Cats and dogs, living in harmony?


Many dogs live happily alongside cats (and other furry and feathered animals), whilst others struggle to control their prey instinct. Although we carry out cat tests with all dogs who are going to live with cats, these only show a snapshot of the dog’s behaviour. In this article, we will explore how you can help your new rescue dog integrate into a family with cats.

Behaviour changes

Sometimes, even when a dog has been cat tested and all seems well, once they are in their new home, their behaviour can become more challenging. So even if your cat is used to living with dogs and your new dog has passed the cat test with flying colours, we recommend following these steps to make sure integrating your new arrival goes as smoothly as possible.

  • Make sure your expectations are realistic. Your aim should be to get all animals co-existing in the same house, not to be best friends who want to sleep together in the same bed – this is just a bonus!
  • When introducing a new dog to a resident cat, keeping your cat safe is of paramount importance.
  • You will need a safe space for your cat which the dog is unable to access. Make sure you move all the essentials – food, water, bed and litter tray to the area and choose an area that your cat is likely to feel safe in. The arrival of a new dog can be unsettling to any cat, even the most dog savvy ones, so it’s important to handle the introduction well and take things slowly.
  • Baby gates will become your best friend. Make sure you pick one that is high enough that the dog cannot easily jump it. If you have an old or arthritic cat, consider one with an inbuilt cat flap for ease. Having lots of high places that a cat can escape to can also help, so clear the junk off the fridge and high shelves! Make these adjustments to the house in advance of the dog arriving so that the cat can become familiar and comfortable with the new arrangements.
  • Installing a Feliway diffuser can also help some cats, especially more nervous ones. These work by giving off pheromones which make the cat feel more relaxed and can help take the edge off in the first few days. Aim to do this about a week before the new arrival for the best effect.
  • In the early days, it’s important to keep the cats and dogs separate and to avoid all chasing of cats. Keep each animal in their designated ‘zone’ in the house. Use these days to start to acclimatise them both to the idea of the new family member. You can start to do this by introducing them to each other’s smells by swapping bedding and blankets and simply moving from one to another without washing hands or changing clothes. Both cats and dogs rely heavily on scent so this can prove to be a very important step.

Introductions

After a few days to a week, you can start thinking about the first introduction. This can only be done once so it’s important to plan it through to give it the best chance of success.

Carry out the introduction in a controlled area where the cat has an easy escape route to safety. If your dog is high energy, consider doing the introduction after a walk but make sure you have left enough time for them to settle down first. One of the most important things is to make sure your dog is unable to chase the cat. Once a dog has learned to chase and the cat perceives the dog as a threat, it is very hard to reverse. Make sure the dog is on a lead at all times during introductions.

Start by having the cat and dog in different rooms, separated by a baby gate and lots of treats to hand. Having another person on hand to help is also advised. Whilst distracting your dog with training, treats or another activity, allow your cat to see the dog. They may take some time observing the dog and it’s important not to rush them, they should be allowed to approach in their own time.

By now, the dog has probably clocked that there is a cat around. The job of the person in charge of the dog is to supply treats! As soon as the dog sees the cat, the treats start and they finish the moment the cat is no longer in sight. If your dog is too excited to take treats, try something tastier and if that doesn’t work, try to increase the distance between the cat and dog.

Repeat this over several training sessions until your dog learns to look at you for a treat when they see the cat. Training sessions should be little and often and remember to keep your dog on a lead at all times. If the session doesn’t go well, go back a few steps, continue scent swapping and try again the next day. Ideally, the dog will learn to like the cat and stay calm as it represents a positive reward and the cat will become more confident too. Once this behaviour is learned, the treats and lead should no longer be needed or you could replace them with a lower value reward such as a toy.

How enrichment can help

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Other ways to make sure the new relationship goes well is to make sure your dog’s instincts are being fulfilled in different ways through enrichment activites. Cat food and litter trays are both very tempting to dogs and these should be kept out of reach to avoid conflict. You may also consider using a houseline as an extra step before allowing both animals to have total freedom. These are a short lightweight lead which will allow you to grab your dog easier if they do interact negatively with the cat. It’s extremely important not to leave the dog and cat unattended together until you are 100% confident in their relationship.