By Jamie Migdal, CEO of FetchFind
If you’ve been considering adopting a cat for your previously all-dog household, but haven’t the slightest idea of how to go about that without the fur flying (literally), here are some tips from my friend Katie Moody who, in addition to being a top-notch dog trainer, successfully integrated two kittens into her two dog/two kid/two adult home last year.
Before you even start looking for a cat, do the following:
Assess your dog. Do an honest assessment of your dog’s temperament and personality. If you have a laid-back dog without much of a prey drive, it’s going to be a lot easier to bring in a cat than if you have a high energy dog that chases and nips everything that moves. If you think that you can just toss a cat into the mix and figure that she can take care of herself because she has claws, you’re setting everyone in the house up for failure or injury (or worse).
Assess yourself. You’ll also need to do an honest assessment of how much time you are willing to spend on the introduction process; doing it safely will take more than a weekend, so if you don’t have the time or inclination to do it properly, you might want to reconsider the new addition. (If you need a regular cat fix, plenty of shelters and rescues need volunteers.)
Brush up on training. Your next step should be to brush up on your dog’s training. At the very least, make sure he has solid recall, stay, look at me, and drop it commands. A good go to place can also be very helpful. If your dog hasn’t had any training, sign up for a class. If your dog is an inveterate squirrel-chaser, stop encouraging the behavior (you can’t count on him being able to differentiate between one type of small fleeing creature and another). This is something you should be working on long before you start looking at cats.
If, after all of the above, you feel like you can bring a cat into your home, proceed to the next steps in the integration program.
Set the cat up in her own room. Once your dog has his skills firmly in place, you can bring a cat into the home. Set aside a separate room for the cat with bed, litter box, toys, food, etc., and block off the doorway with a baby gate (fix it securely to the door jamb, so it can’t get knocked over). Let the cat settle down and get acclimated to the new surroundings for a few days before moving onto the next phase. Keep the dog away from the cat during this time, so that he can get used to the smell and sound of a new family member from a distance.
Start the introduction process. Start walking the dog (on leash) past the baby-gated doorway several times a day. If the dog exhibits calm behavior, praise and treat him. Toss the cat a treat as well, so she learns to associate the dog with yummy goodness. If the dog overreacts, don’t scold or use leash corrections; distract and redirect him with other behaviors (sit, down, look at me). Reward and praise when the dog pays attention to you and not the cat. The cat should be left to approach the gate or not, according to her inclination. If she does approach the gate, toss her another treat. Don’t ever force the cat into proximity with the dog.
Move into the main living space. Once your cat seems okay with the dog walking by the room, and your dog is accepting her presence calmly, you can move the introduction into the main living space. For this step, management redundancy is ideal – crate, play pen around the crate, leashed dog. At the very least, you should have your dog on a leash, and tethered if necessary. The cat should always have the freedom to escape to a safe place if it’s too much for her. If the dog starts stalking, chasing, or barking at the cast, or just seems too interested, redirect him with praise and treats. Avoid yelling or jerking on the leash if the dog behaves inappropriately, because stressing him out will make him more aroused and less likely to listen to you. You also don’t want to inadvertently reinforce the association of cat = bad things.
Be patient. Each of the above steps could take weeks, or even months. Your cat and dog may never be comfortable together and will have to live in separate parts of the house for the rest of their lives, no matter how careful the introduction. But whatever you do, don’t rush the process.
Always supervise. After the formal introduction period is over, you can start to leave your dog unleashed and untethered when the cat is in the room. You should never leave your cat and dog together unsupervised, no matter how long they’ve known each other or how well they behave together.
A couple more things – don’t leave your cat’s food where the dog can get at it; feed the cat separately or put the food bowl on a high place. And don’t let the dog get into the litter box; it’s stressful to the cat, and you don’t want to remember that you busted your dog eating delicious cat poop rolled in crunchy bits only after he starts licking your face.
Photo of Tucker with three layers of security courtesy of Katie Moody.