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— September 25, 2012 —

Introducing a dog to a cat.
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

Sometimes, dogs and cats get along right away. Often, there are a few, “minor issues” that need to be ironed out. This week’s Tail is about introducing your new dog to your cat.

Dogs and cats don’t always fight like cats and dogs. Sometimes, dogs and cats are great friends from the get-go. If you’re someone who was lucky to have this, we’re all jealous. Usually, integrating a new dog into a home where there is a cat (or vice versa) takes a bit of work. Disclaimer: If you have any serious concern for your cat’s safety, please contact a professional. They can help you apply what you learn here.

Generally, the reason dogs chase cats isn’t from some insatiable hatred or malice. Usually, dogs chase cats as a function of their prey drive. Dogs are predators, from the biggest German Shepherd dog to the cutest Pomeranian, and each of them will have a certain level of prey drive. It varies by individual dog and if someone wants to live with both a cat and a dog, understanding the concept of prey drive is crucial. There are exceptions to this. Years ago we had a dog, Pauly, who would go into an absolute rage any time he saw a cat. His eyes and ears would turn blood-red and he would do everything in his power to get to the cat. I doubt that any amount of training would have gotten him to be trustworthy with a cat.

First and foremost, a successful introduction is based on solid handling skills and good obedience training. Generally, dogs coming out of a rescue situation won’t have a whole lot of obedience training. Knowing that, it may take weeks or months for the dog and cat to be totally trustworthy together.

For the average dog, however, their interaction with a cat can usually be managed. The first thing I usually do is evaluate the dog’s reaction to the family cat. This is a straightforward process of putting a leash in the dog and walking him into the room in view of a cat. If you come across a dog like our boy Pauly, you’ll know right away.

Ideally, you will have a cat that is dog-savy and calm around the dog. If the cat runs at the sight of a dog it will complicate the situation. (If the cat attacks the dog —yes it happens— this will also complicate the situation.) It may take a week or more for your cat to get comfortable enough to not run from or agitate the dog. During that time, the dog can be kept on leash or kenneled to help the cat become more comfortable.

If the dog gives any reaction to the cat, you can judge the level of interest by how easy it is to get the dog to turn away from the cat. If calling the dog by name distracts him, then I’d say he has a pretty mild interest. If he only turns away from the cat for the smell of a treat, then he may be a bit more interested, but still manageable. If he cannot be distracted from the cat with a treat, and continues to pull towards the cat, a correction may be in order. A correction is not dragging the dog away from the cat. A correction is a sharp pop on the leash. If you drag the dog away from the cat, this will only serve to intensify his drive to get to the cat. The correction I am referring to should serve to “snap him out” of his drive to chase the cat.

The equipment on the dog is important. If the dog has a flat collar on, the “pop” will be less effective than using a prong training collar. The choice of equipment will be dictated by the dog’s reaction to training. A dog with a “harder” temperament may require one these training devices.

The key here is allowing the dog and cat to be near each other under controlled circumstances. Once the dog is past the initial excitement, we reward the dog for ignoring the cat. By the time you start allowing the dog off leash near the cat, you should have done some formal training. This will include recall training. You can check how trustworthy your dog is with the cat by letting him drag a long line. If you can recall him away from the cat without having to use the leash, then he’s getting ready to be off-leash with the cat. I would be sure to have at least a dozen good situations where the dog recalls before I’d let him off the leash. Also, make sure you can recall him when the cat is running. This presents a whole new level of distraction for your dog.

With enough patience and consistency, most dogs can learn to live with a cat. Hopefully, if you have a cat and you are thinking about adopting a dog, this will help dispel the myth that cats and dogs can’t live together. With training and a little effort, you can have the best of both worlds.