Introducing Dogs and Cats: A Complete Guide

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Cats and dogs don’t exactly have reputation for being BFFs, but the reality is that it’s possible for both species to live together without incident. In fact, introducing dogs and cats, if done correctly, can end up resulting in a beautiful friendship that enhances the lives of both species.

That said, making sure your feline and canine companions can live harmoniously requires some forethought and preparation. Both species’ needs and wellbeing need to be taken into account. Safety is also an extremely important consideration. Let’s go over some ways to ensure your cats will be less likely to hate their new housemate.

Picking the Right Dog

There are a lot of considerations when selecting a dog including the dog’s personality, energy levels, needs, and more. When there are cats involved, it becomes even more complicated. There are some breeds that are more likely to get along with cats (I knew there was a reason I always liked golden retrievers!) so doing a bit of research into the breed of dog you are considering is a good start. That said, I am actually going to encourage you to focus on something else: the individual dog.

A golden retriever looking to the side.
This golden retriever is handsome as heck, but may actually be a handsome murderer. Photo by Mitchell Luo.

Why focus on the individual dog? Breeds of animals may have characteristics that are common for them, but there is variability among individuals. To use a cat example, ragdoll cats are known for being little snuggle bugs. However, I have seen ragdolls who have a lot of aggressive behaviors so it’s not always the case that they’re friendly.

The same applies to dogs: a dog may be a breed that is known for being totally cool with a cat, but that specific dog may have had past experiences, a slightly different personality, or the wrong mix of genetics that leads that individual to be safe around cats.

Questions To Ask About The Dog

It’s always a good idea to meet the individual dog before you decide to adopt them. Whether you are getting a rescue dog or one from a breeder, always ask a lot of questions about the dog. Some specific suggestions to ask:

  • Has the dog been around cats?
  • How did the dog act around cats?
  • If the breeder or rescue says the dog is good with cats, ask how they know that. Ask for specific observations!
  • How playful is the dog?
  • Does the dog like to hunt or chase other animals?
  • Does the dog have any behavior concerns?
  • Has the dog been trained? How well did the training go?
  • What is the dog’s play style like? Are they rough and disinhibited?

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it should give you a good starting place. Always ask for specific observations as it will help you make an informed decision. For example, if a dog is described as high energy and has a rough play style, the dog may attempt to play with the cat in a way that’s too rough for the cat. This could be seriously injure or kill the cat even though the dog isn’t intending to do hurt the cat.

Take this decision seriously. Neither the dog nor the cat will benefit from a mismatch in the home. 

Prepare Ahead of Time

As you’re finding the right dog, you can begin doing some work to prepare the space ahead of time. Environmental modification for cats is extremely important, especially with a new potentially scary dog coming in. You want to make sure your cat’s basic needs are met and that your cat can access them in multiple places.

Think about it like this: pretend that you have a paralyzing fear of centipedes WHICH OBVIOUSLY I DO NOT THIS IS NOT A PERSONAL EXAMPLE THEY ARE NIGHTMARE CREATURES AND I HATE THEM. If you wanted to get a snack, but there was a giant centipede between you and your kitchen, you’d be unable to reach your snack.

However, if you had a second kitchen in the opposite direction, you could still go grab yourself a tasty snack. While seeing the centipede may still cause you stress, you’d be less stressed than if you were fearful and hungry.

This concept applies to cats and dogs. If your cat has the ability to choose to go somewhere else when the dog is blocking a resource, the cat won’t be as upset as they can get that need met. Plus, we know cats really like having choices. Having multiple resources spread out so the dog will never completely block a cat from the resource will help keep your cats’ stress down.

Add Escape Routes For Your Cat

Equally important is giving your cat spaces to run and hide if they are feeling threatened or want to not be near the dog. Having hiding holes where the cat can safely escape the dog is important, but probably more important is vertical space. Vertical space allows your cat to get up and away from the dog and feel more secure.

This is especially true if the higher space is somewhere the cat is only able to reach like a cat tower or cat shelves. You want to make sure your cat always has somewhere to escape from the dog if needed. Even if your cat doesn’t go up there all the time, having the option really helps.

A store with purple walls and many, many different styles of carpeted cat towers.
You probably don’t need nearly this many cat towers. Photo by Petrebels Kuz.

In addition to setting up the environment for when the cats and dog are permanently integrated, you’ll want to divide your space so the cats and dog can remain separate at first. Practically, this usually means the cats are separated into one room. If you have the space to do a bigger divide (such as giving the cats a whole floor) that’s even better.

The cats’ basic needs should all be met on their side of the divide. Ideally you’ll want to start this process earlier rather than later so the cats have a chance to settle before the dog comes home. Shoving them into a room and having the sounds of a new dog added to your home at the same time is likely to cause them excessive stress.

You may also want to consider getting a Feliway diffuser for the cats’ area. These diffusers contain synthetic versions of cat pheromones that can help them feel more secure in their space. This can help reduce tension once their new canine friend comes home. For the dog, there’s Adaptil which may help them feel just as calm. You want both animals to feel safe and secure when they do meet.

One last tip to prepare you not only as you are introducing the cat and dog, but for their entire life: familiarize yourself with both cat and dog body language. This will help you cut off any tension before it escalates. A great source of information on both cat and dog body language is Lili Chin. She has two awesome books, Doggie Language and Kitty Language, that go over the basics of understanding dogs and cats.

