Cartoons may like to present dogs and cats as perpetual enemies but in fact, these two species can live together very happily if they are introduced to each other properly. In general – unless the dog has a very predatory nature and has gained a habit of chasing them – most dogs will learn to respect cats and will readily accept a new cat into the family, providing it is given good guidance by its owners. Cats, however, don’t take so easily to a new dog – especially if the cat is an older one. Therefore introducing a new dog to a resident cat has to be handled carefully.
Choose your new dog wisely
Your choice of dog can make a huge difference to how successfully you will be able to integrate your new family member. It goes without saying that you should not consider a dog that has a history of chasing cats or any other small, furry creature. You will have the greatest chance of success if you adopt a puppy as they are will be much more submissive to the resident cat, will be less likely to make your cat feel threatened and will also adapt more quickly as they grow up learning to respect their feline family member. If you adopt an adult dog, you will probably have more success if you choose a submissive, quiet personality over a boisterous, excitable one.
Prepare for the introduction
Good preparation is very important. Take the time to get to know your new dog and do some initial training if you can – just to know how well he will respond to basic commands, especially when distracted. Get to know your new dog’s body language so you can recognise the signs when it is becoming over-excited, may pounce or behave otherwise inappropriately towards your cat. If you have the chance, let each animal sniff a blanket or towel with the other’s scent (this is probably more beneficial for your cat) so that they can get used to each other’s scent first. Finally, make sure you take the dog for a good, strenuous walk before the introduction so that he is tired out and in a relaxed mood. Make sure you have a strong leash and collar to control the dog with.
Keep things short, under control and positive!
Ideally have another person help you as it can be difficult to keep things under control if two animals start acting up at the same time. Have the dog restrained on a leash and choose a room of a good size, so that there is a comfortable distance between the animals. If your cat is very timid, perhaps start with her in a cat carrier or crate – otherwise let her loose to roam around and choose where she would like to go.
Let the animals observe each other from a distance and reward with treats and praise for any calm, good behaviour. Don’t let your dog approach the cat on this initial meeting unless your cat is very confident and approaches the dog first and you can see that your dog is calm and relaxed. If your dog tries to lunge for the cat, interrupt or correct him sharply and then redirect his attention onto something else, either by doing some training (just asking for a Sit is enough) or distracting him with a toy. If your dog is becoming too excited or fixated on the cat and getting out of control (e.g. whining, lunging, barking), remove him from the room and try again another time.
Take things slowly
If things go smoothly, repeat these short interactions several times a day, gradually allowing your dog more freedom (e.g. longer leash) if he displays appropriate behaviour towards the cat. Don’t rush things – don’t move onto the next step until you have had several days of short introductions with no incidents.
Next step: Supervised freedom
If things are going well and you have had several days of calm, leashed visits, then you can proceed to the next step which is to let the dog off the leash and allow the animals freedom to interact with each other – while you continue to supervise closely. If you see any signs of your dog becoming over-excited or the cat becoming stressed, try to calm things down with a few voice commands (again, a simple Sit can do wonders) – if things don’t calm down, you may need to revert to the previous stage again for another few days.
Keep these sessions short – if they continue to go smoothly, you can extend these supervised sessions. But again, don’t rush things and don’t leave the animals alone unsupervised until you are very confident of their behaviour towards each other and know they are comfortable together.
Even when the animals have settled and are used to each other, make sure that you always provide places for your cat to escape to (e.g. a high perch where the dog cannot get to or a baby gate or cat flap to give the cat access to places the dog can’t reach) just in case the dog gets too playful or excitable and the cat wants to escape its attentions. Give each animal its own private space in your home, such as its bed and feeding area, and continue to reward good, calm behaviour with praise and food or toy rewards.