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Successfully Introducing Cats and Dogs: How to Prevent Pain and Strain!

Introducing Cats and Dogs,

A veterinarian outlines how to safely plan on introducing cats and dogs.  The key to successfully introducing ats and dogs is patience. Dogs like to get to know one another quickly. Cats require time and safety to feel friendly. To succeed you need to provide safe and slow introductions. An ounce of prevention of fighting and dogs chasing cats is worth a pound of trying to repair broken initial relationships!

There is no defined perfect time frame. Puppies and kittens tend to adjust to new animals faster. Older cats and dogs tend to take more time. YOU have to be observant and let the animals and their reactions guide you when introducing cats and dogs. For instance, small kittens may not care about a new dog BUT the dog may need to be watched super closely.  Adults cats may lose their mind over a new dog dropped in their territory and can on occasion be extremely aggressive toward the dog.  Patience is vital and so is a sturdy barrier!

Slow and steady is the key to introducing cats and dogs safely and effectively. Think and prepare in terms of 3-4 weeks, not 3-4 days or 3-4 hours.  If things move quicker then hooray, but it is much easier to prepare for longer term and adjust downward than scramble to try and work out a longer term separation area when you were not prepared. Adult cats have memories like an elephant for bad introductions, so it is vital to prevent a terrorizing episode of dogs chasing cats or a fight erupting between the dog and the cat.

Step One: Planning For Introducing Cats and Dogs Beats Impulse Every Time

All too often new dogs or cats come home after an impulsive whim fueled by a cuteness overload. Sudden introductions seldom ever go well when adult cats or dogs that are not used cats are involved. You need to plan and be ready to manage in those cases. Set the animals in your care up for success not failure. Failure regarding any medium side or larger dog and a cat will usually mean death or severe injury in a cat. Be careful and plan for safety.

You need to have a plan in mind on how to best keep the animals separated by a sturdy barrier through which they can see and smell one another but NOT physically contact one another at all at first.

Dogs and cats do not always immediately get along especially if one or the other is not used to living with the opposite species. If not socialized to being around one another in a home they do not tend to read one another’s body language well. Play attempts by a goofy friendly dog are threatening to a cat until they learn otherwise. Dogs that have never been around cats indoors often focus too intently and fixate on chasing the cats. Even a ‘friendly’ seeming episode of dogs chasing cats can end badly when the terrorized cat cannot get away and turns to fight.

Aside from the safety issue, every single bad experience adds to the time and effort it takes to overcome a bad start and try to promote the formation of a good relationship. You must plan for a safe introduction period that is long enough to ensure the safety of all when introducing cats and dogs.

Step 2: Separation is Key to Introducing cats and dogs

How do you accomplish the separation? Which animal to isolate usually depends on which one is the current resident versus which one is the new addition to the home.

If the cat is new to the house, then ideally start with the cat limited to a single room that can hold all their resources (water, food, toys, comfy bed, and litter).  If the house space is limited then an extra large dog crate can work to house the cat during the introduction period. The larger the crate the better so it can accommodate all the cat’s resources. If a crate is used then cover the latter half with a thick blanket so that the cat can entirely retreat away from the curious sniffing dog at times. Or position the crate in a corner which will provide two walls the cat can back up against and feel safer.  

If the dog is the new addition to the house then the dog should be primarily confined to the chosen room or area of the house to minimize the territorial stress to the resident cat during the introduction period.

Of course you can vary this according to the needs of the household and the animals. The main principle to keep in mind is to keep them from physically fighting and prevent dogs chasing cats until they all calm down, decompress from the change, and learn to approach each other safely and respectfully. You can certainly switch up areas as needed to keep things functional as long as you keep that in mind. Cats and dogs will get over a little name calling (growling and hissing) far quicker than physical fights and chasing.

Step 3: Creating a Safe Barrier When Introducing Cats and Dogs

Initially a solid door is fine. Keep it closed so they can sniff one another through the crack at the bottom.  Then plan to move on to a physical barrier that keeps them apart, stops them from reaching through, but allows them to see one another and smell one another through the barrier.  

When introducing cats and dogs you need to be certain a very intently focused dog cannot physically charge the gate and knock it down. A pressure mounted baby gate is not usually adequate to the task of stopping a determined or large dog.  Strongly consider installing a hardware mounted baby gate instead. Mount the gate low enough to stop the cat from going under. 

