What’s the best way to get a cat and dog living in harmony? Behaviourist Toni Shelbourne is on hand to help.
Forget the old idiom about fighting like cats and dogs! Felines and canines can not only get along amicably in the same household, but even become best buddies. However, you’ve an important part to play in helping the relationship get off on the right foot.
Manage your indoor space with safe zones by erecting barriers.
Getting off to a good start
Cats and dogs brought up together since they were young, or where a puppy has been brought into the home of a confident cat will often get along happily together. Problems are most likely to happen when an adolescent or older dog joins your household, or when temperaments don’t match. For example, a shy cat may be wary of a rambunctious puppy. Before introducing a dog to your resident cat or vice versa, do think long and hard about whether it’s the right step to take.
Most dogs like to chase, it’s part of the instinctive predatory sequence. However, some will then follow through with grabbing hold, shaking, and killing a smaller animal. It’s probably going to be unrealistic to expect a dog with a strong prey drive to live side-by-side with a cat. However, if a dog is a playful softy, the chances are that with the right help and patience, they’ll get along nicely.
If your home is shared with a cat and you’d like to add a dog to your family, a puppy is often the easiest option. If you prefer to rehome instead, ask whether the dogs you’re interested in have been assessed as cat friendly. Bear in mind though, it’s not a 100 per cent guarantee, merely what has been observed in circumstances which may differ from yours.
If you already have a dog, but are unsure as to what his reactions will be around a cat, it’s wise to seek the help of a qualified behaviourist. Some dogs may be friendly towards or tolerant of ‘their’ cat but still chase cats from other households. A recent study of cat/dog households revealed that:
42.8% of dogs lick the cat
68.5% sleep together
62.4% play with each other
A fabric crate will be roomier and won’t have the negative associations for your cat as the carrier she travels to the vet in.
A time and a place
The day you bring your new cat or dog home is not the time to acquaint them. Allow them to settle into their new surroundings and for you to get to know each other first. During this period, and while working on introductions, you’ll need to divide the house to keep them separated from each other, in their own safety zones. You may need to use dog-friendly baby gates and free-standing partitions to create a dog-free corridor to the cat flap for the cat so she can go out and come in.
You can also spend the time introducing and accustoming them both to a crate; use cosy bedding, treats, and toys to make it a pleasant haven where they enjoy spending time. It’s also helpful to teach the dog to settle on a mat.
Erect high areas for your cat to retreat to safety and even move around from place to place.
Gate and escapes
While working on mixing the two species, provide your cat with plenty of high spaces to either negotiate the living area or retreat to if cornered. Tall cat trees or high shelving running the length of the room work well.
Make sure the outside space is safe as well by adding fencing to make sure the dog doesn’t suddenly come across the cat if he’s accidentally let out while she is there, and provide escape routes for her.
Getting to know you
Successful introductions take time; you need to work through different layers: smell, sound, sight, and movement with your dog and cat before they can become comfortable with each other.
Swapping scents, and rewarding your cat and dog for sniffing it, can start the process of setting up a positive assocation.
Both cats and dogs have a very powerful sense of smell, so scent is a good place to start, as you can begin accustoming them to each other without them being in the same room.
Groom or wipe a clean cloth over each of them and pop the hair or pet-scented cloths in air-tight containers. Lift the lid and present the other animal’s scent to your pet. As he or she sniffs the container, drop a very yummy soft treat right on, or next to the container. Let 5g sniff again and drop another treat. Repeat until the dog or cat loses interest, then close the lid and repeat again later in the day. You can also let them sniff each other’s scent before placing their food down.
Begin accustoming your dog to the sounds your cat makes by recording it on your phone.
Make recordings of the dog barking and cat vocalising. Play them to each other, again building positive associations by offering treats, one after the other, when they notice each other’s vocalisations. Start at a low volume; you want them to notice but not get distressed or aroused by the sound. Repeat this, very gradually increasing the volume until both ignore it at a normal level.
The next step is to introduce the sight of each other; you’ll need a helper for this. It’s best not to hold the cat, but to have her in a crate, high up on a table. Partially cover it with a blanket if she’s shy.
With your dog on a leash as a safety measure, place him in a settle on his mat at sufficient distance from the cat that he can still listen to you. Every time the dog looks at the cat, mark with a word like ‘YES’, ‘NICE’, or ‘GOOD’, and then give him a very yummy treat. Get him to look towards you when you feed him, then allow him to look at the cat again. Repeat the marker word and feed. Do this for a few minutes only, then stop and take each animal back to their safety zone. Your helper should be near the cat to monitor any stress level and feed them tasty treats. If one or both can’t eat the treats, increase the distance between them, or shorten the session and go back a stage in training.
Over multiple short sessions, gradually decrease the distance between the dog and cat, but only as much as both can cope with.
Now it’s time to add movement. This time either place the dog in a crate or in a settle on the other side of a barrier, and allow the cat to move around the room freely. Be next to the dog so you can reward calm behaviour with a treat and verbal praise. Keep sessions short and go back a stage if either isn’t coping.
When you feel it’s safe to do so, have them in a room together without barriers. Keep a house line on the dog, just in case he tries to rush up to the cat, but by this stage you should have a dog and cat who mostly ignore each other and focus on you for rewards. If the dog is a little over enthusiastic, call him to you for a treat. Then, if the cat seems relaxed, allow him to say hello once again, calling him back and repeating if need be. At this stage, remember the cat still needs high spaces or an escape route if she feels overwhelmed.
Make sure your outdoor space has places of safety and if necessary, different areas for your dog and cat to roam.
Even if your cat and dog seem to adore each other, it’s still important that your cat continues to have places indoors where she can go to have some private space if she feels the need for some time off from the dog. Cat flaps aren’t just to enable access to and from outdoors
— fitting one to the door of a ‘cat only’ room in the house will let her in but keep the dog out. Keeping the litter tray in there will not only provide privacy for toileting but ensure the dog doesn’t hoover it up afterwards.
It’s sensible to feed your cat and dog separately to prevent any jealousy or stealing of food, even if the cat’s grub is kept on a work surface, it may encourage some canines to become adept counter surfers. It’s not ideal for them to share food anyway as both have different dietary requirements and it makes it difficult to monitor intake. Feeding your cat in a separate room will mean that you can also free feed her if that’s your preference.
No animal should be put in danger or distress. Getting it right from the very beginning is important, both for safety and to ensure that unwanted behaviours aren’t created which may then be difficult to change. For the sake of a happy and harmonious household, it can often be worth the expense to employ a professional behaviourist to advise on the best way to set up the house and help you work through the steps together. And always remember: take your time and be patient, moving through the introductory process at a pace your cat and dog are both comfortable with.