How to Introduce Cats and Dogs

Estimated Reading Time 10 minutes
How to Introduce Cats and Dogs

Wait, aren’t cats and dogs sworn enemies? How can they live together much less become friends? Perhaps you have a dog and are thinking about adopting a cat or just the opposite. While it is an exciting and happy decision to adopt a new furry family member to your home, it’s important to prepare the humans, pets, and environment they will be joining to ensure a smooth transition. As we well know, cats and dogs are quite different, and with each comes several challenges to ensure a smooth, and happy transition to their new home. In this article, we will share helpful tips to make sure your home is ready for your new addition as well as help your adopted pet and your family pet adjust.

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Understanding Your Dog Before Bringing Home a Cat

While some dogs get along well living with cats, others just cannot safely live with felines. Remember that every dog and every cat are unique and introducing them successfully depends on factors such as their breed/type, age, temperament, socialization, and activity level.

Certain dogs have a strong prey drive and adult dogs set in their ways can make it impossible to successfully introduce a cat. How does your dog react when they see a cat? How well can you control your dog? If you have any concerns, be realistic and don’t adopt a cat. This prevents any possible physical or emotional trauma to the cat, having to find it a new home, or return it to the shelter.

Pay attention to your dog’s body language to pick up on potential warning signs. Dogs with strong prey drive (inclined to seek out, chase, and possibly catch animals seen as prey, usually smaller animals like cats or rabbits), may become quite focused on a cat. The dog will become stiff, stare, and often will bark or whine. If you notice these signs in your dog, keep them away from the cat. Ideally, your dog is calm with relaxed body language when they are near the cat.

Note that dogs can interact differently with cats depending on the environment. A dog may be relaxed with the cat indoors but once they are outside, the dog may focus and stalk the cat. Take note of your dog’s body language around the cat in different situations to know how they will react.

Your dog may not ever be able to safely live together with a cat. You should feel that you can trust your dog around your cat, as dogs can injure or even kill a cat quite quickly. Cats can also cause trauma to the dog.

Take the time to research and better understand your dog and accept what you find, before bringing a cat home. Mixed breeds have diverse parentage so you may want to have your dog’s DNA checked using a home test kit for a better understanding of the breed traits which play a role in his/her personality. Talk to your vet, who knows and understands your dog, for input and suggestions as to how your dog may react.

Understanding Your Cat Before Bringing Home a Dog

If you have a cat, you know that they dislike change in their environment and often take longer to adjust to new situations, especially a new puppy or dog in their territory. Close relationships between dogs and cats are possible, often because of positive early experiences and socialization for both species.

Equally important is adopting the right cat, which again takes time and research. Some cats, like orange tabbies, tortoiseshell, and calico cats are more self-assured and will stand up for themselves or even challenge a dog. This type of personality may or may not fit with your dog, depending on whether they are outgoing, sensitive, or timid.

Just as with dogs, pay attention to body language. If the cat’s ears are pinned back or their tail is swishing back and forth, this is a good indicator that they are displeased.

Consider adopting a cat that has experienced living in a multi-pet household or has been fostered in a home with dogs. Ask the shelter or foster family about a cat’s personality and history before adopting and consider cats with mellow, easy-going attitudes.

Ground Rules: Consider the Family Pet’s Territory & Boundaries

When adopting a new pet, remember that your family pet needs to continue to have a safe space with everything they need such as food, water, toys, blankets, sleeping places, and more (for cats this includes litter boxes, scratching posts, cat trees or perches and hiding places). You’ll need to purchase additional things to have around the home so that the adopted pet and the family pet do not have to share.

This safe space should continue to be the same, as this is where the family pet feels safe and comfortable. For example, continue to allow the family dog to hang out where they like, such as the living room/kitchen area or if the family cat spends their time upstairs, continue this pattern. By planning who will live where without having to meet each other, each pet will happily feel safe in their own space.

Introduce New Items (food bowls, toys, etc.) Before Bringing Home a New Pet

Determine in advance where to place your new pet’s bed(s), food/water bowls, toys, litter boxes, and more, and begin to slowly set them around your home several weeks before you bring your new pet home. This allows your family pet to adjust gradually to new things instead of changes, including a new pet, all at once.

Introducing Your Dog and Cat

1. Scent Swapping

Scent Swapping means using scent to familiarize the family pet with the adopted pet.

Dogs and cats depend a lot on chemical and scent communication, making introducing each other’s scent a non-threatening first step before meeting face-to-face. Sharing their scents will allow them to collect information and get used to a new scent. This can be accomplished by rubbing or petting the dog with a cloth or leaving it in the dog’s bed. Then, once it has the dog’s scent, place it in the cat’s space and do the same with the cat.

In the beginning, do not place the scented cloth/item near the cat’s eating or litterbox areas as this may cause anxiety and keep the cat from accessing those necessary areas. Repeat the scent swapping over several days, slowly rubbing the other pet’s scents onto other areas as long as both pets seem relaxed when smelling the new pet’s scent. Scent swapping will also happen naturally as you move in and out of each pet’s safe space, bringing the scent of the other pet on your hands, clothing, and more.

To help decrease anxiety and fearfulness consider pheromone plug-ins that duplicate both cat and dog pheromones. These plug-ins can be placed around your home to help calm pets.