Then consider adding something behind the baby gate like a zip screen doorway barrier to prevent the cat or kitten from going over the top of the gate, like MAGZO Hands-free screen door (Dr. Traas has tried several and she likes this one the best) or Magnetic Screen Door). This should provide you a firm barrier between them that allows them to see one another, smell one another, and get used to sharing space before they ever get access to one another physically. The goal is no contact but easily allowing sight and sniffing around to go on safely! They cannot learn to trust one another if the barrier is not adequate to prevent them from attacking one another.

The baby gate can be perfectly repurposed to keep the dog away from the cat litter box later on. For that later purpose mount it slightly higher then so the cat can slip beneath it easily to get to their litter box and prevent harassment and cat box raiding by the dog. Cat poop is a divine delicacy for most dogs.

The barrier allows you to observe and mediate if needed between the dog and cat. Avoid allowing the dog to intensely stare at the cat without being distracted and redirected because that tends to be both intimidating, stressful, and annoying to cats.  Plus, it generally means the dog is getting too intense and considering the cat as prey (or in the case of herding breeds as a furry creature to be chased down).   

It often unsettles the cat and becomes a source of stress for them to feel as if they are being stared down and potentially ‘bullied’ and blocked from moving freely to their resources in the house. Do not allow the dog to bark, growl or lunge at the gate either – stop it and redirect them immediately. By the same token if the cat is lunging and slapping at the barrier, they also need to be redirected. You should consider teaching the cat a positive interrupter cue to assist in their interruption and redirection.

Make certain the dog understands and responds to ‘quiet’, ‘leave it’, and ‘place’ commands. These will be extremely useful. The dog needs to be solid on these or similar cues despite distractions! If the dog is not – start working on those before they are all allowed together physically. If the dog is prone to being too intently focused then have the dog ‘down’ or ‘place’ while down. Most dogs have a harder time mentally remaining intently poised to ‘pounce and bounce’ when in a down rather than a sit. Sitting lets them remain ready to spring into action quickly and makes it too easy for them to jump forward and result in dogs chasing cats and potential disaster.

Once the cat has stopped hissing and growling and slapping on their side of the barrier, and the dog also is calm and non-aggressive or overly focused – then you are ready to move to the next step.

Step 3: Encourage the Positive and Prevent the Negative When Introducing Cats and Dogs

Once the majority of the interactions near the barrier are calm by both cat and dog, then it is time to start scent swapping and building positive associations. Cats are just as scent aware and focused as dogs. This is important to remember when introducing cats and dogs. Sharing their scents with one another will help them adjust to one another more easily.

Scent swapping

Switch out bedding (or towels they have been laying on in their bed) between the cat and the dog. That lets them explore the scent of one another more closely without fighting and begin to get used to the presence of that new scent in their territory. This makes for a nice fight free scent introduction when introducing cats and dogs. You can also smooth a soft cloth or rag over each animal and then switch the rags into the opposite rooms to be sniffed. Do it freshly each day, and for the resident animal, try leaving the new addition’s scent in all the rooms of the main house area over time.

You can also switch them physically in their respective spaces while you are home.  That allows them to really sniff one another out while still being apart.  This also allows you some dedicated time to spend with each animal separately which is always helpful when introducing cats and dogs.  Keep an eye on each to make sure neither urine marks in the other’s space.

Creating positive associations safely

The barrier allows you a safe place to start building positive associations when introducing cats and dogs One of the easiest ways to do this is to feed small meals and treats for each animal near the barrier. Start far enough away not to be stress inducing and gradually move the food and treats closer to the barrier.  Start at a distance that they are BOTH comfortable and willing to eat readily without any fussing. Now you are creating positive associations for them both when in proximity to one another which is what we want to see!

Be slow in moving them closer to one another and watch their body language closely to help guide you. More information on canine body language and feline body language interpretation can be found in our articles. If they react poorly when you decrease the distance, just go back to the previously tolerated distance and start again with smaller moves together performed more slowly. Use amazing treats. The sort that each clearly enjoy and prefer above all other things when introducing cats and dogs.

Favorite toys and games can also be used near the barrier to create positive associations as well. Sit down on the floor and play with each near the barrier. The goal is to have them spend time near one another, safely, having fun and good times or good eats!

