For now, we’ll assume your new dog is cat friendly. Our pets are domesticated from wild animals that were either a predator, like dogs from wolves, or a prey species, like rabbits and small rodents. Cats in the wild however, are both a predator and a prey animal, so they have attributes of both. This can make how they react to new situations a little more complicated.
Most cats, when faced with a dog, especially a larger one, will react like a prey animal. In other words, they’re going to want nothing to do with their new family member. They will want to hide and if prevented from doing so, may become aggressive out of fear. If your cat is panicked and wants to get away, let it. A cat that is scared can do things it would never do under ordinary circumstances, including bite and scratch you, its owner. Cat bites are not to be taken lightly either. One of our staff members recently had an overnight stay in the hospital from a bite she received from her own cat that wanted nothing to do with his new canine sibling.
A few cats will react more like a predator. While it may seem funny to see a 10# cat attack an 80# dog, keep in mind that cat bites are just as bad for your dog as they are for you. Also, a dog that’s being attacked may decide to defend itself, which could turn out to be very bad for your cat.
So how can we help our cat and our dog learn to coexist? First, set up a kitty “safe room”, someplace that the cat can go that the dog won’t have access to. When you first bring your dog home, have the cat already tucked away in its room. The cat will be able to smell and hear the dog under the door, but neither will have access to the other. How is your cat reacting? Does it run and hide or does it start growling with its fur on end? Either one is a fairly typical reaction.
If you don’t have a room with a door, you can still make a “cat only” room. The easiest way to do this is with baby gates. This will also come in handy later when you want your cat to be able to go in and out of the room as he wishes. While there are some dogs that can and will jump over a baby gate, most won’t. If you do have one of those very athletic dogs, you can have two baby gates, one on top of another, with just enough space in between the two for kitty to get through. In the cat’s room you should have a litter box, and its food and water. The dog should not be allowed into this room, as your cat needs to know it has an area that’s safe, where it can relax.
The main ingredient needed for introducing the two pets is time and patience. Your cat will decide how long this will take. It’s not unusual for a scared cat to spend one to two weeks hiding under a bed or in a closet when a dog arrives. Don’t force him to interact. Be sure you spend time with him in the room and give him a lot of positive reinforcement: petting, treats and such. When he’s willing to come out of his hiding spot, having someone petting and distracting the dog in the next room will give your cat a chance to check out the dog from the safety of his gated room.
Eventually, curiosity wins out for most cats. They will venture from their room, often at night, to find out just what this new animal in their home is. If you see your cat out and about, try to make sure your dog doesn’t chase it, as this can set back the time frame for the two getting along. A leash on your dog can come in quite handy. Keep your own body language and voice ‘happy’ and talk to both animals, using their names and a lot of praise. They might not understand what you’re saying, but they’ll pick up on the fact that you’re happy and not stressed with the situation. The more positive interactions you can have, which at first will just be them being in visual proximity of each other, the sooner your cat will learn that the dog is not a threat.
With time and patience, many dogs and cats grow to be good friends. There are a few cats, that may never learn to love your dog, but will at least learn to tolerate him. Remember to be patient and give all your pets lots of love during this introductory time.