Introducing Cats and Dogs: Creating a Peaceful Household

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The topic of cats and dogs interacting has been a source of joy, and headaches, for many different people. Some cats and dogs seem to get along right away while others seem like they will be enemies for life.

There is a lot of misinformation and stereotypes surrounding the process of bringing a cat into a home with a dog or vice versa.

This article will shed some light on how to create a peaceful household and give you important information for bringing these two species together in the easiest way possible.

The Two Extremes:

When dealing with people who want to introduce a cat or dog to a household that already has the other species, most people tend to feel one of two ways:

  • Enemies for life myth. Cats and dogs will never get along and it isn’t even worth trying
  • Let them work it out myth. Regardless of the animal’s response, cats and dogs should just be put in the house together and left to sort out their differences.

This is definitely NOT usually true and it is time to debunk these myths and learn how to actually bring cats and dogs together under one roof.

Let go of any preconceived notions and open your mind to trying new activities and working closely with all your animals to create a calm and easy transition.

Best Case Scenario:

The best case when introducing a cat to a household with a dog, or vice versa, are that the animals will just need a short adjustment period, varying from a couple hours to a couple days, and then will very quickly and easy move through the steps we will outline below and find peace with each other with minimal effort.

For the purposes of this article, we will focus mainly on the steps to take in the best case scenario. Even if your animals aren’t crazy about getting along with one another, these next basic steps are typically effective for most households.

The biggest factor will be time; how long each step will take. This could be hours, days, or even weeks at each step.

1. Divide the House

Bringing an animal into a new home can be an incredibly overwhelming experience. Now add in an animal of a different species, especially one that is very excited, curious, or vocal, and you can imagine how stressful this might be for your pets!

Dividing the house is a great way to keep your animals apart, and give them both a chance to settle down. If you are bringing a cat into the picture plan on quarantining them in a location where their litter box will be kept.

Use baby gates, closed doors, and/or exercise pens to keep your pets separate and safe. Cover the gates with a towel if the sight of each other stresses them out or excites them.

This can help tremendously in getting them housetrained and avoid accidents when you begin giving them more space. If you are bringing a dog home try and divide your house a bit more equally. 

Once your animals begin to settle in their new space, feed them at the same time on opposite sides of the barrier.

If your cat is in the bathroom, feed your cat next to the bathroom door on their side and your dog on the other side of the door. This helps create a positive association with the smell and sound of the other animal and getting food.

1.5 Scent Swapping

Next you will want to begin scent swapping. Scent swapping is taking something, like a bed, that your animal has slept on or been touching, and swapping it with something your other animal has been all over.

This introduces the other animal’s scent more acutely and gets both your animals even more familiar with one another. Scent is the king of the animal world and plays a huge role in familiarization.

Once your animals are adjusting to their new space/home and are comfortable approaching the door, checking out the scent of their new housemate, and showing signs of ease, you can move on to step two.

2. Visual Introduction

The next thing after your pets are comfortable hearing and smelling one another is to introduce them visually. Change out your boundary for something your animals can see through, like a baby gate. Keep in mind that you might need multiple gates to prevent your dog or cat from jumping or climbing over to the other side. 

Example of an easy access gate

Continue feeding on opposite sides of the gate and scent swapping daily. If one or both of your animals becomes very uncomfortable with the new arrangement, whether that is serious outward displays of fear or aggression, go back a step.

You don’t want to rush any step because it will just cause more trouble and have the process take longer in the long run.

If you notice one or both of your animals is nervous or fixated on the other, but not to the point where you feel you need to go back a step, you can introduce a partial shield like a towel and you can begin doing more counterconditioning training, which you will find more info on below.

3. Removing the Boundary

Once both your animals are responding very positively to one another with just the baby gate, you can begin to introduce actual contact. I cannot stress enough, though, how important it is for you to wait until BOTH your animals are ready. 

They should be noticing each other but not responding with aggression or fear, they should be happy to eat right next to each other, and they should consistently be responding to any counterconditioning training you are doing with them.

This is especially true for dogs because as soon as the physical boundary is down the level of curiosity spikes and you need to know they will respond to you when something so distracting is close by.

Start by keeping one of your animals, typically the dog, tethered to something solid, ideally you. Clipping the tether around your waist is great as it keeps your hands free and allows you to continue counterconditioning activities while your animals interact. 

Be sure to give your cat PLENTY of opportunity to hide and/or get high up to observe the dog from a safe space.

Your cat will typically want to explore their new surroundings and while they do this it is a great time to do more engage/disengage activities with your dog.