2. Explore Each Other’s Areas

Once both pets seem curious yet calm or begin to ignore the scent of the new pet, the next step is allowing them to check out the other pet’s area (without the other pet present). For example, when the dog is out for a walk, allow the cat to explore the dog’s safe space and swap by confining the cat to a bathroom that’s part of their safe space, thus allowing the dog to explore the rest of the cat’s safe space without face-to-face interaction. Due to how dogs are usually trained, socialized, and habituated, dogs generally are more comfortable exploring. Realize that a new cat will take longer to feel comfortable in a new space, particularly if a dog lives there.

3. Visual Contact

If all is going well, pets may begin having limited visual contact. Visual contact can occur when both pets are calm and have the possibility to retreat. NOTE that neither pet should be confined, such as placing them in a crate and allowing the other to approach, as this often causes distress for the pet in the crate with no escape access when faced with a threat. Dogs may be gently restrained with a well-fitting body harness connected to a lead, while cats are allowed to be able to move away or retreat to safe places nearby.

Get both pets involved in a fun, positive, calm activity like an interactive toy or self-directed puzzle feeder and introduce them visually using a partially covered barrier such as a baby gate mostly covered by a towel or blanket. Start with short periods of time and the further apart the better.

As long as both pets continue to remain relaxed, increase visual contact (gradually uncovering the baby gate) and decrease the space between them. Keep the interactions short and continue supporting them with calm reassurances, positive rewards, and interactions with people while they are in visual contact.

These visual contact sessions must be closely monitored for changes in body language, fear, or excitement. Stop sessions while both pets are calm and relaxed.

Once the pets get used to each other, slowly decrease the support and rewards from people so they interact increasingly with each other. As long as they continue to be calm and relaxed with each other they still receive positive reinforcement.

4. Face-to-Face Contact

Once the dog and cat have smelled each other’s scent, heard and seen each other, and they remain calm and relaxed, they may be ready for face-to-face contact. This decision comes only after careful observation that both the cat and the dog interact well together and appear comfortable during multiple visual sessions.

Face-to-face introductions must always be done under direct supervision with close monitoring. Prevent problems by positive distractions such as food or toy luring. Use a lure such as a toy or treat to guide them into doing what you are trying to teach them, and reward them with the toy or treat. If you notice anxiety or excitement/tension when one gets too close to the other, use food or toy lures to make space between them by luring one away from the other.

  • If possible, have two people participate in the face-to-face introductions. Each person calmly focuses and monitors a pet and communicates what each other is seeing and doing.
  • Steer clear of moving quickly to grab a pet if you notice tension or anxiety, as this can increase arousal levels and may lead to a negative experience that makes continued introductions challenging.
  • Keep the dog on a harness with a lead and monitor their body language and behavior. The cat should be allowed to move with free access to retreat as long as it is not coming directly into the dog’s space. The dog’s lead is for safety “just in case” and not for restraint. It should remain loose with the dog relaxed.
  • If the lead is tight, the session is overwhelming for the dog and needs to end. Plan to try again with more distance/space with the dog positively engaged such as eating from a puzzle feeder and at a time when they are usually calm and settled.
  • If the cat boldly confronts the dog and the dog is uncomfortable, gently distract them away from each other using food, treats, play, or toys. If the cat seems anxious or nervous, calmly encourage it to hide, perch or retreat to a safe spot.
  • Both pets should seem relaxed and if there is any concern, stop the session to avoid setbacks or problems.
  • Keep face-to-face sessions short and positive, slowly increasing the time for them to “just be” together.
  • If they do well, and you feel the time is right, the dog’s lead can be dropped and allowed to trail so that it can still be gently picked up if needed.

Spend Extra Time With Your Family Pet

It’s important to give your family pet extra time, love, and attention when adopting a new pet, which can include some or all of the following:

  • Playtime
  • Puzzle-feeders
  • Petting, brushing, and cuddles (if the pet is used to and likes this)
  • Additional walks (for dogs)
  • One-on-one training sessions

You know your family pet and what they love, so do more of that. This allows for a positive association with their new situation and the new family pet.

Introducing Kittens and Puppies

When introducing a kitten to a dog, remember that kittens often have no fear of dogs, so monitor the dog carefully. Dogs with a strong prey drive can get excited by a small kitten that wants to run and play. This includes dogs that live and get along with adult cats. Young dogs full of energy may injure or even kill a kitten just by trying to play. Do not allow your dog to be unsupervised with a new kitten.

It can sometimes be easier to introduce adult cats to puppies, especially if the cat is well-socialized and will tolerate an excited, happy puppy. Puppies can get overly excited, even chasing shy cats, so continue to monitor a new puppy with an adult cat and interrupt any inappropriate behavior. Keep a close eye on the new puppy until they learn to settle down and have had training sessions. Use baby gates to keep pets safely separated and place a leash on the new puppy to help redirect them if they begin chasing the cat. The puppy needs to learn that chasing the cat is not an acceptable way to play.

Ask for Help From a Professional

Click here to schedule a video consult to speak to one of our vets about introducing a new dog or cat to your current furry family member(s). You can also search for veterinary behaviorists and certified trainers in your area that can provide one-on-one training and advice.

Read more:

How to Find the Right Dog Trainer

Introducing a New Cat or Kitten to Your Home

How to Introduce a New Dog or Puppy to Your Home

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