One Crucial Thing That Adoption Shelters Can't Tell You

how to introduce a dog to a cat

Story at-a-glance -

  • Behavioral assessment tools used by shelters don’t test dogs for compatibility with cats, so shelter dogs with an unknown history with cats may miss out on adoption opportunities with families that have kitties
  • Recently researchers investigated dogs’ responses to cat-related visual, auditory and olfactory stimuli using an animatronic cat, recorded sounds of cats and cat urine
  • All the dogs had a stronger response to the sound of cats than the other stimuli, especially dogs with a history of aggressiveness toward small animals
  • These study results suggest there could be innovations on the horizon to help shelters evaluate dogs’ friendliness toward cats, without risking harm or stress to any kitties
  • Recommendations for introducing a new dog to a home with a cat include keeping the dog leashed, and insuring kitty has multiple escape routes and high perches

By Dr. Becker

If you have a cat (or cats) at home and are considering adopting a dog, you'll obviously want one that gets along with kitties. Unfortunately, what many potential adopters find is that unless a shelter dog has a known history with cats, the jury is out on whether the pooch you're considering adding to the family is feline friendly.

One of the problems is there's no validated assessment tool for shelters to use to test dogs' ability to get along with cats. But help may be on the way.

Canine Behavior Assessments Don't Test for Cat Compatibility

A recent study conducted at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY looked at how dogs respond to cats.1 The researchers evaluated dogs' responses to the sights, sounds and smells of cats to determine which were cat-friendly. The goal of the study was to find ways to evaluate which dogs are most likely to get along with cats, without stressing any kitties out in the process.

As lead study author Christy L. Hoffman, Ph.D., assistant professor of animal behavior, ecology and conservation at Canisius told ScienceDaily: "When dogs are waiting for adoption at a shelter, a common question is 'what is the dog like with cats.'"2

However, shelter behavior assessments are designed only to gauge a dog's compatibility with people and other dogs. "Our study investigated what a cat-friendliness assessment might look like," explained Hoffman. The researchers used specific cat-related visual, auditory and olfactory stimuli to compare the responses of dogs with a history of interacting well with cats and other small animals, with those of dogs known to have injured or killed smaller animals.

Study Dogs Responded to the Sounds, but Not the Sight or Smell of Cats

For the study, the researchers recruited 69 family dogs, both purebred and mixed breeds, and videotaped their responses to three different stimuli, including an animatronic cat, audio recordings of cat sounds and the odor of cat urine.

Surprisingly, the dogs had stronger responses to the sounds of cats than either the smell or sight of them. "Specifically, dogs with a history of killing or injuring a cat or other small animal spent longer orienting to the cat sounds than the other dogs," reports ScienceDaily. According to Hoffman:

"As humans, our first thought was to test dogs' responses to the cat doll because it visually resembles a real cat. However, our findings suggest that dogs are relying more heavily on another sense, hearing. This was surprising since most behavioral assessments focus on dogs' responses to visual stimuli.

Our findings suggest that employing assessments that engage other sensory modalities, especially sound, may provide additional clues about an individual dog's behavior. Indeed, it may be possible to use audio recordings of cats to assess which shelter dogs are likely to fare well in a home with cats or other small animals."

However, Karen B. London, Ph.D., a certified applied animal behaviorist and professional dog trainer, believes more research is necessary.

"Because only the auditory stimulus was the actual stimulus that a dog would perceive in the presence of a cat," says London, "it is hard to accept the conclusions of the study. The actual odor of a cat and the sight of a live cat are different than the stimuli presented in the study."3

I agree more research is needed. I would hate to see shelter dogs ruled out for families with cats based on the findings of just one study. However, the study does suggest there may be kitty-safe innovations on the horizon to better evaluate how dogs respond to cats.

Tips for Introducing a Dog Into a Cat-Centric Home

If you're adding a dog to a household with one or more kitties, don't expect pure bliss from the start. In fact, it's better to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Then if things go smoothly, you can exhale.

Chances are it will be your cat who needs more TLC. Kitties like their environment and everyone and everything in it to be predictably consistent day-to-day. It helps them feel less vulnerable and more in control of their lives. Here are five recommendations for safely and successfully introducing a new canine family member to Tiger and/or Fluffy:

1. Go slow. When introducing a new dog to your cat, the last thing you want to do is fling open the door and allow the first meeting to happen on the dog's terms. This is a good way to overwhelm and terrify your cat the first time he lays eyes on his new housemate, and his initial fear response can become permanently imprinted.

2. Instead, before you allow your dog into the house the first time, make sure kitty has escape routes from every room and safe places to climb to and hide under that the dog can't access. Make use of a few baby gates or other barriers that keep your dog from entering certain rooms or areas of your home.

3. Bring your dog in on a leash and keep her restrained and unable to lunge at or get close to your cat. Once kitty realizes he's not in imminent danger and makes the first move — either in the direction of the dog or away from her — you can lead her a distance away from the cat and take off the leash.

Chances are the dog will head in the direction of the cat, but kitty should be better prepared at this point to handle the advance in whatever manner his instincts tell him to.

4. It's a good idea at this point to distract your dog with a toy or a few treats, a short walk, a romp in the backyard, etc. Get her focus off the cat and onto other features of her new home and family. At no time should your dog be allowed to corner or unintentionally intimidate your cat. Many more kitties are injured by dogs than the reverse, so your first obligation is to keep your cat safe.

5. Reward your dog whenever she focuses on you rather than the cat.

Keep in mind that many cats and dogs get along right from the beginning. Others grow to be friends after a period of adjustment. And some learn to co-exist by simply ignoring one another.