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Introducing Dogs And Cats So They’ll Get Along And Even Like Each Other

By Kayla Fratt

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It’s a myth as old as grain silo mousers and farm guard dogs: dogs and cats don’t get along. This may be the belief, but with proper personality pairing and introductions, dogs and cats can learn to be great friends. The trouble comes when personalities are a mismatch, or when we humans mess up the introductions.

It can be a challenge to predict which animals will get along, but it’s an important first step to confirm that the dog and cat actually have a good chance at harmony. If the cat is severely fearful of, or aggressive towards, dogs, it may not be fair to subject the animals to the stress of cohabitation. Similarly, dogs that are determined to chase, harm, herd, harass or even play with cats can cause the cat so much distress that it is unfair to expect the two species to cohabitate. This is especially true when there’s a chance that the dog could hurt the cat through predatory intentions or accidental play injuries.

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It can be a challenge to predict which animals will get along, but it’s an important first step to confirm that the dog and cat actually have a good chance at harmony… Provided that there’s a reasonable chance for success with the individual animals’ personalities, a proper introduction is all-important for a harmonious household.

Provided that there’s a reasonable chance for success with the individual animals’ personalities, a proper introduction is all-important for a harmonious household. Tossing the animals in together is a recipe for disaster. Instead, take a stepwise approach to ensure that the animals learn to like each other! This process may take a few hours or several months, depending on the specifics of each situation. You can listen to a podcast episode all about troubleshooting a difficult dog-cat introduction here

Step 1: Divide the House

The best way to ensure that the animals don’t scare or hurt each other is to use physical barriers to divide your home. Don’t just put one animal inside of a crate or cage — this can build frustration for dogs or traumatize the crated cat. Instead, put the animals on opposite sides of closed doors, baby gates or exercise pens. Cover the gates or pens with a towel if the sight of the other animal is stressful. Closing your new cat into a bathroom is a common setup for my clients.

Once your animals begin to settle in their new spaces, feed them at the same time on opposite sides of the barrier. The goal is to teach them that being close to the other animal causes good, relaxed feelings.

Meanwhile, you will want to begin scent swapping. Scent swapping is taking something, like a bed, that your animal has slept on or been touching, and swapping it with something your other animal has been all over.

This introduces the other animal’s scent more acutely and gets both your animals even more familiar with each other. Scent is the king of the animal world and plays a huge role in familiarization.

Once your animals are adjusting to their new space/home and are comfortable approaching the door, checking out the scent of their new housemate and showing signs of ease, you can move on to step two. If the cat is hissing at the door or the dog is fixating at the door, add additional barriers until they start to ignore each other. You may also need to work on disengagement training: rewarding the animals for moving away from each other. This video demonstrates that practice with my border collie and his obsession with the ocean.

2. Visual Introduction

The next thing to do, after your pets are comfortable hearing and smelling each other, is to introduce them visually. Change out your boundary for something your animals can see through, like a baby gate. Keep in mind that you might need multiple gates to prevent your dog or cat from jumping or climbing over to the other side. 

Continue feeding on opposite sides of the gate and scent swapping daily. If one or both of your animals becomes very uncomfortable with the new arrangement — whether that presents as a serious outward displays of fear or aggression — go back a step.

You don’t want to rush any step because it will just cause more trouble and the process will take more time in the long run.

If the animals are too interested in each other to eat, try putting more distance between them or adding a bit more of a visual barrier. You may need to find really tasty treats or carefully time meals to encourage them to eat. Just don’t starve them!

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3. Removing the Boundary

Once both of your animals are responding very positively to each other with just the barrier, you can begin to introduce actual contact. I cannot stress enough, though, how important it is for you to wait until BOTH your animals are ready. 

Before removing the boundary, your animals should be:

  • Noticing each other but not responding with aggression or fear

  • Happy to eat right next to each other

  • Consistently be responding to any counterconditioning training you are doing with them

If your cat bolts or the dog lunges, all of your hard work will be undone!

