20 years ago I moved in with my best friend and roommate from college, our constant companions back then were a dog (for me) and a cat (for her). Our decision to become roommates again did not include any thought of how we would get the dog and cat together. We just knew we could live together harmoniously (most days), plus share the rent and each other’s clothes.
Moving day came and after all of our stuff was unpacked, we introduced my dog, Kenai, and her cat, Luka. It never even crossed our minds that our animals wouldn’t love each other and get along. Luka lived with a dog before, and Kenai had seen plenty of cats. I told myself, ‘They will be best friends’. Wow, I was dead wrong. They saw each other and it was pandemonium. Luka hissed, screamed and ran…Kenai chased her, growling, and got a tuft of her hair in between his teeth. We were in shock and my BFF almost moved out on the spot.
As a dog training professional, I had done a really bad job of setting both dog and cat up to succeed. Looking back, it was really unfair and stupid of me and I regret it wholeheartedly. But I also know that it was a wonderful learning experience for me, and it taught me how to desensitize slowly and be patient. After one month of management, impulse-control training, and desensitization/counter-conditioning, they were best friends. It was hell getting there, but all of our hard work was completely worth it.
Now I get at least three calls a week from clients about failed attempts to introduce dogs to cats, and vice versa. I can honestly say I know where they coming from because I have been there. Thankfully, Kenai did nothing to injure Luka, but many dogs kill cats in an instant.
Here are my recommendations for introducing a new dog to your 13-year old cat, or a new cat to your 4- year old dog. Keep in mind that not all dogs and cats will live together in peace and harmony- especially those dogs with strong prey drive. If you have a 2-year old Jack Russell who kills squirrels and chases cats down your alley, then I would suggest not adopting a cat, and perhaps donate to the Dumb Friends League so that someone else can save a cat.
~ Have Realistic Expectations. I know this is a hard one, but you have to keep your expectations low. Tell yourself that your goal is that the dogs and cats will be able to be in the same room with each other within a year, and then when it takes less time, you will be pleasantly surprised!
~ Invest in a really strong metal pet gate, and train your dog to it before hand (make the room he will be separated from the ‘party place’ where all the fun stuff happens- Kongs, marrow bones, feeding time, playtime, etc). I don’t recommend baby gates- it must be a pet gate that bolts to the doorway. This is my favorite gate- I have two of them, and I cut the cat door off one of them so the cats could go through whenever they wanted.
~ Designate a ‘dog free’ zone that the cat will be safe in. Install some kitty doors for the litter box and for the feeding area (they should be far apart).
~Train your dog to have a bomb-proof ‘Leave It’ and ‘Wait’ command. I actually trained Kenai with ‘No Kitty’, but it was essentially the same as ‘Leave It’. He loved ‘No Kitty’ because it meant if he stayed on his bed, and remained calm (without victim-searching Luka), the sky rained hot dogs.
~The dog and cat should not see each other for the first few days, at all. Period. Maybe longer. Let them each get used to the new smells and schedule that goes along with having another pet. NEVER let them in the same room together until each is used to the others smell. Rub each one down with a sock and then put the cat’s sock in the living room where your dog can smell it (rewarding with food treats as he’s sniffing), and the same for the dog’s sock in the cat’s room.
~ If you are transferring the cat somewhere in your arms, or walking the dog past the cat’s room, please have your dog on a leash or tethered, or locked behind the pet gate. It is imperative that your dog never ‘practice’ chasing or ‘victim searching’ the cat, because I guarantee she will repeat the behavior.
~Once both animals are used to each other’s smells and understand really good things happen when they smell the other, you can start letting them see each other for very short 1-minute spurts. In a neutral area, perhaps the den or living room (not near the dog’s food dish or the cat’s litter box), allow them to see the other. Your dog MUST be on a strong leash with a harness or head collar so he doesn’t slip out of a neck collar. (Do not use a retractable leash!) and the cat must have an escape route. DO NOT force the cat to stay. If she runs, that’s fine. Simply step in front of your dog to get his attention, and ask for a ‘Watch Me’ or ‘Sit’ in a calm happy voice. If your dog tries to chase the cat, DO NOT scold or punish, as this will only increase the anxiety around the cat and impede your progress. Redirect your dog with a command he know well (Like Come or Watch Me), and encourage him to focus on you and calm down.
~ While the dog and cat can see each other, feed treats one by one for several seconds. This is called ‘Open Bar/Closed Bar’. When they see each other, treats abound. The treats stop when they are separated.
~ Once the dog can be in the same room with the cat, start increasing the duration that they are together, always with the dog on a short leash. Perhaps while you are hanging out in the evening, let them be around each other for 10 minutes, then separate for 20 minutes, then together for 10 minutes, etc. Each time, make it really fun and rewarding, either with treats or massage or something the dog and cat like. If either dog or cat doesn’t take the treats, it’s ok. It just means they are too hyper-adrenalized or fearful, and need time to calm down. make sure you don’t get them too close, too quickly. if they are calm at 20 feet away, do that for a few days, then try 19 feet.
~This process could take a week, a year, or maybe never. It is okay if your dog and cat can never be in the same room without supervision. It is better than the alternative (getting rid of one of your animals, the dog killing the cat, someone getting hurt, etc) , and it is up to YOU to keep each one safe. Environmental management is the key to all training, and especially with dogs and cats. Don’t feel guilty if they need to be separated. It decreases their stress level, and keeps them out of harm’s way.
There are many more things you can do to help the process along, but these are the beginning steps to get the ball rolling. On the flipside, I know that with patience, consistency, fairness, and reasonable expectations, living peacefully with one another is possible. Before he died in 2008, Kenai successfully lived with 5 cats and adored everyone of them.