How to Introduce Cats to Dogs

If you haven’t heard, there’s been a big change to the household here at Nature’s Advantage! Mo the Cat has recently joined the family, and that means we’ve introduced her to our best pal Sparky the Dog. Despite Sparky’s excitement (which did not impress Mo) the two have come to a mutual agreement…

So, we completely understand the excitement and worry of hoping all your beloved pets — both old and new — get along. If you recently brought a new kitty into your home or intend to, you may be wondering how to make sure there’s harmony in the house.

Here’s what we recommend!

Preparing for Your New Pet

Before you bring your new pet home, there are a few questions to answer and steps to take in preparation of the big day.

Are Your Pets Compatible? 

First of all, think back on Fido’s feline experiences. Has he even been around a cat before, other than seeing them outside? How did he react? If your dog showed curiosity or even a little apprehension, that’s okay. 

However, if your pup is hyperactive or has a strong prey drive and sees cats as fun things to chase, it’s going to require a lot more work to teach them to be calm around your new cat — and they will probably never be able to be alone with the cat unsupervised.

Likewise, it’s helpful to know if the cat you want to adopt has been exposed to dogs. Some cats are completely unbothered by dogs; others are anxious and shy.

Cats that have had a particularly bad experience with dogs in the past may even be terrified of dogs, and will be upset even smelling a canine in your home. If that’s the case, be honest with yourself that your home isn’t the best place for them.

Many shelters will “dog-test” cats, or they may live in foster homes where dogs are present. However, not all shelters have that capability, and you shouldn’t interpret a “dog-test” as absolute. A stressed cat in a new environment may react very differently to an unfamiliar dog than they would if they were calm and secure.

If you’re bringing home a kitten or younger cat, they’re more likely to be curious and unafraid of your pup. Bear in mind, though, that fearlessness can backfire if your new kitten pushes your dog too far and gets hurt!

Catify Your Space

Designate a quiet room in the house to be your new kitty’s “sanctuary” in advance of bringing him or her home. Have their litter box, food and bed all ready to go before they arrive.

They’re going to be based out of this room for at least a couple of weeks, so you may also want to consider installing a feline pheromone diffuser like Feliway, which can make your cat feel calmer.

Finally, walk through the rest of your house with a cat’s eye view. Cats are natural climbers; will Whiskers have somewhere to jump, climb, and get up high, particularly where the dog can’t reach?

Your cat will quickly become stressed if they realize there’s no escaping your enthusiastic pup, so installing a few cat-shelves on the walls with cat trees as “on ramps” will go a long way towards household harmony.

 Forcing your pets into each others' personal space is a recipe for disaster.

The First Week With Your New Pet

The day you bring your new kitty home, take her straight to her “safe room” and let her settle in. It’s best if your dog isn’t even in the house at this point, so he can’t charge up to the carrier and make a very scary first impression!

Make sure you keep Fido and Whiskers in separate areas throughout this process. DON’T simply let your pets loose in together and assume “they’ll work it out.” The odds are good that they won’t, and one or both of your fur-babies could be hurt or traumatized for life!

Carefully acclimating your pets to each other is a slow process, but it’s worth it in exchange for a lifetime of calm pets who tolerate each other and don’t fight like…well…cats and dogs!

Sniff it Out

After giving your cat a couple of days to decompress from being in a shelter environment (or on the street, or wherever else she found you), you can start the process of scent-swapping. This will be your pets’ first “introduction” to each other, in a way they understand.

According to International Cat Care

“Both dogs and cats rely heavily on scent and chemical communication, and so will be able to gather information about each other by sniffing to gently get used to each other’s scents. This can be achieved through rubbing the dog with a cloth, or leaving it in their bed, then placing it into the cat’s area, and vice versa. 

The scented item should initially be placed away from the cat’s valued resources, in case it causes anxiety and prevents the cat from accessing what it needs. Scent swapping can be repeated over a few days, gradually rubbing each other’s scents onto the other’s resources, as long as they appear relaxed about the other’s odor.

It is likely that scent-swapping will also occur naturally as the owner moves between each animal's space, carrying the odor of the other on hands, clothing, etc.”

Venturing Forth

After a few days of scent-swapping, it’s time to let Whiskers see the world beyond her safe room. Start letting the cat explore the dog’s space at her leisure while the dog is out (such as at the park or on a walk). This will give Whiskers the chance to really survey the surroundings and “get to know” Fido by exploring where he lives.

Don’t be surprised if your new cat immediately starts clawing furniture or even sprays. These are ways for cats to leave their scent and say, “Hey, I live here, too”  — and with your dog’s smell everywhere, they’ll definitely want to make that point!

Make sure they have plenty of appropriate scratching options, and divert their attention to these places if you see Whiskers about to spray or scratch inappropriately.

In fact, one good trick is to rotate your cat’s scratching poles between her room and the “dog” area while you are scent-swapping. That way, by the time your cat does come out into the main space, she’ll notice her familiar scratching items where she’s already left her scent. It may make her feel more at ease and understand that this place is her home, too. (Without feeling the need to tear up the sofa to emphasize the point).

After a bit of exploration, gently direct your cat back into their safe area so your dog can return. Don’t let them cross paths just yet!

The Second Week: Letting Your Dog and Cat See Each Other

After a few days of decompression, a few days of scent-swapping, and a few days of exploring each other’s space, your pets should finally be ready to see each other!

