Many cats and dogs live together harmoniously when supervised appropriately, and their initial introductions are key. When determining how to introduce cats to dogs, remember that each animal is unique. For instance, just because your cat got along with your previous dogs, that doesn't mean the cat will like all dogs. So always use caution and proceed slowly when introducing your cat to a new dog (or your dog to a new cat).
If you have multiple cats or dogs, it’s best to introduce them only one at a time. Have at least two people present — one to handle the dog’s leash and the other to tend to the cat.
In the initial introduction, make sure the two animals become aware of each other’s presence at a distance. If either pet doesn’t notice the other until the other gets close to them, they might become afraid or panic. Take your approach very slowly until it’s clear that neither pet is anxious or frightened, and be ready to separate the animals if any conflicts arise.
Observing dog and cat body language
When you introduce a cat to a dog, pay attention to the body language of both animals. Ideally, both the dog’s and cat’s body language will be loose and relaxed.
Regarding the dog’s body language, notice whether your dog looks at the cat and then looks away. If they don't look away, it might indicate that they're too excited or aroused. Observe their head and face. If your dog appears excessively focused on the cat, try calling your dog or snapping your fingers. If you can distract them relatively easily, their behavior suggests they don’t have an unhealthy degree of interest in the cat.
If your dog has a strong prey drive, they might become very focused on your cat — and they might try to chase the cat. (A prey drive is the inclination to seek out and potentially capture animals seen as prey — usually smaller animals such as cats or rabbits.) A dog viewing something as prey might stiffen, stare, glare, bark, or whine. If you see these signs, don't let the cat and dog get close to one another (yet). It’s OK if the dog pays attention to the cat, but you don’t want to see a dog fixated on a cat.
How the cat looks at the dog is equally important, but pay attention to other forms of cat body language, too. Once the cat has clearly seen the dog, observe whether the cat seems relaxed. A relaxed cat will move about calmly and confidently, won't glare at the dog, and won't try to flee from the dog. If the cat is growling, hissing, or attempting to scratch, it means they're uncomfortable. That doesn’t necessarily mean the cat won’t accept the dog; it might just take a little more time.
In addition, keep in mind that a cat’s interaction with a dog can change depending on the environment. For example, your cat might be fine with the dog when they’re inside the house, but outside in the yard the cat might feel more exposed and therefore show more fear. The dog also might fixate on the cat when they’re outside together. Always closely supervise body language in each new situation until you know how they respond to each other.
How to introduce a cat to a dog
How long it takes for a cat to get used to a dog depends on the individual animals. For example, a cat might be calm around a dog very quickly after their initial introduction but might take a few weeks to get used to a different dog. Go slowly, always supervise your pets, and be patient.
Here are some basic steps for a cat-dog introduction:
- Before starting the introduction, let your new pet settle in by confining them to an area of the house for a few days where no other pet can enter.
- Start exposure through a single, closed, solid door. The dog and cat won’t be able to see each other, but they will be able to hear and smell each other. Start with very short exposure (less than a minute), and gradually prolong the duration of the sessions.
- Next, let the cat and dog see each other at a distance through a barrier like a strong gate or a screen door. (Don’t use glass doors because some dogs get anxious when they can see but not smell or hear the other animal.) A double barrier is recommended at first for added safety and to create a buffer zone. Working at a distance helps both animals get used to each other at their own pace. If the dog is large or especially enthusiastic, leash them as an extra precaution. Again, start with short sessions of letting the dog and cat see each other, and gradually lengthen the sessions.
- Watch the body language of both pets to get clues about how they are feeling. If you notice any signs of stress, stop and allow them to calm down. Try again later with shorter sessions and more distance between them.
- If there are no signs of stress, work on training the dog to give you eye contact and calm behavior whenever the cat is visible.
- When the cat and dog no longer respond to each other when they see each other from behind the barrier, start doing sessions with no barrier but with the dog securely on leash (and muzzled for extra safety, if you wish, and if your dog has been trained to wear a muzzle).
Calming products for cats
These products can help calm cats who are fearful, anxious, or very excitable:
- NurtureCALM 24/7 Feline Calming Pheromone Collar
- Feliway pheromone diffuser or spray
- Nutritional supplements (such as Nutri-Calm, Zylkene, and Solliquin) as advised by your veterinarian
- ThunderShirt or Ace bandage wraps
Kitten and puppy introductions
Kitten and puppy introductions require special consideration and caution. Curious kittens might not be scared of adult dogs or puppies at first. Nevertheless, kittens are small and fragile and can be easily hurt, especially if an adult dog has a strong prey drive. Closely watch their interactions whenever they are together to ensure that everyone stays safe.
Some well-socialized adult cats tolerate puppies well. However, if your puppy is high-energy and wants to chase your cat, you will need to intervene to prevent the puppy from making a habit out of chasing cats. A professional trainer can help with methods to teach dogs to stop chasing cats.
Seeking professional help with dog-cat introductions
Dogs and cats who are well-socialized often adjust quickly to a new animal in the family. However, if either animal is struggling with the change in your household, consider enlisting the help of an experienced relationship-based dog trainer or behavior consultant. One of the most important things to remember is never to punish either animal because it won’t solve the problem and could make the situation worse.