat whose first instinct is to run will be harder to acclimate into a home with dogs than a cat who is largely unimpressed by dogs or who reasonably stands his ground. We say “reasonably” because a cat who aggressively goes after dogs can engender expensive vet bills just as quickly as a dog who aggressively goes after a cat.
Back to Basics
When considering adding a cat to a household with a dog, it’s wise to make sure that the dog’s simple good manners behaviors are well established. A few basics – such as a quick response to his name (useful for redirection), a solid “leave it,” a relaxed “settle” or “stay” on a mat or dog bed, and respect for baby gates – are extremely useful for keeping the peace when helping a dog and cat learn to live under the same roof. It’s wise to spend some time brushing up on these basics before the cat arrives. Cats can be very exciting distractions for dogs!
Plan to Prevent Unwanted Behavior
The best way to teach a dog and cat to accept each other is to prevent the rehearsal of unwanted behavior. You’ll want to have several management strategies in place to make it nearly impossible for the dog to launch into an excited chase sequence, which is extremely self-rewarding.
It’s also important to understand that even reprimanding a dog – once he’s already initiated a chase – usually does little to prevent him from giving chase at the next opportunity. Why? Because the thrill of the chase outweighs the reprimand. With positive reinforcement training, the goal is not to find a more effective reprimand. Rather, we want to manage situations in ways that help our dogs make the choices we prefer, which we can then reward. Behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to be repeated. Make sure you reward the behaviors you want, and and prevent reinforcement for the behaviors you don’t want.
Preventing the unwanted behaviors will require a combination of management and supervision. The more exciting your dog finds the cat, and the greater his natural tendency to chase, the slower you will progress. Be patient. You should expect that the dog and cat will not be able to have unmanaged or unsupervised access to, or encounters with, each other for several months. If things improve faster (and they often do with young animals), great – but don’t rush it!
Create a Cat-Safe Adjustment Area
There’s no reason to rush introductions. It’s important to remember it’s stressful for any animal to transition into a new home. Establishing a “cat zone” that is off-limits to the dog gives the cat a safe space to decompress from the initial stress of the change, while allowing both animals to begin acclimating to the scent of their new housemates.
Encourage the cat to stay in the cat room by filling it with her necessities (food, litter box, perch, etc.). Close the door to prevent accidental encounters that might trigger a chase. Of course, you’ll want to spend adequate time in the cat room with your new animal friend.
While giving the cat a few days to relax, you can begin helping your dog associate the scent and, in some cases, the sound of the cat, as well as the new routines surrounding the new family member, with good things. Gently rub the cat with a clean, dry dish towel and place it in your dog’s resting area, out of reach, where it can’t become a toy. If your dog knows how to quietly work a well-stuffed Kong or similar toy while on his bed, having the cat-scented cloth nearby can help pair the scent of the cat with the positive feelings he already has about the delicious treats in his Kong.
Be on the lookout for moments when your dog calmly acknowledges the presence of the cat. For example, if he’s lying at your feet and suddenly hears the cat vocalize from the other room, immediately offer a treat. Ideally you’ll be able to feed before the sound piques his interest so much that he gets up and goes searching. Feed multiple treats to keep him with you and redirect his attention away from the cat. You are trying to teach him two things: That the presence of the cat means good things: treats! (classical conditioning), and paying more attention to you, even when the cat is nearby, pays even better (operant conditioning).
Some dogs get so interested in (or distracted by) the idea of a cat behind closed doors that you can’t keep them from obsessing about what’s on the other side of the doorway. In this case, you’ll need to increase your management strategies to include keeping him far enough from the “mystery door” that he can still choose to pay attention to you. This might require a second baby gate or outstretched exercise pen to restrict his access to the hallway leading to the cat room. Yes, this sometimes feels inconvenient, but remember: it’s only temporary, and a wise investment in creating a harmonious relationship between animals you hope will be with you for many years.
If your living space doesn’t allow you to create a designated “cat room,” it’s still wise to set up some initial, temporary separation. If your dog understands how to stay behind a baby gate (an incredibly useful life skill), a gate in your bedroom doorway gives the dog a familiar place to spend some time while the cat explores the main living area. I recommend giving cats a tall cat tree as both an enrichment activity and escape route where the cat can perch out of reach of the dog. Use a leash when you need to lead the dog through the room to go out for potty breaks and when you’re ready to set up training sessions.
