Despite what we have learned from cartoons, dogs and cats are not always mortal enemies. Many dogs and cats can learn to coexist in peace through careful introductions and training. You may be able to teach your dog and cat to tolerate one another or even become friends.
Can Dogs and Cats Get Along?
The truth is, cats and dogs live together peacefully in most households. Conflicts most commonly occur during the initial introduction phase. This is because of the typical nature of these animals.
Dogs and cats are both predatory creatures; they are genetically hardwired to hunt and chase smaller creatures. Natural prey drive varies from animal to animal, and breeding often has a great impact on prey drive. For example, some dog breeds were originally bred to hunt and/or kill other animals. The sight of a cat might spark this predatory instinct and lead to a chase or attack.
Cats are less likely to see dogs as prey because of size differences. However, a puppy or very small "teacup" type dog may trigger a cat's predatory instinct. Cats may also misinterpret a dog's body language and grow defensive or fearful.
Territorial behavior is commonly displayed by both cats and dogs. The current four-legged resident of the household may feel threatened by the new presence of another creature and become defensive. To send the message that "this is my turf," cats may growl and hiss at a new dog. Dogs may bark and growl at a new cat. Both species may urinate or defecate inappropriately to mark their territory and gain attention from humans in the house.
In general, a resident cat is often more likely to display territorial and defensive behavior towards a new dog. A resident dog is more likely to see a new cat as prey and chase after that cat. Fortunately, proper introductions and training may be able to change the way dogs and cats see one another.
Matching Dogs and Cats
Not all dogs and cats are compatible. For instance, a fearful cat is not an ideal match for a hyperactive, playful dog. Before you choose a new pet to bring into your home, first consider the personality and energy level of your current pet.
Older pets are sometimes set in their ways and resistant to new animals. A young, active animal may frustrate or overwhelm the resident senior pet.
Avoid getting a second pet if the resident pet has a serious illness or behavior problem. Treat the pet's issues first, then consider another pet.
If possible, adopt a pet that has been tested with the other species. Many pet adoption groups know a pet's history or have tried the pet with other animals to determine temperament.
Sadly, some dogs and cats will never learn to accept one another. You may find that you can only have dogs or cats but not both.
How to Introduce a New Dog to a Cat
It is important to ease a dog and cat into a new situation. Do not just throw the new pet into the mix and hope for the best. Before you know it, the fur will be flying and you or your pets could get seriously hurt.
Start slowly. The most important part of the process is that you must directly supervise both pets. There should be no unsupervised direct contact until you are confident that both animals will behave appropriately.
Remember to be safe while supervising your pets. An agitated cat or dog might mistakenly redirect aggression towards you, and scratches or bites are the last things you need.
Introductions should be done in steps, and each introduction should be done when all pets are as calm and relaxed as possible, like after a meal.
Remain in control of the situation. If you are in doubt, it is okay to back up a step. This process can take days, weeks, or even months.
Here is how to begin the careful process of introducing dogs and cats so they will (hopefully) get along.
Separation and Confinement
When you bring the new pet home, confine that new pet to one room of the home. Set up the room with bedding, food, water, and toys (plus a litterbox and scratching pad for a cat). Make sure there are cozy hiding places for your new pet, especially if the pet seems fearful.
Avoid visual contact between the animals. Allow the new pet to smell and explore the room while the resident pet has access to the rest of the home. You may need to put your dog in a crate if he is digging or clawing at the door to get to the cat.
For the first few days, allow each animal to gradually discover the scents and sounds of the other (between the closed door). Allow each pet to smell items with the other pet's scent. Each pet that acts with calm curiosity or neutral behavior should be rewarded with praise and treats. If a pet shows aggression, anxiety, or over-excited behavior, immediately remove that animal from the situation. Divert the pet's attention to something like a toy. Do not scold or punish the pet.
A few times each day, give the new pet a chance to explore the home without the resident pet around.
New Dog, Resident Cat: Confine the cat and allow the new dog to explore your home. Allow the cat to explore the dog's room without the dog present.
New Cat, Resident Dog: Move the dog outdoors or to another room and allow the new cat to explore the home. Some cats will be slow to leave the room where they are confined. Leave the door open to give the new cat access to the home, but do not force the cat to leave the room.
Hopefully, after a few days of this, each animal will be able to tolerate the presence of the other without overreacting. Be prepared, as this might take longer. If both pets are adjusting well (eating, drinking, urinating, and defecting normally), move on to the next step.
Visual Contact Through a Barrier
Now that the two pets have been able to sense, smell, and hear one another, it is time to allow them to see each other. Get a pet gate or baby gate that you can set up in the doorway of the room where the new pet is staying. Keep the dog on a leash as a precaution. Do not hold the cat or you may get clawed or bitten. This process is easier if you have another person who can help you. That way, each pet is being supervised directly.
Both pets should be a reasonable distance from one another on either side of the door. Offer praise and treats. Gently pet each animal while slowly opening the door (with the gate in place and closed). Do not make a big deal about this, just keep the mood calm and allow each animal to discover the open door from a distance. If either pet becomes vocal, aggressive, anxious, or over-excited, immediately remove that animal from the situation. You may only be able to do this for a few seconds at first.
Repeat this exercise several times a day for several days to weeks. Try feeding the pets with the door open so they develop positive associations with the other pet. You can go to the next step when you feel that both pets can look at each other without overreacting.
This is much like the previous stage except that you now want to let each pet approach the gate. As always, maintain control over each animal. The dog should be on a leash. Lunging towards the gate should be prevented and highly discouraged. If your cat is comfortable with a harness, use it and attach a leash. Otherwise, stay close to the gate to prevent the cat from jumping over it.
Be very careful. If your cat is hissing or spitting at the dog and you pick it up, you could easily be bitten or scratched. The cat and dog should not be allowed to touch one another, they should only be permitted to get closer and sniff one another. If calmness and desirable reactions continue for both pets over one or more days, you are ready to move on. Go back to the previous step if one or both animals becomes fearful or aggressive.
In this final stage of introductions, the cat and dog are allowed to be in the same room together while supervised. At this point, the dog should still be on a leash. The cat is at a greater risk of being injured and should be able to run away if necessary without being chased.
Hold brief sessions where both pets are in the same room. Treat their reactions in the same way as you did in previous steps. Gradually increase the times of these sessions, each time letting the pets get a little closer to each other. This final stage may take the longest, and during this time, the pets should still be separated when left alone.
In time, you may find that your cat and dog simply learn to tolerate one another. If you are lucky, they will become friends, perhaps even playing and snuggling together. In some cases, the cat and dog can never be safely left alone together. Use your best judgment in these situations. Remember, it is always better to be safe than sorry.
Regardless of the outcome, be sure that your home is set up to allow the cat to have a dog-free retreat. Your cat's food, water, and litter box should all be permanently kept in areas that the dog cannot access. In addition, you may wish to crate train your dog to help keep things safe while you are gone. As always, make sure your pets have plenty of mental and physical stimulation in the form of exercise, engaging toys, and proper training.
Menchetti, Laura, et al. “Cats and Dogs: Best Friends or Deadly Enemies? What the Owners of Cats and Dogs Living in the Same Household Think about Their Relationship with People and Other Pets.” PloS One, vol. 15, no. 8, 2020, p. e0237822.
“Introducing Your Dog to Other Animals.” Drsophiayin.Com, 14 July 2020, https://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/introducing-your-dog-to-other-animals/