Introducing Dogs and Cats: The First Meeting

You’ve got things all set up and the cats are nice in calm in their new wing of your home. What next? Bring home the new dog!

At first, I don’t recommend letting the dog and cats meet. Let the cats get used to the sound of the dog and try to make it as positive of an experience for the cats as possible. Give the cats lots of treats, make sure they have plenty of play time and attention from you, and don’t just neglect them. They may be stressed out by the sounds of the dog so letting the dog settle in for at least a day or two is a good idea, though you want to listen to the cats to determine if they’re ready. If they are showing any signs of stress, give the cats more time.

You can begin scent swapping with the dog by bringing some blankets or bedding of the dog’s into the cats’ room so they can begin smelling it. While the dog is out on a walk, let the cats out into the dog’s area so they can sniff and mark their scent in the main living space. Scent is one of the most important ways cats communicate and gather information about their world so this allows the cat to learn more about their new housemate.

Make sure the cats are back in their space before the dog returns so there isn’t an accidental meeting. You’ll then want to let the dog sniff around your home as, similar to cats, sniffing helps the dog learn about their world.

Meet With A Gate

After you’ve done this for a few days, you can consider letting the cats and dog meet for the first time. For this part, I suggest you have the dog on a harness at a distance from the cats. This is to avoid scaring the cats by having the dog rush toward the cats as the cats are less likely to seem threatening to the dog than reverse. I also advise using a baby gate or full door length pet gate for this part as it adds a extra layer of physical security and psychological security for the cats as there is a barrier between them and the dog.

Close the door and set up the pet gate in the entry to the cats’ territory. Open the door briefly and let the cat and dog see each other. Observe both of their reaction and, after a few moments, close the door again. You can give both the cat and the dog treats during the session if they remain calm. If the cat and dog both seem fine, you can repeat this for a bit longer next time. Again, reward calm behavior.

If they are doing fine, you can let the dog and cat gradually move closer over a few sessions. Once they’re fine, have the dog meet the cat without the harness but across the gate. Eventually, let the cat and dog see each other supervised across the gate. Keep an eye on both of their body language. At any sign of upset or aggressive behavior, end the interaction.

Removing the Gate

Next step is letting the cat and dog meet face to face. Keep in mind the cat and the dog are likely going to want to meet face to face so you may not be able to keep them separated. The first meeting should be somewhere that has places for the cat to escape if they become scared. Having a tall cat tower nearby is a good idea. Allow the cat and dog to sniff each other and meet.

If they have positive interactions, reward each of them. Consider having a large towel nearby in case you need to visually separate the two animals. A broom can be used to gently intervene if absolutely needed (don’t hit them with it!) as this eliminates the risk of your hands getting chomped.

If they don’t have such a good interaction, guide the cat to a separate room and let them cool off for at least a day or two. Try again with the pet gate or at a distance. If needed, you can use a harness for the dog. Just make sure your cat doesn’t use the opportunity to bop the dog! That’s not a great way to set up a friendly relationship between the two.

If the interaction is positive, slowly allow the cat and dog to have longer meetings, always paying attention to the body language of both animals. Neither should be upset and you should always supervise early interactions.

As the animals have evidenced that they are able to be around each other safely, you can slowly let them out more and more. It is safer to keep them separated when you are not home at first or while you sleep, but eventually they might be okay being out and about together unsupervised. Just know there will always be some risk.

Orange cat and a corgi snuggling.
There is also a risk of a cuddle puddle, which is a risk I’d be willing to accept. Photo by Brianna Tucker.

Things to Avoid

Introducing a cat to a dog is a bit of a process, but doing it correctly increases the chances of you having a happy home rather than an injured animal or worse. Unfortunately, there are some things that often get suggested as methods to introduce animals that can actually make things worse.

First, you don’t want to encourage the cat to do anything to hurt the dog. The dog’s happiness is important and they shouldn’t feel afraid or antagonized by the cat. Plus, if the dog feels threatened, they may try to defend themselves which could end poorly for both animals. Encourage friendly interactions instead.

Some well meaning folks encourage having the cat meet the dog with the cat in a carrier. This is absolutely not something you should do. Yes, it was done back in the day and it may allow you to assess the dog’s reaction to the cat, but think of the cat’s perspective. This is a terrifying situation to be in.

The cat is trapped and a potentially frightening animal is sniffing around outside the carrier. You are potentially setting the cat up for a lifetime of fear of the dog. Plus, even if the cat doesn’t have a permanent negative association with the dog, why stress them out like that? It’s just not needed. Let the cat always choose to leave if needed.

Of course, there are many things that could go wrong or other steps that you could add to make this process be a bit smoother. If you’re struggling with the introduction or nervous about how it will go, I’m here to help. While my focus is on cats, making sure the dog’s needs are met is just as important to me. We’ll make sure you have lots of purrs and tail wags for many years to come!

Need help getting your cat and dog to get along?

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Joey Lusvardi

Joey Lusvardi CCBC is an IAABC Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and professional cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation and cat training service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. Joey is available for in home sessions locally or virtual sessions wherever you are located!