The first introductions between the resident cat(s) and the new dog are a very important part of the process. One of the best methods is to separate the animals for the first few days to weeks. Others do it differently, but for the sake of it making or breaking an adoption, this is the best option.
Before bringing the dog home, the adopter should put the cat(s) in a room (e.g., a bedroom, a bath room, or a spare room). The room should be one the dog cannot access and doesn’t need to access. For example, if the dog sleeps in the bedroom with you at night, don’t pick that room for the cat. In the “cat room”, give the cat all needed supplies: litterbox, toys, food, and water. The idea is to separate them and only allow them to view each other during specific times. The best way to do this is by the use of a baby gate across the door. The gate needs to be a barrier that allows the cat and dog to see one another but does not allow them to access each other.
To begin desensitization, while keeping the new dog on a leash, let the dog view the cat briefly through the gate, and then get the dog to focus on something else such as playing with a toy or practicing cues. Praise and reward the dog for being able to focus elsewhere. Continue to give the dog short viewings of the cat throughout the day.
Sometimes even seeing the cat at first is too exciting for the dog. If this is the case, close the door and begin feeding each animal on his or her side of the door. The cat eats his food in his room, right next to the door, and the dog eats her meal on the other side of the door. This allows each animal to associate the smells of the other with something good: food. You can also swap out the blankets and bedding of each animal, giving it to the other that way, the dog can get used to the cat’s smell and the cat can get used to the dog’s smell, without overstimulating either.
Hopefully through this process of slowly letting the dog see the cat and get accustomed to the cat’s presence, the dog will eventually become desensitized and lose interest in the cat. In some cases, the dog will lose interest in the cat within a couple hours, but it can take days, weeks or even months. Each dog (and each cat) is an individual and will learn at his or her own pace.
Once you have given the cat and dog a chance to “smell” one another, the next step is to make leashed introductions. One person should hold the loose lead and watch the dog’s body language. If the cat is not raising his back or hissing around the dog he can be allowed to move around freely. A cat is rarely a threat to a dog, but some cats will be on the offensive when meeting dogs. Allow both animals to be in the same room at the same time, but keep the dog securely leashed. Continue with this type of introduction until the dog is calm and ignores the cat, and the cat is calm, eating and using the litter box normally. Continue indefinitely until both the dog and the cat seem happy and relaxed around each other.
If the dog is calm around the cat, you can ask the dog to sit, or lie down and stay, if she has been taught those cues, while the cat moves freely, sniffing the dog if he wishes. The dog should be praised and rewarded if she ignores the cat. If the dog is too fixated on the cat (e.g., staring at the cat, has stiff body language, will not listen to you when you call her name) or if she lunges and tries to chase the cat, you should try a different strategy for getting them to share space, such as putting the dog in the crate and allowing the cat to walk freely around the crate.
***When no one is home, the dog or cat should be securely confined to separate areas so unsupervised interaction are not possible. Unsupervised time together can occur after the cat and dog have been supervised around each other for a significant period of time (A month or so) and you are positive they will not hurt each other.
Animals with good past experience often adjust well and quickly to a new pet in the house. But if introductions don’t go well, the adopters may need to seek help from a professional dog trainer. Punishment is never the answer, it will not help a d it could make matters much worse.
In an upcoming blog post we will go into more detail on how we decide a dog is okay to go to a home that has a cat. If you are interested in how we make these decisions please look for this upcoming blog post.