Introducing a new canine member to the family is a special and exciting time but can be a little overwhelming for all concerned. However, this can be managed with planning, so that everyone feels safe and there is minimal stress. It is important that you manage the introduction to your family carefully and that your new dog or puppy and cat are always supervised until you are sure everyone is comfortable and safe.
It is important to be well-researched before the introduction of any new pet to your house, even if you already have other pets. RSPCA Australia recommends you take the time to find a detailed book on the breed/crossbreed you are acquiring well before bringing them home, so that you are well prepared for their arrival.
Choosing the right dog
Some dogs will integrate into a family with existing pets better than others. Older dogs are likely to be less energetic than young puppies; if you already have old pets you may wish to adopt a calm cat-friendly adult dog. Consider adopting your dog or puppy from an RSPCA shelter as he or she will have been temperament tested and the staff will be able to give you an idea of how the dog/puppy may respond to other animals. This will help you to find a dog or puppy who will be more likely to get on with your cat. The RSPCA provides shelter to thousands of animals every year that are in need of a good home.
Once you have decided on a dog or puppy you will have to think about how best to introduce them to your existing pets to ensure that everything goes smoothly. This may be a stressful time for all the animals and it is important that you are patient and prepared for the introduction to take place over at least a week but perhaps a few weeks. The same process should be followed if you have more than one cat.
Before you bring your new dog or puppy home you should spend some time preparing your house and your existing pets for their arrival. In particular, it is important to ensure that there are plenty of high resting places where your cat can easily and safely retreat away from the dog or puppy if they want to. In addition, if your cat normally has their food, water, litter tray etc. in an area where the dog will now be, it is good to plan ahead and move these away to an area only the cat has access to and get the cat used to the change before the dog or puppy arrives. This helps reduce stress and avoid problems with your cat being too afraid to eat/drink or use the litter tray once the dog arrives.
When you first bring your new dog or puppy home
On the day you bring your dog home, secure your cat in their favourite room with their bed and bedding, water, food and litter. Allow your dog to explore the house and then secure them in a room of their own with comfy bedding, water and a treat. While your dog settles down allow your cat to explore the house and become familiar with your dog’s scent. Repeat this over the next few days, allowing each animal their turn to have access to the whole house without ever confronting one another. In the meantime, work on basic training with your dog or puppy so that you have some control over them when it comes to introducing the dog/puppy to your cat.
Introducing your new dog or puppy to your cat
Ideally your dog or puppy should be crate trained; there are many benefits to this but, particularly in this situation, it will make the introductions easier and safer. The crate (or your dog’s normal area if not a crate) should be situated away from your cat’s normal feeding/drinking/toileting/sleeping areas and your cat’s access to their enclosure or the outdoors (e.g. their cat flap), if possible.
When you are ready to introduce your dog and cat, do so when your dog is at their calmest. You may wish to take them for a long walk beforehand. For the first introduction, use a room in which your cat is easily able to escape to a safe place if they want to (for example, a room with some familiar and well used high elevated platforms such as a multi-tiered cat scratching post tower near the area so the cat can escape from the situation and gain vertical height as cats often like to be above the scene looking down and can feel safer that way).
If your dog or puppy is in a crate you can give them a distracting toy and then bring your cat into the room. Never force any interactions but just give your cat a lot of attention and positive experiences such as grooming, playing, and treats while they are in the same room as your dog/puppy. Just let the cat get used to the dog being there and vice versa.
Once your cat and dog seem relaxed in the room together, you can move onto having your dog or puppy on a leash out of the crate. If you are unable to use a crate for the introductions then start with this step. Keep your dog next to you on a secure leash while the cat is in the room and give them both praise and treats to reward calm behaviour. It is helpful to have another person with you during this time if possible so each animal can be praised and rewarded at the same time. If your dog becomes highly excitable at any time during the introduction remove them from the room. Do this several times a day, keeping the meetings short so that stress is kept to a minimum.
You should allow the cat to choose whether they approach the dog/puppy or not. They may hiss or growl but if no interaction is forced they are unlikely to advance and if they do you can protect your dog or puppy from any aggressive advance. Just make sure you have an inanimate safe object (like a large cushion) to place between you and the dog and puppy and the cat for the worst case scenario!
Be patient, it will probably take a few weeks of having your dog or puppy on the leash with the cat around before everyone is sufficiently comfortable to try with the dog/puppy off-leash. These interactions should still be closely supervised. In the initial stages there may be some hissing and tail swishing – but this should settle down after a few days. Keep a close eye on both animals and never punish either of them for aggressive behaviour as this will be a negative experience associated with the presence of the other animal and counter-productive.
When you are ready to let your dog off the leash ensure that your cat has an easy escape route – again, choose a room with elevated platforms like a multi-tiered scratching post tower, high window sills or shelves. Never leave your pets unsupervised and take things very slowly, allowing your pets to become used to one another gradually at their own pace.
Ensure your cat receives a lot of individual attention from you during the period of time over which you are introducing the dog/puppy. Do not leave your animals alone together until you are absolutely certain that they tolerate each other, the dog/puppy has been trained not to chase the cat and they are all safe. If you are not sure, continue to supervise directly when you are at home or physically separate them when you are not at home. The cat should ALWAYS have somewhere safe to which they can retreat (an area the dog cannot get to, such as elevated platforms), even when you do feel comfortable about leaving the two unsupervised together.
Please note, that if the cat has no experience of dogs introducing a dog can be a distressing experience and many cats (if they are allowed unrestricted access outside and have the opportunity to) may leave home for a period of time. This is obviously very concerning, so it is important to do everything you can to ensure that the introductions are done are carefully and slowly as possible and that the cat always has places in the house where they can be safe and secure away from the dog.
Keep in mind that your pets may never be best friends. Hopefully, however, they will at least tolerate one another and learn to live happily in the same house. In situations where cats do not like the pet dog in the long-term, they may still be able to co-exist in relative peace by seeking out their own space and spending most of their time apart. Pets often have the ability to find a balance and share their territory. Having access to different rooms so that they can choose to be alone can be a big help to making both animals feel secure and happy. Feeding the cat and dog separately is also important and ensuring that your cat has a private area to go to the toilet and a safe sleeping spot may assist.
If your attempts at introduction are not going well, or either animals seems stressed or agitated, it may be wise to seek professional help through a trained behaviourist.