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Introducing a New Cat or Kitten to your Dog

‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression’ and this has never been more accurate than when it comes to introducing your new cat or kitten to the rest of the four-legged family explains Rosalie Horton from Animal Behaviour Experts.

Changing territories, or as humans might say ‘I’ve just adopted a cat’, is extremely stressful for most cats. Kittens can be a little more relaxed as hopefully they have less negative experiences or maybe a little more trusting and sometimes adjust to a new home a little easier. 

Adjusting to a new home will always come down to the individual cat’s temperament and the suitability of the new environment. In order to make the smoothest transition it is imperative that the owner is prepared. A behaviourist’s mantra for working with animals is to always ‘set them up for success’. Bringing home a cat or kitten to a new home that already has a dog in the family can be stress-free for everyone if we take into consideration four factors:

  • The Cat,
  • The Dog, 
  • The Household, 
  • The Plan. 

#1. The Cat

Every cat is different. A cat or kitten’s ability to cope with change will depend on a combination of ‘nature vs nurture’ i.e. genetics, learning and the environment. 

Try to find out as much about your new cat or kitten prior to adoption. The cat might have a history of living with dogs, but be mindful that this does not necessarily mean that it was a peaceful one. 

Ask a behaviour professional to make an assessment on the temperament of the cat or kitten. Nervous cats get stressed easily and a dog will be perceived as a threat. 

Kittens might be a little more malleable when it comes to meeting new stimuli and might be more resilient when it comes to meeting a dog for the first time. 

There are pheromone sprays and diffusers available that will help when it comes to relocating territories and these can be a big help when it comes to meeting new people, new carriers and new households.

#2. The Household 

In general, cats like to choose where they live and who they live with. We take this away from them when we bring them into our lives so it is important that we consider feline behaviour to make the relocation as ‘cat friendly’ as possible. 

Start by making a cat-friendly environment, aka their new territory. Make sure that the new cat or kitten will have its own territory that it feels safe in. 
A spare bedroom would be ideal. Try to make the laundry or bathroom the absolute last resort. These rooms tend to be the least comfortable rooms in the home. 

Their territory should have all the essentials: food, bed, toilet, sunshine and safety. A good tip is to use the same food and litter that it has been enjoying in its previous home, even if that was a shelter or pound. 

Set up a few hiding spots such as a cardboard box, cupboard or shelf. Cats love to hide as a means of coping with stress, so give them that option. 

Later, where they choose to rest will be a good indicator of their emotional wellbeing and you can gauge their level of happiness based on how much they are hiding or engaging with their new space. Make sure that they don’t have any unwelcome guests such as the dog in this area, no matter how much the dog is keen to investigate. 

The territory is strictly a dog-free zone and the owner will need to manage this. Make sure that the territory you choose is not a favourite place the dog likes to frequent. 

Lastly, cats like to get high. Cats and kittens feel safer when they are up high and able to look down on perceived threats, so always give them that option. 

When your cat is exploring its territory and then later as it feels comfortable to live amongst the rest of the family, always make sure that the cat has an aerial view and escape route if there’s a threat

Many cats are instinctively arboreal, so try to accommodate this in the home. This will be advantageous when dealing with a terrestrial pooch.

#3. The Dog

Every dog is different. Make an assessment or get advice from a behaviour professional to determine the degree of cat reactivity in your dog, prior to adopting the cat. 

Does your dog have a low prey drive and chase instinct? Don’t make life hard on yourself or your pets ... If you have a dog that wants to chase cats, please don’t force them to live together!

Re-evaluate what your motivation to own a cat if you have incompatible animals. 
It is possible to desensitise cats to dogs and vice versa, but do you want to put everyone through it? 

In the animal world, size matters. A big dog will be more threatening than a small dog. 

A calm or nonchalant dog will be easier to accommodate than a boisterous and noisy one. Try to take all of this into consideration when seeing the interaction through your animals’ eyes. 

#4. The Plan

Before they meet:

Scent is nature’s way for safe conversation. Start by taking your cat's bed out for the dog to sniff and put something such as the dog’s blanket, collar or leash regularly in the cat's territory. 

The first meeting
When your new cat or kitten is ready to venture out of its territory and explore the rest of the house, make sure your dog is on a lead

Remember that this will require you to support your dog as well as your cat. Have your dog relaxed and calm (try taking them for a big run prior) and have a handful of delicious treats on hand. Ideally, having pets meet on either side of a screen door would be the best option for visually meeting each other and use their first glance as a guide if you should proceed. It might be normal for your cat to hiss when they first see the dog. 
If you see your dog start to vocalise and become aroused it might be an indicator that your dog might increase in reactivity. Make sure your cat is able to run back to its territory. If so, let this be their first meeting and try for a second date another time. 

The next step:
At the next meeting, or if you determine that your pets are coping, the cat may approach for a sniff. This would be a sign of a very confident cat but sniffing each other does not need to be the end goal. Some cats and dogs can live together harmoniously and not all have contact. 

Keep meetings short and try to end them on a positive note. You will have to be the judge of how you feel the animals are progressing. 

Never think in dangerous ways such as ‘throw them together and let them sort it out’. This is not something that any animal lover (or animal behaviour professional) would say. 

You’re trying to play cupid or perhaps just a peace-keeper when it comes to the perfect match and success comes with practice and patience
A harmonious multi-pet household is a fine art to create and manage and this relies heavily on your input. You will get out what you put in. When in doubt, seek advice from a behaviour professional who can help you navigate the road ahead. Your pets will thank you, in their own way, if you get it right. 

Now, finding room on the bed for yourself now that you have another pet is a whole new issue! 

written by Rosalie Horton, February 2019 for Australian Cat Lover (all rights reserved)

About the writer 

Rosalie (Rose) Horton is the Founder and Senior behaviour consultant at Animal Behaviour Experts, a behavioural consultancy that is comprised of a team of behavioural consultants that specialise in pet behavioural support for owners in a range of companion animal species. 

Rose is a qualified animal scientist, behaviourist, trainer, zookeeper, veterinary nurse and teacher. Rose also lectures at TAFE NSW in animal behaviour and has regular media appearance and can be seen at the Cat Lovers Show in Melbourne. 

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