Integrating Dogs and Cats

What to know when combining felines and canines in your household

Thinking of adding a feline companion to your household where your dog reigns supreme? What about adding a canine when your cat already rules the roost? Taking each pet’s individual characteristics, personality traits, needs, and behaviors into consideration can help establish a harmonious household.

If you’re introducing a dog into a cat household

When a new dog is introduced to the house, your cat may become territorial. Some cats might become reclusive and avoid interaction, some exhibit destructive behavior like eliminating outside the litter box, and others show signs of stress by increased vocalization or a lack of appetite. Some might scratch or bite your new dog. Kittens are very impressionable at an early age and might accept a new friend easily, whereas adult cats find it more challenging to adapt to change.

If you’re introducing a cat into a dog household

Dogs like to chase things, it’s in their genetic makeup. Your dog will be extremely curious about a new cat, and will try to investigate him, by chasing him if necessary. It may be a game to your dog, and he may mean no harm, but to your new cat, who is trying to adjust to a new home, this can be pretty taxing. This can result in your cat hiding out and exhibiting antisocial behavior. Consider adopting a cat who has prior experience with dogs who won’t be so intimidated.

Dogs who are under socialized to cats, or are of the hound, terrier, or sporting variety can have a high prey drive and may try to chase or kill a new cat. These dogs are not bad; they simply are genetically wired to pursue small animals as part of their DNA. Some puppies can be socialized to cats when they are 4-16 weeks of age, but not all are good candidates to live with cats. Make sure you know your dog before considering if a cat is a good fit. With any dog, make sure your dog has learned a very solid “leave it” command so you can discourage him from the chase.

Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea.
–Robert A. Heinlein

Household Integration  

Taking your time and allowing your pets to slowly integrate will set the stage for a peaceful life together. Cats and dogs each have their own unique way of wearing their hearts on their sleeve; learn how to read species-specific body language to better read your pet’s mood during this introductory period so you can better manage their interactions.

Here are a few tactics when integrating pets:

  • Be especially careful to allow a new cat to become accustomed to an area of the home before introducing the household dog.
  • Give them their own space. At first, allow the dog and cat to hear and smell one another, without direct physical contact. You may want to keep your cat in a separate room or crate your dog, or confine the cat when the dog is free roam to the house.  Shutting your cat in a bathroom, laundry room, or basement (with water and a litter box) can allow them to decompress and prevent stress when you are unable to work on household integration. Some households may have access to the basement with a cat door, whereas others use baby gates to create a safe space.
  • Allow both animals to explore the areas where the other has been. This may mean giving your cat free range of the house when the dog is out for a walk, or giving the dog the run of the cat’s area while the cat is isolated in another part of the house. Giving pets a chance to sniff without direct contact can satisfy their curiosity and prevent over-stimulation later.
  • Once the animals have become used to the sound and smell of one another, allow them to interact more directly but be sure to still keep control with the use of a leash or baby gate to separate them. During this stage it is extremely important to not allow the dog to chase the cat, which will result in the cat becoming scared and fleeing the scene. Ensure the animals are truly relaxed around one another before removing any barriers.
  • Use mealtime as a way to structure interactions. Consider giving your dog a food dispensing toy, and feeding your cat safely within proximity of your pup at the same time. When feeding your pets together, as they are concentrating on their food, their interactions will remain low key, and it will help establish positive associations around one another.

Give Your Dog Physical And Mental Outlets

A dog who does not receive enough physical exercise or mental stimulation will find ways to entertain itself elsewhere. Some dogs are high energy, others are high drive, and some may resort to chasing or tackling the cat as a way to overcome boredom. Over time, this type of behavior will become a self-reinforcing habit which is hard to break. Make sure your dog is getting daily physical exercise and has multiple outlets to tire out its brain to prevent boredom chasing. Obedience or tricks training, feeding meals through food dispensing toys, food puzzles, engaging in new sports, and adventuring in new environments can significantly increase your pet’s mental health.

Give Your Cat A Break

Cats like enclosed spaces; they make them feel safe and secure. So be sure your cat has some hidey-holes where the dog cannot reach them.

Whether you are bringing home a new dog or cat – take your time and allow the new pet to adapt. Supervising interactions, rewarding good behavior, and instilling smart management within the home will help ensure a smooth transition. Some cats and dogs become the best of friends, but if not, they will at least learn to coexist together peacefully in most cases.

Charlotte Wagner Harvey
About Charlotte Wagner Harvey 21 Articles
Charlotte Wagner Harvey holds a Bachelors of Science with honors in Animal Management from the University of Essex with a special interest in behavior. As a dog trainer and the owner of K9ology in Warrenton, she helps dog owners and dogs find common ground to establish a peaceful life together. Her core tenets: there are no shortcuts, it is hard, and do it right or don’t do it at all. She lives in Rappahannock County with her husband and a farm full of animals including horses, chickens, cats, and, of course, dogs.

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