Even though they are tethered to you and you can stop them from reaching the cat, making sure they are actively listening to you and getting rewarded for calmly noticing your cat and then responding to you in a great way to continue reinforcing the positive behavior of your dog around your cat.

While you may be giving lots of treats to your dog while doing training exercises with them, don’t try to lure the animals too close to one another with food during this time.

This can actually be counterproductive because your dog or cat may not want to be too close but feel they have to be to get food. Instead, feed them anytime they notice the other animal, but give it directly to them instead of making them move closer for it. 

Pay close attention to your pet’s body language, too. The way they react is very indicative of how they are feeling and can tell you if things are going well or if you need to tone it down and go back a step.

Here is an example of animals that get along well. Even though the dog barks you can see that cat is still relaxed and comfortable.

In dogs, good signs may look like:

  • Sweeping tail wag
  • Relaxed pant or no pant, depending on temperature
  • Not staring at the cat
  • Relaxed ears

In cats look for things like:

  • Meatloaf position, limbs tucked under body but still relaxed
  • Sprawled out
  • Walking with tail up in the air
  • Relaxed ears

Things you don’t want to see in either animal include:

  • Ears pinned back
  • Dilated pupils
  • Thrashing tails
  • Flared whiskers
  • Intense pant in dogs and overly fixated
  • A cat super scrunched in a corner and looking nervous
  • Normally food motivated animals that won’t accept treats or taking treats very sharply

If you are ever curious about what your animal’s body language means, check out Dog Decoder.

Once your animals are getting comfortable in the same space, you can begin to introduce more movement and rewards.

Walk your dog around the room, do mat training, and other activities that get your cat comfortable with your dog moving while they are in the same room. After this is successful you can begin to have carefully monitored interaction without any tethers. Then graduate to interaction where you are in the house but not hovering over them.

Be very confident in your animal’s level of comfort with each other before considering leaving them unattended.

Once you reach this level you can be proud of having achieved a peaceful household where your dogs can cohabitate, and may even become good friends!

This is the ideal situation and while not everyone’s journey introducing a dog or cat to the family may go exactly like this, it is often the most common progression for most families.

But some may find even after long periods at each step they are not seeing progress with their animals. At this point it is time to call in the professionals. You can find an animal behavioral consultant near you.

Things to Avoid:

  • Don’t put one of your animals in a crate while the other is roaming free. Cats can get overwhelmed and scared when a curious dog comes up to sniff around their crate and dogs can become frustrated and even aggressive later on from feeling teased.
  • Don’t force animals that are uncomfortable together into close proximity. Things need to happen organically for this whole process to be successful. Take each step at the pace of your animals choosing.
  • Don’t leave your animals together unattended. At least not until you are absolutely sure they are ready. Even dogs with a good track record with cats could be tempted to chase a running cat and cause serious damage without realizing it. 
  • Dogs with high prey drive like greyhounds, whippets, huskies, and akitas may require additional professional help. Trying to introduce a high prey drive dog to a cat can be an incredibly stressful and potentially dangerous situation if you don’t know what you are doing. If your dog has a history killing squirrels, bunnies, or even cats, please seek out proper help.
  • Cat house soiling. If your cat starts soiling the house, especially if your cat is the animal that has been living with you and has never had a problem before, it could mean that they are very stressed and you need to take a step back. If you have just brought your dog or cat home and the cat is already soiling even though the animals are separated and can’t see each other, reach out to a professional. Also, it is never a bad idea to take your animal into the vet if they suddenly start having a problem, just to rule out potential medical issues.

Training Your Animals:

Spending time training your dog, and cat, tends to make interactions more successful. Things to make sure your animal does very accurately include:

During the actual three steps where you introduce an animal, counterconditioning is an important way to curb the wrong behavior and reward the right behavior.

This involves activities like engage/disengage and treat/retreat. For example, if your dog acknowledges the cat on the other side of the gate, give him a treat, have him retreat a few steps, and then repeat. You are rewarding your dog for making good choices, like recognizing his new housemate but not reacting in any extreme way.

Be sure both your animals are getting adequate exercise and enrichment. Cat puzzle toys, dog puzzle toys, flirt poles, and da bird toys are all great options.

You can also try calming supplements like this treat to help your animal adjust, but don’t get overly fixated on these types of auxiliary treatments.

Also check out this relaxation protocol for your easily excitable dog.

While introducing an animal can be an incredibly difficult transition, it is also very rewarding to have different animals that can live peacefully in the same house. Following these steps should help ease your transition, and never be afraid to reach out for professional help if things aren’t going how you would like.

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