It’s still not time to interact freely, so use a baby gate or screen door that allows your pets to see each other but not touch. You can also cover most of the baby gate with a towel or blanket and just leave a small “window” if leaving it totally uncovered is too overwhelming for your pets.

When you do “the big reveal,” don’t actually make it a big deal! Pets are attuned to your emotional state and reactions; if you are calm, this sends the message to your pets that “They aren’t a threat; this is not worth getting worked up over.”

It’s important not to let your pets have a stare-down through the gate. Use play and treats to distract each other, and also to reward your pets for being calm in each other’s presence. This “session” should only last a few minutes, and then close the door.

Mealtimes are an especially great chance to build positive associations between your pets. When you feed your dog and cat, do it with their “window” open so they can see each other eating. Start with some distance, and then slowly move their food bowls a little closer to the gate each day. 

Your goal is for your pets to eventually make the connection that “good things happen when Fido/Whiskers is around” — such as playtime, yummy treats or dinner.

Watch your pets’ body language closely during this time. Your dog should be aware of your cat, maybe even curious, but you should still be able to get their attention when you call. If your dog is staring intently at your cat and won’t be distracted, they are too fixated — it’s time to end the session. Likewise, if your cat is puffing up her fur or hissing, she’s feeling threatened and nervous.

Ideally, each time you “reveal” your pets to each other, they will both be a little bit calmer as they realize that nothing bad will happen. Once they are both relaxed while in eyesight of each other — able to lay down, look away, and maybe even nap — it’s time to take the next step.

Introducing pets the right way takes time, but it's worth it!

The Third Week: First Interactions

Before the first introduction, make sure to tire your dog out through an active run or game of fetch so they aren’t so keyed up. Play with your cat beforehand, too. Play builds a cat’s confidence so she feels her best when she approaches this new situation.

When it’s time, keep Fido on a short leash near you as you open the door to let Whiskers explore. Don’t force her out — if she’s not ready, that’s okay! She also may or may not choose to approach your dog directly.

Remember to keep this a positive experience for all involved by not scolding or yelling at either pet for their reactions. If your dog barks or is overexcited, gently redirect him to a toy or instruct him to do behaviors he’s learned (sit, down, shake, etc.). Use treats to keep Fido’s attention mostly on you, so he’s only sort-of keeping an eye on the cat.

The best policy is to focus on what behaviors you DO want instead of what behaviors you DON’T want. For example, when your dog is not barking, when he is sitting quietly, when he’s looking up at you instead of the cat — reward him for that each time, and be generous with his favorite treats!

As Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) says: 

“Although your dog must be taught that chasing or being rough with your cat is unacceptable behavior, he must also be taught how to behave appropriately, and be rewarded for doing so, such as sitting, coming when called, or lying down in return for a treat. If your dog is always punished when your cat is around, and never has “good things” happen in the cat’s presence, your dog may redirect aggression toward the cat.”

Watch your cat’s body language, too. Even if your dog is being friendly and mostly calm, if your cat puffs up or hisses, give her more space by moving the dog across the room or out of the room. Tail flicking, ears flattened, and being low to the ground are also signs of unease in your cat.

Any nervous animal may scratch or bite, but the best way to make sure both your pets know they don’t have to defend themselves is because you’ve got their back. Step in and redirect their attention or end the interaction if either one is clearly anxious.

Don’t force an interaction, and always make sure your pets can escape each other; don’t lock your cat in a carrier, and don’t let her get backed into a corner. 

This first meeting should be only a minute or two at most. Aim to end the interaction on a good note by removing Fido from the room while both pets are calm. Don’t wait for trouble to kick off first.

Repeat these brief interactions two or three times a day for at least a week. Keep them short and sweet, and save your best, most high value treats for these interactions only. Your pets will realize that seeing each other means they get delicious rewards.

Honestly, how can you hate someone who makes your favorite food appear when they step in the room??

Moving Forward

Over time, if both pets are doing well, you can extend the length of these supervised visits. Gradually transition into letting both pets off leash when you are home to supervise — but be ready to call Fido and leash him if he harasses the cat

For some pets this can be a long process, so don’t be afraid to take a few steps back and don’t get discouraged if progress is slow. Continue treating and rewarding your pets for calm behavior. If the two pets are both laying down in the same room ignoring each other — that’s perfect! 

Don’t leave your pets alone together unless you are absolutely certain they’ll be chill. Even if you are pretty confident about it, consider installing pet cameras in your house so you can keep an eye on things.

Ideally, after a few weeks or so your cat will feel confident enough to eat, drink, use the litter box, stroll across the room or sleep on the sofa without fear of the dog. And, your dog should be able to ignore the cat completely!

If your cat spends 24/7 hiding on top of the fridge, or if your dog still gets amped up whenever Whiskers appears, it may be time to change tactics before those habits become ingrained. 

If things really aren’t going well after the first couple of months, it may be time to call in a professional dog trainer or even a feline behaviorist to ensure both of your beloved fur-babies are happy, healthy, and stress-free in your home!

If they are acclimatized slowly and carefully, most dogs and cats can eventually learn to tolerate each other. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Fido and Whiskers are going to be best friends.

As much as you dream of taking adorable pictures of them cuddling, or seeing the two loves of your life loving each other, it simply may not happen. The goal is peaceful coexistence — even complete indifference is a win.

If friendship does blossom between your pets, it must happen naturally over time. After all, you can’t force love!

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