Initial introductions should be done at a distance and focused on creating positive associations with each other. There’s no need to go nose-to-nose right out of the gate. With the cat safely perched atop a cat tree or other tall surface, bring your leashed dog into the room and feed a steady stream of high-value treats. If a helper is available, have her offer the cat high-value treats, too.
If the cat panics and tries to run, don’t force him to stay in the room. Quickly get your dog’s attention with a handful of treats, moving away from the action if necessary, and ask him to sit. If your dog is so excited by the presence of the cat that he refuses even high-value treats (for example, cooked chicken), he’s not ready for this step. In either case, it’s wise to give everyone several hours to recover from the excitement before trying again. If either problem persists, consider finding a qualified positive reinforcement-based (or force-free) behavior consultant who is experienced in facilitating dog and cat introductions.
If things go well, continue feeding the dog while he and the cat are in the same room for a few minutes, then leave the room with the dog, or ask the helper to remove the cat. When the dog can no longer see the cat, stop the delivery stream of food treats. Repeat this process several times, giving both animals a break from each other between sessions.
While it might seem like the treats serve as a simple distraction, they are far more powerful. When the free-flowing treats are contingent upon the dog seeing the cat, you are classically conditioning the dog to associate the cat with the treats. This helps change (counter-condition) a dog’s initial, aroused response to the sight of a cat (which could easily result in the dog initating a chase) to happy anticipation of the treats, instead. The dog starts to view the cat less as prey and more as a source of pay (treats) from you.
Manage Relaxed Interactions
As your dog begins to offer attention to you (in anticipation of treats) when the cat is present, you can begin to ease into regular relaxed routines with the two animals in the same room. Remember, chasing is a huge reward. Use as much management as is necessary to prevent your dog from being able to chase the cat. One great option is to tether the dog to the leg of the sofa as you watch television and the dog enjoys a stuffed Kong toy; this should prevent him from becoming overly interested in the cat.
Maintaining a “cat room” with a gate in the doorway also allows the cat and dog to get used to each other through a safe barrier.
Maintain Accessible Escape Routes
As your dog and cat learn to navigate a successful inter-species relationship, and you begin to feel confident in your dog’s behavior around the cat, you can reduce the amount of physical management (leashes, tethers, etc.) used. Continue to reward your dog’s good choices and immediately interrupt any lapses in judgment that might lead to high-intensity chases.
That said, your cat should always have access to escape routes via tall surfaces or through cat doors leading to dog-free rooms. Many pet gates include small cat-size doors that allow cats to access an area that’s off-limits to the dog. A small cat door can also be installed in a standard door to limit access by dogs. Both options not only provide important escape routes, but also work well for restricting your dog’s access to the cat’s litter box and food bowl.
We often focus on the dog as the antagonist in the struggle for harmonious dog-cat interactions, but it’s important to be mindful of the cat’s role, too. If your cat is doing her best to get the dog’s attention and your dog is uninterested – or if the cat is flat-out harrassing the dog for her own amusement – it’s wise to step in and redirect the cat just as you would the dog. All members of the family are entitled to personal space and some peace and quiet when they want to relax!
When Patience and Persistence Are Not Enough
All animals are unique. Your cat and dog’s individual personalities and behavioral and training histories have a lot to do with how well they will adjust to a life together. While we want to think in terms of months, not weeks, when looking at training time (especially in challenging cases), it’s also important to realize that, sometimes, rehoming one of the animals might become the most humane option.
This decision should never be made lightly. Nor should it be made as a way to avoid investing the time needed to teach both animals how to peacefully co-exist. Part of responsible pet ownership is a willingness to teach our animals how to succeed in our human world.
Sometimes, though, despite our best efforts, we can’t successfully acclimate a new animal into the home. If several months have passed and an animal is constantly in distress, or in cases where someone’s life is literally at risk, rehoming, while difficult, is the best choice.
With careful planning, a little management of the home environment, and a commitment to thoughtful training, most dogs can learn to accept feline friends and a harmonious household can prevail.
Stephanie Colman is a writer and dog trainer in Los Angeles.