Start by keeping the dog tethered to something solid. Clipping the leash around your waist is great as it keeps your hands free and allows you to continue counterconditioning activities while your animals interact. 

Be sure to give your cat PLENTY of opportunity to hide and/or get high up to observe the dog from a safe space.

Your cat will typically want to explore their new surroundings and, while they do this, it is a great time to do more engage/disengage activities with your dog.

Even though they are tethered to you and you can stop them from reaching the cat, making sure they are actively listening to you and getting rewarded for calmly noticing your cat and then responding to you is a great way to continue reinforcing the positive behavior of your dog around your cat.

While you may be giving lots of treats to your dog while doing training exercises with them, don’t try to lure the animals too close to each other with food during this time.

This can actually be counterproductive because your dog or cat may not want to be too close but feel they have to be to get food. Instead, feed them any time they notice the other animal, but give it directly to them instead of making them move closer for it. 

Pay close attention to your pet’s body language, too. The way they react is very indicative of how they are feeling and can tell you if things are going well or if you need to tone it down and go back a step.

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In dogs, good signs may look like:

  • Sweeping tail wag

  • Relaxed pant or no pant, depending on temperature

  • Not staring at the cat

  • Relaxed ears

In cats look for things like:

  • Meatloaf position (limbs tucked under body but still relaxed)

  • Sprawled out

  • Walking with tail up in the air in a ? shape

  • Relaxed ears and soft eyes

Things you don’t want to see in either animal include:

  • Ears pinned back

  • Dilated pupils

  • Thrashing tails

  • Flared whiskers

  • Intense pant in dogs and overly fixated

  • A cat super scrunched in a corner and looking nervous

  • Normally food motivated animals that won’t accept treats or taking treats very sharply

Once your animals are getting comfortable in the same space, you can begin to introduce more movement and rewards.

Walk your dog around the room. Do mat training and other activities that get your cat comfortable with your dog moving while they are in the same room. After this is successful, you can begin to have carefully monitored interaction without any tethers. Then, graduate to interaction where you are in the house but not hovering over them.

Be very confident in your animal’s level of comfort with each other before considering leaving them unattended.

Once you reach this level you can be proud of having achieved a peaceful household where your pets can cohabitate, and may even become good friends!

This is the ideal situation and while not everyone’s journey introducing a dog or cat to the family may go exactly like this, it is often the most common progression for most families.

But some may find even after long periods at each step, they are not seeing progress with their animals. At this point it is time to call in the professionals. You can find an animal behavioral consultant near you.

Things to Avoid:

  • Don’t put one of your animals in a crate while the other is roaming free. Cats can get overwhelmed and scared when a curious dog comes up to sniff around their crate, and dogs can become frustrated and even aggressive later on from feeling teased.

  • Don’t force animals that are uncomfortable together into close proximity. Things need to happen organically for this whole process to be successful. Take each step at the pace of your animals’ choosing.

  • Don’t leave your animals together unattended — at least not until you are absolutely sure they are ready. Even dogs with a good track record with cats can be tempted to chase a running cat and cause serious damage without realizing it. 

  • Dogs with high prey drive like greyhounds, whippets, huskies and akitas may require additional professional help. Trying to introduce a high prey drive dog to a cat can be an incredibly stressful and potentially dangerous situation if you don’t know what you are doing. If your dog has a history of killing squirrels, bunnies or even cats, please seek proper help.

  • Cat house soiling. If your cat starts soiling the house, especially if your cat is the animal that has been living with you and has never had a problem before, it could mean that they are very stressed and you need to take a step back. If you have just brought your dog or cat home and the cat is already soiling even though the animals are separated and can’t see each other, reach out to a professional. Also, it is never a bad idea to take your animal into the vet if they suddenly start having a problem, just to rule out potential medical issues.

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Kayla Fratt is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and the owner of Journey Dog Training. She’s passionate about helping owners prevent and treat behavior problems in their pets. She also works as a conservation detection dog trainer with her border collies in Missoula, Montana. She’s an avid runner, cross-country skier and a budding agility competitor.

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