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. Hold off on that introduction between cats and dogs.
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 canine 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.