Once BOTH animals do not react poorly when close to one another at the barrier then you can start allowing them to continue the introduction phase in the same room with one another. 

Step 4: Initial together Time When Introducing Cats and Dogs

Ideally the cat should have switched to being curious as opposed to agitated, and the dog is now calm and easily distracted from focusing on the cat without major effort on your part.  Usually it is best to keep the dog on the leash during this time and allow the cat to roam freely in the same room. 

Now IF the cat is super predatory (not common but possible) when allowed out then chances are it is too soon and more time apart is needed. Some adult cats easily take 3-4 weeks (or more) to acclimate when introducing cats to dogs. If the cat has been predatory and lunging on a previous effort together in the same room then spend some time acclimating the cat to a harness. On the next attempt keep the cat in a harness and on a leash as well when trying again without a barrier. The point is still to PREVENT a physical altercation and stop dogs chasing cats. 

Be prepared with treats, distractions, commands/cues, toys and games. And be prepared to pay extremely close attention to both animals. Try a few short very controlled supervised episodes first, and then gradually increase the supervised time they spend in the same space from there. If they start having a spat, then end the together time and go back to separation mode and work forward again slowly. Rinse and repeat as needed. Tincture of time is always helpful with cats, so use it liberally.

During this time, usually you focus on the dog and make sure they are not fixating on (staring and stiff body posture are a bad sign) or lunging at the cat. Dogs chasing cats is bad. A puppy chasing cat is bad. Chased cats can be killed in the blink of an eye by over amped dogs without intending harm. Stressed cats turn houses into litterboxes and lose their lives over that.

Keep the dog leashed, until you are sure they are relaxed and understand that chasing the cat is a FIRM, CLEAR, and solid no. If the cat is trying to attack the dog, then you are moving too quickly and the safest way to handle that is to give the cat more time living separately.

They should NOT be left alone and free to roam together until such time as ALL supervised interactions are consistently no big deal for BOTH animals when introducing cats and dogs. 

Step 5: Planning for Communal Harmony in the House When Introducing Cats and Dogs

While they are separated, take the time to closely evaluate the layout of the house and available access to resources (especially for the cat) once they are together. Failure to do so will set the animals up for failure in the near future.  If you have a good understanding of common stress points then you can prevent and troubleshoot problems as they arise when introducing cats and dogs.

Do not expect adult cats to baby sit a young exuberant puppy – that is YOUR job not theirs. YOU wanted the puppy, YOU made the commitment to the puppy, and you already have a commitment to the cat. A puppy chasing cat is guaranteed to cause stress in the household. If you let that go on, then YOU are greatly increasing your chances of owning a stressed out cat that develops inappropriate elimination issues down the road!!!

Vice versa too = do not expect adult dogs to remain happy with a young kitten leaping on them constantly every time they move. Provide the puppy/kitten with plenty of MENTAL as well as PHYSICAL exercise and engagement. Puppies and kittens have extensive physical and mental exercise needs, and you need to make enrichment plans and update them OFTEN to help ensure communal living harmony when introducing cats and dogs.

Plan to give adult animals involved in the merge a break, often, from the pup’s/kitten’s incessant need and desire for play and interaction. A little alone or apart time can be a great relief and help keep stressors from stacking higher and higher.

Cats and dogs most commonly stress over resources. What are resources? They are food, water, toys, territory (the best nap spot), preferred people, etc.  They also get stressed if the new dog/cat  is too predatory with their play, or just way too exuberant and always in the other animal’s face every single time they move.  Some dogs (herding breeds often) and some really predatory play cats will stalk bottleneck areas to gleefully harass the other animals in the household trying to take care of their basic needs. This is always stressful for the cats and may be a stressor for many dogs.  Bottlenecks are BAD for communal harmony when introducing cats and dogs.

Very carefully ponder the layout of the resources in your house to remove or minimize bottlenecks in the pathways to reach them. Make certain that there is ALWAYS more than one type of resource available in more than one area of the house.

For instance, having four litter boxes that are all side by side in one room at the end of a long narrow hall is not useful.  That equals ONE litter box, not four.  The dog can sit at the hall entrance and successfully block access to the cat’s resources at the other end of the narrow hall (or up, or down the stairs, etc). Even without aggression, dogs chasing cats, herding drive, or stalking behaviors for play, the dog or cat physically laying at the head of a bottleneck and minding its own business can be a deterrence for the other new household member.

