How to help your cat adapt to dogs

Introducing a dog to a home with a cat often has a more positive outcome than vice versa-this is likely due to the cat already having established its territory within the home and therefore feeling confident enough to cope with the intrusion. A cat coming to any new home has to carve out his own territory and learn where his resources are and where the safest places are. Add a dog into the mix, and the cat’s ability to learn that the new home is his territory and is safe may take considerably longer and result in some unwarranted stress, not only for the cat but also for the dog, not to mention their owner.

Prior to the new dog or new cat joining the household, it is worth making some adaptions to the home that will increase the cat’s security (both real and perceived), thereby teaching him how he can keep himself safe. Initially, give your cat and dog separate living quarters within the home, using a physical barrier such as a door. If your cat has or will have outdoor access via a cat flap, it is wise to give him the exclusive use of the room it’s in, to prevent any potential ambushes around the flap. If you do not currently have a cat flap but are thinking of installing one, it may be a good idea to install it into a window rather than at floor level, to give your cat a greater feeling of security while entering and exiting the home. If it is not possible to fit a cat flap into your home but you would like your cat to go outdoors, consider creating some sort of raised area on either side of the door where your cat will exit and enter the home. If the raised area is outdoors, your cat can survey the indoors (when the door is opened on his return), giving him the opportunity to check that his entry into the home will be safe before having to come down to dog level. The same holds true for when the cat is indoors and asks to go out being able to sit on a platform (shelf, post or otherwise) that the dog cannot access will allow your cat to safely ask to go out. A cat that no longer feels safe when asking to go outdoors by his usual method of sitting in front of the door and meowing is likely not to have changed its mind about the outdoors, but simply does not feel comfortable sitting on the floor in case of ambush or other unwanted canine attention. Additionally, make sure that your cat has exclusive access to the places where his important resources are, namely his litter box, sleeping areas, food, water, toys and scratching posts.

Photo by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash

If it is the cat that is new to the household, create a room just for him, as you would when introducing a cat to a house where one or more cats already live. If the layout of your home does not allow this, try to create an area that the dog cannot get to this may be done by rearranging the furniture so as to block the dog’s access to a certain part of the room. This should, as much as possible, include blocking the dog’s ability to see the cat when it is in this area. Create a gap in the furniture just wide enough for the cat but not the dog to slip through, or provide access from above using shelving or climbing posts. In addition, the area should have many hiding places to help the cat get out of view of the dog sticking cardboard boxes together to make a larger hiding structure is an inexpensive way of providing additional security for the cat. Further alternatives include the use of room dividers or even creating a very large pen like those advertised as puppy pens which is ironic, because such pens are designed to keep dogs in, not out! If using the latter, cover the pen’s sides with fabric or cardboard to prevent dog and cat seeing one another. Over time, the new cat’s access to more of the house can be widened as he becomes comfortable with his new routine and surroundings.

If it’s the dog that’s the newcomer, you may need to move some of the cat’s resources in order to create distinct cat-only and dog-only areas. Cats often find alterations to their environment difficult, even changes that you know are designed to benefit their lives in the long run. Thus, make any changes gradually, and be sure that they are completed before the new dog arrives. It is also a good idea to think ahead to the point when your cat and dog will be sharing your entire home. If you provide your cat with places he can get to that the dog cannot, your cat will discover that he always has a means of getting away from the dog if he so wishes, thereby enhancing his perceived security and ultimately his happiness. The easiest way to do this is to provide plenty of hidey-holes, cozy places and vantage points in raised areas out of the dog’s reach. Examples include cat trees with perches, cardboard boxes with cat-sized entry holes, and bedding placed on raised furniture such as tabletops and shelves. Even making sure chairs are not tucked under tables so your cat can use them to jump up onto even higher furniture and out of your dog’s reach will help your cat feel safe.

It is important that your cat never feels he has to “run the gauntlet” to get to somewhere safe. If he feels vulnerable moving from one place of safety to another, then he is likely to do one of two things: he will either freeze in the dog’s presence, or he will run from one safe place to another, thereby inviting the dog to give chase. Thus, adding secure “byways” throughout the house will help your cat to navigate through his territory while feeling safe. These can be achieved by having enough safe places dotted throughout the house that the cat never has far to travel from one to the other or even by constructing aerial walkways such that the cat can move from one part of the house to another out of the dog’s reach. For the less adventurous, making simple changes such as leaving only a cat-width’s space between the wall and the sofa will give your cat a dog free byway that can then end in a piece of furniture, such as a side table, onto which your cat can jump, out of your dog’s reach that is, so long as your dog is wider than your cat.

Some cats living alongside dogs will always require an area that is their own so that they do not feel that their resources are under threat. Threats can occur in the form of the dog stealing the cat food, disturbance while using the litter box and (with small dogs in particular) bed-napping. Although resources can be made dog-proof by having them at heights dogs cannot reach, for some cats this is not feasible. For example, elderly cats may find jumping up onto raised surfaces difficult, and in some homes there is not enough space to make all resources raised. Excluding the dog from one room or area in your house is one way of overcoming these potential problems. Fitting a cat flap in a normally closed door to a cat-only room is an ideal way to create a dog-free zone that gives your cat complete privacy to eat or go to the litter box. Remember, however, that the cat’s food bowl and litter box should be as far apart as possible within this room. For dogs the same size as or smaller than the cat, the cat flap may need to be controlled by microchip or magnetic collar to prevent canine access.

Partial barriers can be useful for introducing dog to cat, and vice versa, in a controlled manner, complementing the use of more permanent divisions of the house. A baby gate is ideal for this as long as it is high enough to prevent your dog from jumping over it. Some are made with an integrated cat flap that allows the cat to pass through without your dog being able to follow. Make sure, however, that the cat flap is not of a size that your dog could get his head stuck in. If you lack a suitable doorway in which to place a baby gate, you can instead divide the space from wall to wall one way is to create a “wall” of furniture, leaving a gap through which the dog and cat can view one another. This space must, however, be blocked by something that prevents physical access to one another but allows the animals visual contact one side of a puppy pen or baby playpen can work well.

Whether the dog is already the resident or is about to be introduced into the household, it is really important that he has already learned several basic skills. These are to perform the following behaviors when asked: “sit,” “settle,” “leave,” “give me your attention” and “be quiet.” In addition, it will be greatly helpful if the dog is already crate trained. Having a dog that feels safe and secure in a large crate means, if there is no possibility of separating two rooms by a physical barrier (for example, your home is completely open plan), that a reasonable alternative is to allow the cat free access to the home at the first introduction while the dog is securely shut in his crate. As an alternative to or in addition to a crate, ensuring the dog is comfortable wearing a harness to which a house line can be attached when he is in the same room as the cat without any physical barrier will provide extra security for both animals during early introductions. A house line is like a lead but is lighter and longer, allowing the dog to drag it behind him without disruption to his behavior, and allowing you to move the dog safely if needed. You need to make sure that you can keep your dog quiet and calm in the presence of the cat and, when needed, that you can keep his focus on you and, in case he picks up any of the cat’s “belongings,” can drop them on command.

Before introducing a cat to anything new, whether that be another animal or a physical situation, it is always important to stop and consider whether the new experience could worry the cat in any way. If so, all the different sensory properties of the stimuli should be examined and thought given to how on first introductions these could be diluted or teased apart in any form and associated with positive consequences, systematic desensitization and counterconditioning. Furthermore, the dilute forms of the stimulus should be introduced in a manner where the cat always feels in control this involves allowing the cat to observe, approach and explore the stimulus at his own pace in his own time.

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All photos from  Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash