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Introducing cats & dogs

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Dr Chantelle McGowan, BVSc MANZCVS (Behaviour)

Elite Fear Free Certified Coach

It’s exciting to adopt a new dog or puppy, but probably not for everyone in the household. There’s many things to consider when introducing a dog/puppy to a cat, from the breed and age of the puppy/dog, to setting the house up in a way that minimises stress for your cat. Then there’s the actual process of physically introducing them to each other – where to even begin?

Be. Prepared.

Planning ahead can minimise a lot of stress for all involved. It is important that you have selected a suitable puppy/dog for your lifestyle; and if that lifestyle includes a cat, then they should be considered in the decision too.

Is a boisterous, high energy puppy going to be suitable to introduce to your skittish 16yo geriatric, arthritic, cat?

Does the breed you’re looking at have a tendency to chase moving things e.g. Terriers, or sighthounds like greyhounds and Afghans, or herding dogs like Border Collies and Aussie Shepherds?

Does the breeder or foster carer you’re adopting from have a cat, or socialise their puppies/dogs with cats?

Selecting the right breed, age and background of puppy or dog can go a long way to harmony in the home.

Consider the layout of your house and where all the resources are going to fit. You are going to need to keep the cat and your new puppy/dog completely separated for a few days at least. Ideally, your cat’s food, water (kept 0.5m away from the food), litter, resting bed, sleeping bed (which is different to the resting bed) and play spaces will be in place(s) that provide safety and privacy for your cat.

Cats generally do not like change, so if you need to move any of these resources e.g. food & water bowls, do this gradually and well ahead of time. Make sure your cat has access to multiple elevated spaces (like the odd cleared bookshelf space, cat tower or dresser, some ideally near windows) to help them feel more secure, especially in social areas so they can remain part of the family risk-free.

Playing Cat Calming music can be helpful, there are many different options via streaming services or online. Using pheromones such as Feliway Classic and Feliway Friends in a favourite room, diets such as Royal Canin Calm or supplements like PAW Complete Calm for Cats and Zylkene can also help support your cat during this period. We recommend starting or transitioning onto products like these at least two weeks before your puppy/dog is due to arrive. Have Lickimats, Kong toys and other long-lasting treats/toys ready to use when your puppy/dog arrives home.

On the day

So you’ve created a safe space for your cat to retreat to, and they are happily resting/sleeping there voluntarily on occasion. Making sure they have access to food, water, litter, a bed and elevated space, confine your cat to this area so they cannot come into contact with the new puppy/dog. It might be a good idea to play some Cat Calming music at this stage.

Arrive with your new puppy/dog, and allow them to explore the section of the house separate to the cat. Once the sniffs have been had, some treats and a bed to rest on, make sure your dog is secure on a leash, either in a room or crate (only if they have been positively trained to a crate prior). Then allow your cat to explore the parts of the house your dog has been, avoiding where the dog is presently secured, and let your cat become familiar with your puppy/dog’s scent. Repeat this process over the next few days, allowing each pet to have their ‘turn’ sniffing the other’s presence without ever coming into contact.

It’s a good idea in this period to practice “sit” & “stay”, and if your dog is old enough, “mat/crate” and “leave it”. Only train in bursts of 3-5min, using lots of rewards and positive reinforcement.

Science tells us that punitive measure of trainings (such as yelling, pinching, hitting, leash popping/jerking, alpha rolling etc) only cause confusion and fear, impairing learning and fracturing the bond between you and your pet. So keep it positive all the way.

The Introduction

After a few days/weeks of acclimating to each other’s scents, being rewarded for neutral or no reactions, the time will come to physically introduce your puppy/dog and cat. It’s a good idea to introduce them when your puppy/dog is calmest; maybe after a long sniffy-walk, a licki-mat or some sort of enrichment toy/game. Make sure that your puppy/dog is secure, either on leash on a mat, or in a crate, and is resting and relaxed. It is helpful to do The Introduction with two people, so both puppy/dog and the cat can be rewarded and soothed at the same time.

The room in which you introduce them is important; it needs to have elevations and an easy escape route for your cat so they feel safe. During The Introduction it is paramount that you do not force anything, and if your cat wishes to retreat, they are able to do so.

  • Distract your puppy/dog with a long-lasting treat or toy, then bring your cat into the room

  • Give your cat a lot of attention and praise, grooming, playing and treats if they’ll take it, just for being in the same room as your puppy/dog

  • Allow the cat to acclimate to the puppy/dog, and vice-versa

  • Do not bring your cat straight up to the puppy/dog. Bring them into the room & let them choose to leave your embrace for a platform distant to the puppy/dog

  • If the puppy/dog starts to become excitable at any stage, stop the Introduction

  • Do this several times a day for a short time to keep it positive

  • Allow your cat to choose if/when they approach the puppy/dog There may be some hisses and growls, but if left on their own terms, cats’ curiosity often gets the better of them and they’ll approach cautiously

  • Have a large cushion or cardboard nearby to safely separate the two if your cat goes on the attack

  • It will probably be a few weeks before you should be comfortable to have the puppy/dog off leash interacting with the cat

  • There should always be in an environment where the cat has an escape route

  • Closely supervise these interactions, but never punish either party for boisterous or aggressive behaviour

  • Punishment rarely stops a behaviour for which it was intended, and is often then associated with the ‘scary thing’ present. In this case, punishing the cat for displaying aggression will only reinforce to the cat to be scared of the puppy/dog. And you.

  • Do not leave them alone together until you are certain they tolerate each other and the puppy/dog will not chase the cat

  • Until this time, keep them physically separated when you are not home

Both puppy/dogs and cats need individual spaces to retreat to if feeling overwhelmed, or simply to go rest. This goes a long way to meeting basic behavioural needs of our pets. They must be fed separately, have access to different water bowls, and in the case of cats, perching and litter stations need to be private and secure.

Indoor/outdoor cats may leave the home for a while if they have access to outside. This is troubling and unsafe, so every effort should be made to accommodate the cat’s needs and psychological safety during this process, using methods mentioned in this article. Contact us for a private cat-friendly assessment of your home.

Your cat and puppy/dog may never be the best of friends, but we do want them to be housemates who tolerate each other well. Conflict between cats and puppy/dogs usually leaves the cat worse off, and chronic stress like a new puppy/dog does increase risk of illness and decrease life expectancy. In cases where the cat is stressed by the presence of the puppy/dog, they may be able to figure out a ‘time-share’ system for your attention, and spend most of their time away from the puppy/dog.

If your introduction is not going well, you’re concerned about the frequency, intensity or duration of some behaviour, or there’s still a lot of conflict or stress after many weeks, we are here to help.

While intended to help any pet parent with introducing cats to dogs, this article is no substitute for a consultation with firstly, a veterinarian to ensure no physical ailments, and secondly, a qualified veterinary behaviour professional to assess your pet(s), their unique triggers, thresholds and capabilities, to offer a treatment plan tailored for success.

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