With an estimated 3.2 million cats entering the shelter system across the U.S. every year, there are clearly many deserving cats and kittens who would love nothing more than to curl up on a warm pillow next to you. The only problem? There’s currently a resident dog curled up in that exact spot — and they have no intention of just scooting over.
Before you bring home a new feline roommate without asking them, there are a few things to consider to ensure a calm meet and greet. In some ways, introducing a cat to a dog is similar to bringing a second dog into your home. But there are particular and important differences that are key to being successful. And for the record, simply hoping for the best because your dog “loves all animals” or is “indifferent to your Aunt’s cat” is not the answer.
What you might not know (and your Golden Retriever at home certainly doesn’t), is that dogs and cats are actually much more alike than they are different. Cats and dogs actually share the same ancestry. That’s because they both belong to the Carnivora order, which actually includes a bunch of other mammal species such as bears, weasels, mongooses, and hyaenas.
While you might not be able to use this fact to help your dog adjust to their new cat sibling, it can help shed light on both pets’ behaviors, which is actually one of the best tools at your disposal when introducing a dog and a cat, says Erika Gonzalez, certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, and founder of From Dusk Till Dog. “One of the most important factors is understanding body language in your animal,” says Gonzalez. Don’t just look for the obvious signs of aggression or fear such as snarling or growling from your dog, but also pay attention to more subtle symptoms of anxiety or nervousness. This can include excessive yawning, tongue flicking (short, lizard-like tongue movements), or even shaking without being wet.
It’s worth noting that some dog breeds are known to have high prey drives (i.e., they like to chase), such as Greyhounds and Siberian Huskies. This doesn’t mean these breeds won’t be able to live peacefully with a cat — Gonzalez likes to say a dog’s history and personality tend to win over breed in this case — but it does mean you’ll likely need to spend more time focusing on avoiding certain triggers, desensitizing the animals, and squashing poor behaviors before they become an issue than you might expect with other breeds who might adapt to cats more quickly.
While every cat and dog will be different in how quickly they adjust to the new arrival on their home turf — some may need more time to initially decompress, while others may be able to start proactive training methods sooner — the phases below should lead to harmonious cohabitation for most dogs and cats.
Step 1: Make time for decompression
The first phase is what Gonzalez calls the decompression period. This can last anywhere from a few hours to weeks, but you should aim for a minimum of two to three days, suggests Gonzalez, who reiterates you don’t want to rush this process. Before you bring the cat home, you’ll want to be prepared with management tools, including crates, gates, and separate areas or rooms of the home. This allows both pets to be aware there is another animal present — through scent, sounds, and sight depending on your specific set-up — without being able to watch or reach the other, she explains. This not only helps ease everyone into their new environment — after all, humans are also excited and anxious — but also ensures their safety and helps avoid unwanted behavior. “The more your dog practices chasing your cat, the harder it’s going to be to undo that later,” explains Gonzalez.
Step 2: Desensitization through exposure
Next, you’ll focus on desensitizing your dog and cat from one another through exposure training. This means, they’re in each others’ presence but still unable to touch or interact. You might have a gate between the two as you calmly play with the leashed dog on one side, then pet or play with the cat on the other. The goal of desensitization training is ambivalence. “I would love for the dog to essentially lose interest in the cat,” says Gonzalez. Do this for a few minutes, a few times a day, she says. (If your dog is showing a high level of anxiety or arousal during these sessions, such as growling through the gate, you won’t move on yet. You may also want to seek the help of a dog trainer, behavior consultant, or veterinary behaviorist at this point.)
Step 3: Encourage positive interactions
When it’s clear both pets are uninterested in each other, you’ll begin encouraging closer positive interactions, says Gonzalez. You can eliminate the gate, but keep the dog on a leash to keep some distance. “You’ll start rewarding and praising the dog calmly, simply for being in the presence of the cat,” she explains. “You can do the same for the cat.” Use treats as rewards for both, and enlist the help of a friend to work on rewarding simultaneously, if possible. The emphasis is teaching the dog that good things happen when the cat is around.
Step 4: Begin proactive training
The last phase utilizes more specific training methods, including one Gonzalez calls LAT training — aka “look at that.” With your dog and cat in the same space, you’ll wait for your dog to notice the cat. Then, using a marker, which can be a clicker or a verbal cue (i.e. “yes”), you’ll “mark” the behavior and immediately reward the dog the second they look at the cat, she explains. Do this for a few minutes a couple times a day, suggests Gonzalez.
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