Traditionally we think of dogs and cats as enemies. However, with selection of the right individuals and careful introductions, they can and often get on very well.
Successful introductions will need consideration of several aspects – the dog’s breed/type, age and your control of it. Very close relationships between dogs and cats are usually a result of good early experience and socialisation for both species, but it can be achieved with careful and patient introductions.
If the dog or cat has lived with the other species before, this will help the process as they will probably be much less stressed (or excited in the case for some dogs) simply by the presence of another creature. If you are unsure how your dog will react, then you need to take care. If you have a terrier or chasing breed such as a greyhound then it may be much more driven by its instincts to chase than some other breeds/types.
Plan for success – practical tips to get things right from the start
The first step in introducing cats and dogs is to ensure that whichever animal is already resident in the home is as unaffected as possible.
Consider the space
Whether it’s a new cat coming home to a resident dog, or vice versa, the existing pet needs to have a safe place to be, which contains all of their necessary and desired resources including, food, water, toys, sleeping areas, etc. (and for cats, litter trays, scratch poles, perching and hiding places). Extra resources may need to be bought and can be distributed throughout the home so the cat and dog are not having to share.
Ideally this space should be where they normally choose to be, and where they feel safe and happy. For example, if the dog is already resident and normally spends most time downstairs, then leave it there and make that the centre of their world for a while; or if an already-resident cat likes to be upstairs, that is where they can stay.
Plan who will live where – initially, the home will need to be ‘time-shared’ so that each pet can have their own safe space to happily occupy, without needing to encounter each other.
This space should allow for the existing pet to live life without any major curtailments of freedoms, choices or permissions, for example, can the cat access the cat flap when it likes, or its favourite perch on the top of the bookshelf? Can the dog roam in and out of the door to the garden as it always does?
Set any new items up gradually
Plan ahead as to where the new cat/dog’s bedding, feeding stations, toys, etc will live, and start gradually introducing them and laying them out around the home a few weeks in advance – that way everything won’t all change at one time – the existing pet will have time to adjust to novelty in the home before the new cat/dog arrives.
Make the new arrival mean great extra things happen in the resident pet’s life
In addition to keeping things as normal as possible, it’s important to resist the temptation to spend too much time with the new arrival, to the exclusion of the existing pet. Whilst they should of course have time to rest and not be troubled by people, engineer extra good things in the pet’s life when the new one arrives – not only should the house be time-shared, but so too the time devoted to meeting and exceeding the existing pet’s needs and wants – ideally little and often. For example, providing extra opportunity for some or all of the following:
- play time
- puzzle -feeders
- interactions such as strokes and cuddles (if the pet values that)
- additional walks (for dogs)
- one-to-one training sessions
Whatever the pets loves, increase it – this will build good associations with their new situation and house mate.
Making the Introductions
It may take a while for the new pet to settle in, or it may happen quickly, but after they have had time to relax and settle into their new space and are confident to explore and access all of their resources, it’s time to think about how to introduce the cat and dog to each other. This should be a gradual process. Taking it slow at the beginning is likely to lead to the best outcome of a peaceful household, with happy pets, who may at best form friendly relationships, or at least accept each other’s presences calmly. Care should be taken to avoid even one bad experience, eg, them seeing each other when they are excited or fearful, which may lead to barking (dogs) or hissing (cats) at each other (let alone any chasing!), as this will set them up for future negative expectations of each other.
Initially the space should be divided- cat in one area of the house, dog in the other – and should have some kind of gap separating them, eg, a corridor, staircase so that they cannot make contact with each other under or through a door unless supervised.
Step 1: Scent swapping
The first step in introducing the new housemates should be swapping each other’s scent, rather than any face-to-face introductions. 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 odour. It is likely that ‘scent-swapping will also occur naturally as the owner moves between each animals space, carrying the odour of the other on hands, clothing, etc.