Make sure that the dog cannot cover access routes to every food bowl, for example. Look at your house and think like a dog trying to guard or prepare a play ambush for a <resource>.  Make it impossible for all of whatever <resource> to be body blocked at once by the dog or cat. Remove bottlenecks by either increasing the resource stations or increasing the paths available to those resource areas while introducing cats and dogs.

The next part of decreasing stress in a communal household is just watching the general pathways in the house and the provided resting/hiding places. Do the cats have different areas where they can get up high away from the dog? If not, they should if possible. And again, preferably not in all the same place. 

Look at each room like a dog that is stalking prey/animated play object. Can the cat get out of each room in more than one way?  If the only way through a room is right through the open middle area of the room then that is likely to be a stress point problem, especially for shy cats. Do not make it easy for dogs chasing cats. Give the cats some choice and you will find they are quite good at avoiding issues on their own.

Can you arrange an ‘elevated highway’ through the room – a cat condo here, and a couch there for them to walk across?  Sturdy cat wall walking shelves?  Can you adjust a couch placement so they can go behind the couch to traverse the room?  Sometimes simple tweaks can help prevent major problems down the road.

Final Tips For Introducing Cats and Dogs

Other things that can set you up for success when introducing cats and dogs: Remember “tincture of time” and use more of it liberally because it is absolutely the main ingredient for success in introducing adult cats to new additions. Dogs make friends quickly, cats trust slowly. Give the separation period enough time to work its magic! Time is what allows the cat’s curiosity to get the better of it and be used to your advantage in the introductions.

Pheromone diffusers (Feliway or Comfort Zone) will assist, so will the use of the pheromone sprays right around the barrier area where they interact with the dog. Purina makes a probiotic for dogs and cats (Calming Care) that may help and can be sprinkled over dry or canned food with really nice acceptance by the cats. Neither product will be miraculous on their own, but used in concert with a proper introduction plan they tend to add a nice level of assistance.

Increasing mental engagement and environmental enrichment ALWAYS helps both animals involved in introducing cats and dogs. Provide both cat and dog more enrichment than normal throughout this process so that fear, stalking, chasing, and hunting one another is not the only thing occupying their minds! Make a commitment to spend at least 4-6 weeks working actively on increasing all the animal’s enrichment plans regularly to help the process.

If you cannot do that…. then you need to honestly re-evaluate whether you can and should commit to bringing home a new cat or dog! We have two different articles to assist you in developing enrichment programs to assist with your success in introducing cats and dogs: Canine enrichment planning here, and Feline enrichment planning here)  The new most exciting part of their days does NOT need to become plotting out their next chance to harass one another.

Lastly, once they have graduated from separation to living together, remember that it is perfectly fine to offer a slightly stressed dog or cat some time on its own each day or night going forward. Make them a place they can go with all the needed resources so they can decompress and escape stress and harassment. A few hours of defined break from one another daily can go a long way to helping slowly de-stress their interactions when together and build better long term relationships when introducing cats and dogs successfully to one another.

Over The Counter Supplements to Aid

There are many that can assist decently in mild to moderately anxious animals. You need to have a realistic expectation of them though. They tend to assist your other efforts nicely, NOT magically make for a calm cat or dog on their own. The more severe the anxiety, the less obvious the assistance of OTC supplements will be. Some things to consider are:

Over The Counter Assistance for Cats

  1. Feliway or Comfort Zone Diffusers – good for a room
  2. Feliway or Comfort Zone Sprays – good for use at specific areas like by a separation barrier
  3. Purina Calming Care Probiotic – accepted readily by most cats sprinkled over their food.
  4. Vetriscience Composure treats for cats
  5. Zylkene for cats

Over The Counter Assistance for Dogs

  1. Adaptil collars and Adaptil Calming diffuser – a calming pheromone for dogs. I would recommend both collar and diffuser for early, mild dogs.
  2. Vetriscience Composure treats for dogs
  3. Purina Calming Care Probiotics
  4. Zylkene
  5. CBD – can it help, some with mild cases, but do seek out a quality product. There is too much wild variation at present for me to have noted one that seems to do consistently decent.