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Last week, I stumbled into my apartment carrying a box full of kittens. My border collies Barley and Niffler circled us, wagging hard and whining a bit. The semi-social 7-week old foster kittens in the box were cowering with huge eyes. One puffed up and hissed, and my puppy Niffler started to whine even louder. If I was going to successfully foster these kittens in my 300-square-foot apartment, I needed a good plan.
Luckily I’ve helped dozens of clients introduce their dogs and cats. I really love helping animals get along, or at least coexist. Just six days after that less-than-ideal introduction, my 4 kittens and 2 dogs are happily coexisting loose in my apartment for a few hours per day. Here’s how I introduced my dogs to my kittens.
- Ensure the animals are a decent match. The reality is, not all dogs are safe to have around kittens (or even adult cats). In many cases, the amount of work necessary to keep the cat safe from the dog simply isn’t realistic – especially if the consequences of a mistake could be deadly for the cat. If your dog has a history of high prey drive or seems incredibly fixated on your kitten, there’s a chance that the only safe option is to not have both animals in your home. Some breeds have a long genetic heritage that predisposes them towards hunting and killing small animals, and that includes cats. Even in the case of dogs that don’t want to kill your cats, intense play styles or chasing games can be very stressful for the kitten. On the flip side, some kittens may be too shy to ever feel truly comfortable with even the most gentle dog. It’s important to be objective and selfless when assessing the match between your animals.
- Create lots of safe space for the kittens. I set up my kittens inside of a huge dog crate with their litter box, toys, food, water, and a bed. I then put a large exercise pen around the dog crate to create a 3-foot buffer between the dogs and the kittens. This helped everyone settle in and get used to the sight, sound, and smell of each other in a relatively safe way. If my dogs were more interested in the kittens (or the kittens were highly stressed by the sight of my dogs) I would have added a covering for the cat zone. If you have a larger space than me, use a bathroom or spare bedroom instead. I had to use a crate because I live in a one-room cabin, but this setup isn’t ideal as it can lead to the kittens feeling cornered. That’s why I needed the double barrier of the exercise pen! Do NOT just put the kittens in a crate and let your dogs harass them!
- Maintain complete separation for the animals at first. For the first 2 days that I had the kittens home (your family may need longer) I did not let the dogs anywhere within 3 feet of the kittens. They could see, smell, and hear each other but that’s only because my dogs and the kittens seemed comfortable. In other cases I have needed to cover the barriers between the kittens and the dogs or moved the kittens to another room to help everyone settle in further. If your animals are fixating on each other even with several feet of distance and barriers between them, contact Journey Dog Training for assistance (click the 1 on 1 Training tab in the bio above).
- Bond with the animals separately. While I kept the kittens separate from my dogs for the first few days, I also sat with the kittens and bonded with them several times a day for a few minutes at a time. I wanted to ensure that the kittens felt comfortable and happy with me before I started putting pressure on our relationship with the dogs! I fed the kittens wet food from a spoon, played with them, and cuddled them (if they wanted to be cuddled). At first, I kept the dogs in the yard while I did this because Niffler would whine and stare at the kittens while I interacted with them. I did not want him to be that obsessed with them, so we removed the opportunity for him to practice obsessing over cats.
- Start working towards fence greetings. Steps 6 and 7 (below) involved me letting the kittens out of the crate while the dogs were loose, but still separated by an exercise pen. This allowed the dogs to start sniffing at the kittens through the fence and interacting more closely, but still with an extra level of safety in place.
- Use food to buy everyone’s love. As I bonded with the kittens, I started to use food to help them associate the dogs with good things. I sat on the floor and spoon-fed the kittens wet food (this was the only time they got food) while I tossed kibble into the dogs’ Snuffle Mats. This kept the dogs still and helped all the animals learn that being calm around each other made food appear. I also knew that if the animals stopped eating, the situation was too stressful or exciting! Finally, I could use the food to control where the animals were in relation to each other and reduce crowding. I did this about 3 times a day for a few minutes each time for about a week.
- Leverage playtime to lower the cat’s inhibitions. After a few days of eating near each other (but still with the exercise pen in place), we were ready for the next step. I used a wand toy to play with the kittens while I tossed food into my dogs’ snuffle mats. This increased activity was very exciting for my border collies, and I wanted to ensure that the dogs were able to eat and disengage from the kittens while they played before taking down barriers. If the dogs were too excited by the kittens playing to eat, we weren’t ready for an introduction. Playtime also helped further teach the kittens that being near the dogs was fun and safe! We played for about 5 minutes 3 times a day for about 5 days.
- Progress at the shyest animal’s pace. Two of my kittens were much bolder than the other two. At first, I kept the shier kittens in the crate while letting the dogs sniff the bolder kittens through the fence. We worked at this “fence greeting” stage for a while with the bolder kittens to ensure that the dogs were calm and polite before putting the shier kittens through this experience. If you only have one kitten, you’ll need to progress at that kitten’s pace.
- Handicap the dogs as needed. After about 5 days of introductions through the exercise pen, I put both dogs on leashes, tied the leashes to the couch, and released the kittens. I’d already released the kittens while the dogs were outside a few times, so the kittens were used to being free in the cottage. I wouldn’t want them to explore the cottage for the first time with the dogs present! Tethering the dogs allowed the kittens to approach the dogs if they wanted, but kept the dogs from chasing the kittens. I sat near the dogs and rewarded them heavily for staying nearby, engaging with me, and calmly watching the kittens. We did this for about 5 minutes 3 times a day for 2 days with Niffler tethered; Barley was loose with the kittens after 1 day because he’s a professional at fostering kittens!
- Supervise, supervise, supervise. After 2 days of letting the kittens roam while I kept the tethered dogs happy with food, I released the dogs. I continued to verbally redirect the dogs if they got fixated on the kittens. If at any point the dogs couldn’t disengage from the kittens, I put the dogs in the yard while I collected the kittens and put them away. I also fed the dogs for checking in with me and will continue to do that. I’m not keeping these kittens, so I’ll likely never leave the kittens unsupervised with the dogs. If I did, I would likely wait a few weeks at this stage – supervising the animals while they’re loose together for longer and longer – before leaving them unattended alone. It’s just too risky to rush!
This scenario I’ve outlined here is one of the best-case scenarios. The kittens adjusted well to the dogs, and my dogs were not intent on chasing the kittens. My dogs are well-trained, responsive, and have incredible working relationships with me that helps me redirect them from the kittens quite easily. This may not be the case in your home. If you’re struggling with dog-cat introductions, purchase a call with one of our behavior specialists using the “1 on 1 Training” tab in the menu above.
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.