Introducing Dogs and Cats

4 Steps to Help Dogs and Cats Coexist in Your Home

Puppy and cat look at each other through babygate

Danielle Donders/Getty Images

In many cases, dogs and cats can learn to coexist in peace. With patience and persistence, you may be able to teach dogs and cats to get along (or at least to tolerate one another) while in some cases they may even become friendly. However, it is important to understand that some cats and dogs will never fully accept one another and may not be able to live together peacefully. But before you throw in the towel, take some time to try to make it work. 

Why Cats and Dogs Often Clash

Dogs and cats are both predatory creatures. In general, they are genetically hardwired to hunt and chase smaller creatures. This prey drive varies from animal to animal. In dogs especially, the breed has a great impact on prey drive. For example, terriers were originally bred to hunt and kill vermin. If one sees a cat, especially a small cat, this predatory instinct might kick in. Of course, this is not to say that terriers cannot get along with cats, but they start out with a bit of a handicap.

On the flip side, cats are less likely to see dogs as prey because of size differences. However, a puppy or very small "teacup" type dog can most certainly trigger a cat's predatory instinct.

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 his or her territory and/or vie for attention from the people of the house.

When it comes down to it, 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.

Preventing Dog and Cat Battles

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. Instead, start slow. 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. If necessary, wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a pair of gloves.

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 mealtime. There is no exact formula or timeline, you just move onto the next stage when you feel the time is right. Make sure you 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. 

Step 1: Closed Room

Your resident dog or cat should be given the advantage at first. When you bring the new pet home, confine that new pet to one room of the home, keeping the door to that room closed. Your other pet can have the run of the rest of the house. When you are away from the house, it may be best to keep the resident pet away from the closed door where the new pet is staying. This may or may not be feasible based on your home's setup.

For the first few days, allow each animal to gradually discover the scents and sounds of the other (between the closed door). 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.

Hopefully, after one or two days of this, each animal should be able to tolerate the presence of the other without overreacting. Be prepared, as this might take longer. Once you are comfortable, move on to the next step.

Step 2: Gate Barrier With Distance

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. This works best 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 treats, praise, and 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 and divert its attention to something like a toy.

Repeat this exercise several times a day for one or more days. You can move onto the next step when you feel that both pets can see each other without overreacting.

Step 3: Up to the Barrier

This is much like stage two, 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, have it wear a harness and attach a leash. Otherwise, stay very close to the cat. Do not allow it to jump on or over the gate.

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 together. If calmness and desirable reactions continue for both pets over one or more days, you are ready to move on to stage four.

Step 4: Same Room

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. In general, the cat is at a greater risk of being injured, so it should probably have an edge here and be able to run away if need be (regardless of whether or not that cat lived in the home first).

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.

Long-Term Living Arrangements

In time, you may find that your cat and dog simply learn to tolerate one another. If you are lucky, they will become friends. 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 an area 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