How to Introduce a New Dog to Your Cat

Dog and cat on bench outside

Many of us live with both dogs and cats and they all get along fine. I have a Lab mix and two cats, and the cats definitely rule the house. Still, whenever a new dog visits I always make sure to consider the safety of my cats during introductions. Even though my cats are used to dogs, I never know exactly how the visiting dog will react and it's just better to use precaution.

If you already have a cat and you plan on adding a dog to your home this year, the following are some tips to set everyone up for success.

Introducing a Cat and Dog

Choose the right dog.

Most dogs can learn to live with cats, but if you're adopting a dog you should choose one that has already lived with cats or one that seems to do OK around the cats at the shelter. The shelter or rescue volunteers should be able to provide you with this information. If they do not know how the dog does around cats, ask if there is a way they could find out. If you adopt a dog that is calm and friendly towards cats or tends to ignore cats, it will make the introduction process so much easier and safer for everyone.

Introduce the dog and cat slowly.

"When you bring the new dog home, put the cat in another room and let the dog get used to the house and the new smells without the stressful introduction of a new species," said Kelsi Skee, dog trainer for the Humane Society of Memphis and Shelby County (Tenn.).

Then, put the dog in a kennel or in another room and allow your cat to roam around and get used to the new scent, she said.

"If they are suspicious of each other you can separate them by a baby gate so that they can still see each other but have the security of not having to physically interact."

For extra safety, keep your dog on a leash until you know she physically can't or won't jump over the safety gate.

Don't leave the dog and cat unsupervised.

Sometimes pet owners make the mistake of assuming if the pets are getting along OK at first, then that must mean they will always get along. This assumption is what gets the animals in trouble. You never know when the cat could bolt and trigger the dog's prey drive. You never know when the cat could get too close to a dog's toy, bed or food dish and trigger possessiveness.

"Never leave your new animals loose together without supervision," said Skee. "It is important for them both to feel safe in their home so that they can adapt to their new lifestyle."

She suggested both animals should have a "safe spot" to get away to such as a kennel for the dog and a high cat tree or ledge for the cat to jump to.

"Never force them to interact," she said.

Reinforce good behavior.

It's easy to forget the basics, but reinforcing appropriate behaviors from both animals can go a long way.

"If the cat is letting the dog sniff him, make sure to reward him with attention or a treat so he knows that having the dog around actually gets him good things," said Skee. "When the cat sees the dog and is not reacting, be sure to show him your approval with a reward."

Also think about what each of your pets view as a reward. For example, my Lab mix Ace likes to be rewarded with a toy, verbal praise or an ear scratch while my cat Beamer prefers to be rewarded with treats. It's important to consider each pet as an individual.

Give the animals breaks from each other.

Skee suggested pet owners should make sure the animals receive breaks from each other.

"Separate them before things get too intense or stressful," she said. "You always want to end their interaction on a good note."

The above has been true in my experience as well. Whenever I've fostered a dog, my cats seem to let out a sigh of relief whenever the dog goes into its kennel for an hour or two. I would make a point to do this every day just so my cats could take a break from being "on guard." It was also a good time for the foster dog to settle in with a bone or chew toy.

"Cats and dogs can be great friends," Skee said. "They just need time, positive associations and a patient and loving human counterpart."

For those of you who live with both dogs and cats, what are your tips for safe introductions?