Step 2: Investigating each other’s areas
When both appear interested-but-calm about, or ignore, the scent of the new pet, then it may be time to move onto to allowing each investigate the other’s areas, eg, allowing the new arrival to explore the “gap” area outside their space (eg, the corridor adjoining the room the new cat lives in), and then beyond. Once they go back into their own space, the dog can be allowed to investigate where the cat has been exploring. As things progress and the new pet appears comfortable to investigate further, take the dog out for a walk and have a family member allow the cat to explore an area the dog frequents; and vice versa. Because of the nature of how dogs are generally trained, socialised and habituated, it may be easier for a new dog to comfortably explore, whereas it may take a new cat longer to feel relaxed in a new territory, especially one with a dog in it.
Step 3: Visual contact
All going well, small amounts of limited visual contact can begin. This must happen when both are calm, and with both able to escape and with no opportunity for either to a) directly approach, and b) become trapped or have their retreat-access blocked.
IMPORTANT- Neither must be confined or excessively restricted – eg, do not place a cat/dog in a crate and allow the other to approach – this could prove very distressing for the individual in the crate as they have no choice to escape in the face of an advancing threat.There must be gentle, force-free restraint of the dog, eg, a well-fitting body harness and connect to a loose lead; and the cat must be free to retreat/move away with hiding places to access nearby.
Visual introductions are best done through a partially covered barrier, such as a baby gate (mainly covered by a draped towel), whilst both pets are positively engaged in a calm, enjoyable activity, eg, a toy-game with a human, or a self-directed puzzle-feeder. Initially, a lot of distance should be allowed between the pets and the sessions should be kept short.
If both pets are relaxed with increasing visual access to each other (with a gradually uncovered baby gate), then allow them to move a little closer to each other, still keeping the sessions short, and providing lots of calm, positive experiences and human interactions when each other are present.
Supervise at all times and be constantly vigilant for any outward signs of emotional arousal such as fear or excitement, changes in body language or posture. End sessions while both pets are relaxed in each other’s presence.
As they get used to each other, the human interventions of providing plenty of rewards, for nonchalantly noticing the other being present, can start to be gradually “thinned out”, so that they can take more time to engage with each other, make good decisions to be calm/leave each other alone, and then be rewarded.
Step 4: Actual contact
Sooner or later (timescale to be dependent on the individual’s needs) there will come a time when the cat and dog have smelled, heard and seen each other for long enough to know about each other. They will have been kept apart to prevent any problematic interactions and they will have been rewarded for being calm around each other. It’s time for them to stand on their own four paws! When it is anticipated that they will be able to share a space comfortably, the barriers can come down for a while. This should only happen when it is very likely that they will be fine together, as has been assessed over multiple gradual and careful sessions. Introductions should always be under direct supervision – this means active monitoring and prevention of problems thorough positive distractions, eg, food/toy luring if necessary. A lure such as a toy or treat can be used to guide them into doing what you are trying to teach them and then rewarding them with the toy or treat. You can use food or toy lures to create space between them by luring one away from the other if any tension occurs or if one gets too close and the other shows signs of being uncomfortable.
- Avoid “crisis management”, ie, swooping in and grabbing one if things look tense, which will elevate arousal levels and could lead to a problematic experience which may be detrimental to future relations.
- The dog should be on a harness and lead, with its behaviour and body language monitored for increased arousal; and the cat should be able to move and retreat freely, as long as it is not coming directly into the dog’s space. The dog’s lead is not there to provide restraint, but as a “just in case” – it should be loose, with the dog relaxed – if the lead is tight, the situation is overwhelming for the dog, so end the session and plan to try again when there is more distance/space, and the dog is positively engaged, eg, feeding from a puzzle feeder- working with each’s body clock is sensible, ie, choosing time when they are naturally calm and ready to settle. If the cat is boldly approaching the dog, and the dog is not comfortable, then gently interrupt and divert them away from each other with food, treats, play, etc. If the cat appears anxious, gently encourage it to retreat, hide, perch, etc in order to feel safe and observe from a distance. Both pets should appear relaxed – if in any doubt that they are not, end the session – don’t take a chance and allow it to go wrong!
- It is ideal to have two people involved in this process – one person quietly watching and supervising a pet each and communicating what each other are seeing and doing.
- Keep initial sessions brief and positive, gradually allowing more time for them to “just be” together.
- As long as they are doing well, when the time is judged to be right, the dog’s lead can be dropped and allowed to trail, so that it can gently be picked up if necessary.