You’ve heard the heartwarming stories: Dog meets cat. Cat loves dog. They bond and are best buds forever.
But the real world is a different story, animal behaviorists say. Whether you’re introducing a new cat to a dog, or vice versa, it’s worth remembering that cats are from Mars, dogs are from Venus.
“There’s a reason there are no cat parks,” says Pam Johnson-Bennett, animal behaviorist and author of eight books, including Think Like a Cat. “Cats don’t run up to a strange cat and say, ‘Hey! Let’s play.’” Most cats are essentially solitary and territorial, a phenomenon rooted in their wild ancestry. Felines lay claim to their turf, and will fight invaders fiercely; they need “home” to be a predictable, safe place. What does this mean when it comes to introducing dogs and cats?
Following are a few suggestions that can make the meet-up more successful.
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Take it slowly. “If I’m a cat, and a new dog is coming through the door, I’m thinking, ‘invasion!’” Johnson-Bennett says. “The cat doesn’t know if the dog is friend or foe.” Restrain the dog on a leash and always provide the cat with an escape route. “Cats need to [be able to] get away,” says animal behaviorist Sarah Wilson, author of the blog, My Smart Puppy. “It helps to use baby gates, just to give the cat a safe place to run to.” A sturdy, well-installed cat tree will give the cat a vertical escape route, which many prefer.
If you’re bringing a new cat home from the shelter, do not let your dog rush up to the cat carrier. Instead, take the cat to his own safe room, if possible, and let him hide as long as he needs to. “I’ve had cats who stayed in the linen closet for months,” Wilson notes. “They came out at night and scoped the territory while the dog stayed in the bed-room with the door closed. And that was fine.”
Animal behavior consultant Chris Shaughness, author of Puppy Mill Dogs SPEAK!, recommends rubbing a washcloth or towel over your dog, then letting your cat sniff the cloth. “If the cat hisses, never scold,” she says. “Just talk very calmly and happily: ‘This is your new friend. Don’t be scared.’”
Catnip and treats will help, especially in the beginning. “I reward the dog every time he focuses on me and relaxes,” Johnson-Bennett says. “The dog understands that he’s going to work with me; he’s not going to go chasing after the cat.”
While over time, most cats and dogs come to accept one another, sometimes they never fully warm up to the idea of co-habitation. “There are some house-holds where the dogs and cats are separate,” Shaughness says. “Again, that’s OK. Animals have their preferences just like we do. We just need to make sure they’re having positive experiences.”