by Fiona Lee, DVM
Introducing a cat to a dog is a process that should be taken slowly and deliberately. Of course, you’re going to want everyone in the family to get along. But if you just toss your new pets into the same room together, it won’t be long before the fur is flying and the claws are out. So how do you introduce a dog to a cat? By following these steps, you can maintain harmony in your household and help your furry pets become good friends.
When Introducing a Dog and Cat, Temper your Expectation
“Fighting like cats and dogs” is a well-known cliche, but it exists for a reason. Don’t expect that cats and dogs will just get along. They are different species with different communication styles. A tail wag from a dog (“Hi, let’s be friends!”) means something completely different than a tail wag from a cat (“I’m about to pounce on you!”).
Cats and dogs can learn to understand and speak each other’s language if they are given the opportunity to do so in a safe and calm way. While they may never be the best of friends, you can teach mutual tolerance and coexistence.
Are these pets a match?
Before bringing new dogs and cats together, do your homework. Delve into the personalities and backgrounds of your resident pet and the pet you’re considering adopting.1 Does the dog have a history of getting along with cats?2 Or the cat with dogs?
If your dog has a history of chasing, lunging at or aggressively barking at cats, adding a cat to the family might not be a great idea. And if your cat had bad experiences with dogs as a kitten, she may never relax around dogs as an adult.1 You may be able to ask the shelter or breeder for information on the pet’s personality and past.
Often, you just need to find compatible personalities with similar energy levels.3 For example, if your dog likes to play with cats, you’ll want a confident feline rather than a fragile kitten or shy cat. If your cat is super playful, pair her with a dog with similar energy, not a quiet senior.2
Note that a younger animal will often accept an alternate species more readily than an adult will. Kittens might be more adaptable to a resident dog, and a puppy might be more adaptable to a resident adult cat, for example.
Understand which dog breeds get along best with cats
Some dog breeds just don’t typically get along with cats, and bringing them home might spell heartache for the pet owner. Look out for dog breeds (or individual dogs) with strong prey instincts. Dogs who only see cats as food will likely never be safe around one.
Dog breeds that cat owners should be wary of include most Terrier breeds, Weimaraners, Doberman Pinchers, Greyhounds, Samoyeds, Inu breeds, Alaskan Malamutes, Border Collies, Bullmastiffs, Jindos, Norwegian Elkhounds, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Afghan Hounds, Siberian Huskies and Whippets. While individual dogs in these breeds can sometimes get along with cats, you’ll want to watch out for that prey drive when mixing cats and dogs.
Generally, cat-friendly breeds include Boxers, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Poodles, Pugs, Boxers, Australian Shepherds, Dachshunds and Shih Tzus. This isn’t an exhaustive list, however, and doesn’t account for each individual dog’s experiences. Some other breeds, like Collies and Maltese, are also more likely to get along with cats.
Preparing your Home for Introducing a Dog and Cat
Before you bring your new pet home, have the following in place to help everyone feel safer and more comfortable:
1. Safe spaces and escapes for your cat
Cats need dog-free spaces they can escape to, even when everyone’s getting along. This includes areas they can easily reach that are too tall for dogs (like cat trees and shelves), or spots they can hide under—even a spot under the bed or the couch may be a safe haven.1 If you can, set up a “cat only” room where the door is shut, except for a small cat door. This could be where your cat’s litter box is kept.
This will also be a great place to play games with your cat, like chasing a feather wand.1 Some dogs might feel triggered to chase the cat if they see these types of games.
2. Dog leash or crate
When your pets first start to spend time around each other, you’ll want to keep your dog on a leash or in a crate.1 This will allow you to quickly intervene if needed. In general, dogs are larger than cats and can inflict significant damage or even cause death if tempers escalate.
Keep cat treats and dog treats on hand so you can create positive associations when your pets are together.1 The one exception is if your dog is prone to resource guarding, since feeding the “enemy” treats in front of a dog that resource guards may actually make things worse.
4. Separate eating locations
Cats and dogs should not have their food and water bowls in the same location.1 Not only can this encourage dogs and cats to eat the other’s food, but it may also set up fear around eating.
How to Introduce your Cat to your Dog: Step-by-Step
Once you’re ready to bring your new pet home, follow these steps slowly and carefully:
- First, keep your cat and dog in separate spaces so they can get used to the other’s sounds and scents.
- Try rotating who is in which space to give them more exposure to the other’s scents without visual contact.
- Your pup may need professional training if he won’t stop barking at the cat’s room.
- If they can see each other without stress, let them meet in the same room. This first meeting should be in a neutral area that neither pet “owns.” Your dog should be on a leash, but don’t restrain your cat. Your kitty needs to feel in control, able to wander and dash away if uncomfortable.
- Keep interactions short at first, slowly extending the time. Give them treats and praise them when they’re calm.
- It could take weeks or months before you feel your pets can be safely left alone together. Don’t rush the process.
- Keep an eye on your cat and dog’s body language
Watch for troublesome body language when you’re introducing a cat to a dog, such as:
- A dog obsessively staring at a cat, sometimes to the point of ignoring you
- A dog’s body stiffening, hackles rising or growling
- A cat growling or hissing
- A cat flattening her ears, flicking her tail, puffing her fur or crouching low
- A dog chasing a cat. Stop even the smallest attempt to chase—you have to nip this in the bud and make sure your dog will sit or lie down on command.
- A dog lunging or snapping at a quiet cat or a cat swatting at a quiet dog. This might indicate they’re not a good match; you’ll need a professional trainer’s help.
If you see negative body language, calmly separate your pets. Don’t frantically grab either one, as that will just make everyone feel stressed. Gently lead your dog away, or entice them to separate with treats or toys.
Special considerations for introducing puppies and kittens
The younger your pets can meet each other, the better. Early and positive experiences can set the groundwork for a lifetime of friendliness. But keep in mind that puppies and kittens are not only more accepting, they’re also more fragile. They could be hurt by an adult cat or dog who plays too aggressively. A tiny puppy might even trigger some cats’ prey drives, so you’ll need to watch them closely.
Adding a new furry member to your family is a wonderful decision. But when you already have a resident cat or dog, you need to do your homework before you introduce your cat and dog.