By Dr. Becker
About 17 percent of Americans with pets own both a dog and a cat.1 If you're among them, your pets may have become fast friends, sharing their favorite cozy spots to snuggle in, playing together or, at the very least, tolerating one another without fights. If so, consider yourself lucky.
On the other hand, if both a dog and a cat call your house home, you may find yourself living in a gated community in order to keep the peace. This tactic works, but it's not ideal, take it from me.
I have this issue in my home with my two female pitties, who will fight if given the opportunity. As a result, they must be permanently separated, which requires constant planning and coordination. Even though they're two dogs, not a dog and cat, the issue is basically the same, as is the general solution.
To be clear, not all dogs and cats can get along; many can, but some, depending on their temperament, socialization, confidence levels, past experiences, predatory drive, age and more, will never be friends.
The Socialization Period Can Help Your Cat and Dog Become Friends
There's a reason for the term "fighting like cats and dogs." On a fundamental level, both dogs and cats have strong prey drives and are territorial. But because dogs tend to be much bigger than cats, if they find chasing down a cat alluring, they have the potential to seriously harm, or even kill it.
Still, some dogs and cats form deep bonds and seem oblivious to their supposedly predetermined roles as enemies. Ideally, if you want your dog to get along with cats, and vice versa, try to socialize him with cats during the sensitive period between three and 12 weeks of age (for dogs).
For cats, the sensitive period for socialization is between two and seven weeks of age, so this is the best time to expose her to dogs (in a safe manner, of course). Pets that gain this valuable exposure to other species during the sensitive period will often have no trouble adjusting to a new cat or dog in the household later on, provided their early experiences with the opposite species were positive.
How to Introduce a New Dog or Cat to Your (Now) Multiple-Pet Home
No matter what ages your pets are, the next crucial period is the initial introduction phase, which must be done carefully. Realize ahead of time that the introduction should be done gradually, over a course of hours, but more appropriately days or even weeks, depending on your pets' personalities.
Since a cat is rarely a threat to a dog (unless it's a small puppy), it's generally your dog that will need to be restrained on a leash during those first crucial meetings. Although, if it's a new cat that's coming into your home, you'll want to prepare a special safe room to help her get settled out of harm's way. Here are the basic steps to introducing cats and dogs:
Introducing a New Dog to Your Cat
- Bring your dog in on a leash. Keep him restrained and unable to lunge at or reach your cat.
- Let your cat make the first move, either moving toward your dog or away from him.
- Notice your dog's reaction; if he is stiff, staring down your cat, barking or whining, or pulling to get at your cat, these are signs that his prey instinct is strong (if this happens, do not proceed to the next step, continue reading the next section on feuding pets below).
- Be sure your cat has multiple escape routes (out of the room, onto a high-up location, or underneath a couch that your dog can't access, for instance). If necessary, use baby gates so your cat has a safe spot to retreat to.
- If your dog appears calm, lead him away from the cat and then take off the leash, monitoring the interaction that follows.
- If necessary, distract your dog with a toy, treats or a short training session, giving easy commands such as "sit" and "down" (with treats, of course) or a short walk outside to get his focus off your cat.
- Do not allow your dog to corner or intimidate your cat.
- Reward your dog when he focuses on you rather than your cat.
Introducing a New Cat to Your Dog
- As mentioned, first prepare a safe room for your cat. Include everything she needs (litter box, bedding, toys, scratching post, food and water, along with a place to hide, preferably two or three different options, in different locations). This will be her home until she feels like venturing out into the rest of your home. Keep the door closed.
- Bring your kitty into your home in a carrier, and take her straight to her room and close the door, so that the dog cannot immediately investigate. Open the door to her carrier and let her explore her new surroundings at her own pace. Once your cat is comfortable and relaxed in her safe room, then and only then should you introduce the dog.
- When you can see your cat is ready to come out of her safe room, place a baby gate across the door so she feels secure but not isolated, and can come and go as she pleases. If your dog can jump over the gate, use two gates, one six inches off the ground and a second on top of the first, so that the dog can't cross the barrier but the cat can come and go as she pleases. If you have a small dog that won't jump the gate but can fit under the gap below it, lower the gate to the floor and cut a small hole in it to allow the cat through, but not the dog.
- Allow your cat to get acquainted with your dog on her own terms; this may take days, weeks or even months. When she sees or hears the dog she may retreat to her safe room for many weeks, and this is ok. Make sure to not force the introduction.
Your Dog and Cat Are Feuding: Now What?
In a perfect world, your dog and cat would get along just fine. But what if they don't? You can try to gradually introduce them to one another in a safe setting (the cat having access to her safe room), with your dog under control on a leash. While each animal is calm, reward him or her with a favorite treat and positive attention.
Repeat this frequently, gradually decreasing the physical distance between them while increasing the amount of time they spend in each other's company. The goal is that eventually, they will be able to coexist peacefully.
Eventually, as your dog grows more familiar with having a cat around, he may lose interest in her entirely. The next step is allowing supervised interactions with your dog off-leash, and, eventually, unsupervised interactions. Obviously, the latter should only take place after a significant period of supervised interactions have occurred with no incidents of excitement or aggressive behavior.
If your dog shows any signs of aggression toward your cat – growling, lunging toward your cat, snapping – or your cat shows signs of stress when around your dog (such as growling, hissing, or swatting), you'll need to separate them for a period before trying again. As mentioned, there will be some cases where cats and dogs will not be friends, so this should be respected.
That being said… a relationship between the right dog and the right cat can be simply amazing. Take a look at the video below to see what can happen when a dog and a cat become friends.