How to introduce a dog to a cat

Introducing dogs to cats: How to prepare

Before you’ve thought about introducing your new dog to your cat, some groundwork is needed to make your household suitable for a successful first meeting. 

You can prepare your home in the following ways:

  • Provide a dog-free area for your cat: bringing a dog into the house will unsettle even the most confident cat at first, so set aside a designated space for them with all their essentials like food, litter tray and bed. This will give them a safe space to retreat to any time they feel uncomfortable.
  • Install a stair gate: creating a barrier that also lets the two safely see and smell one another will let them become familiar with each other without any serious tussles.
  • Create high spaces: cats naturally revert to higher ground to relax, hide and survey their surroundings, so making sure your home has plenty of high areas that are easily accessible will help your cat feel at ease.
  • Install a pheromone diffuser: these diffusers emit pheromones (chemicals released by animals that affect behaviour) that make your cat feel safe. This can help relax your cat before bringing in your new dog to the home. 

Body language and scent

When introducing a dog to a cat, subtle and unseen cues are important in setting the tone for their initial relationship. 

Body Language:

If your cat looks tense, with their shoulders hunched, ears pinned back and tail moving, that is a sign they are uncomfortable around your dog. Similarly, in dogs, if they become rigid and fixate on the cat, usually when whining or barking, it’s a sign they are ready to chase or attack them, and they should be separated. In both cases, the ideal body language would be relaxed, they shouldn’t be staring at one another intently or hissing or barking. 

Scent:

Pheromones in your pets’ scent are an important part of their ability to communicate. You can get them both used to each other’s smell before they meet by exchanging their bedding or any other regularly-used items or materials (like toys, blankets or clothing). This can help them become familiar with one another before they first meet face-to-face. 

The best ways of introducing a dog to a cat

Firstly, the location you choose is important. It’s best if the first meeting is at home in a controlled environment, with plenty of failsafes in place, including your cat having easy access to their safe space. 

Once you’ve placed your pets in the right environment, there are three main techniques you can employ:

  • The gradual approach: while making sure you always keep the dog leashed, gradually introduce the two to each other over time, first behind a stair gate, and then, if they seem relaxed, in the same room as each other. At all times, having a steady supply of tasty dog treats on hand is great for rewarding positive behaviour and distracting the dog if they get too excited. Don’t be alarmed if this process takes a long time; it might be over in hours, but it can take days, weeks or even months.
  • The immediate approach: Keeping the dog leashed, bring the cat into the same room. If the pets do not react aggressively, let them get used to each other by smell and sight, and ask the dog to sit, stay or lie down to keep it controlled, while rewarding it with treats for ignoring the cat.
  • The game approach: This is a technique where you reward your dog for being able to look at the cat and then back at you without reacting. Your dog will have a threshold for how close it can be to a cat before it stops listening to your commands, so take the dog just outside this point, and every time it looks at the cat, offer a verbal command (or use a clicker) and give it a treat. Soon it will associate the verbal command or click with the treat and not pay attention to the cat, so you can gradually move them closer and closer, increasing the dog’s threshold until it’s completely at ease with the cat. 

Kittens and puppies

It’s worth bearing in mind that some dogs and cats may have learnt their fear or aggression towards each other through experience, and that kittens and puppies may not have the instinctive reaction to each other that you might expect. 

If you’re introducing a kitten to an adult dog, be mindful that a kitten will not fear a dog in the same way as an adult cat, and its playfulness might trigger the dog’s hunting instincts, so its best to keep them safely apart as much as possible and never together unsupervised. 

Similarly, a puppy will want to chase and play with an adult cat, and although most adult cats will be confident enough to deal with a puppy, it’s best to not encourage rough playing and chasing as as it will only be harder to deal with when the puppy grows older. 

Warning signs when introducing a dog to a cat

Any signs of aggression in either pet will be the main things to look out for when introducing them, especially if your cat is reacting that way to a calm dog, or vice versa. Another sign to look out for in a cat is a change in behaviour relating to eating, litter tray use or affection. This may be caused by the introduction of the new dog and might be something for which you should seek professional advice.

Please note: The content above should not form the basis of personal advice or recommendations.  If in doubt consult a registered/qualified pet behaviourist or ask your vet for a referral to a pet behaviourist.

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