Six Steps to Cats and Dogs Becoming Friends

Let’s set the record straight. Despite what we see in comic strips and cartoons, dogs do not hate cats.  Yes, the signals and behaviors that cats and dogs use to communicate are different and can lead to signals of aggression, fear, dominance, friendship, or territoriality being misinterpreted by the other species. However, those differing signals are really no different than what we read about in John Gray’s classic book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Just like Gray’s observations that “men and women think and act in fundamentally different ways around a lot of things” – cats and dogs do as well.

The good news for pet owners with both cats and dogs is we humans can rear and train our pets properly to relate well with each other. This is especially true when owners are taking equally good care of them. According to Dr. Jesus Aramendi, Senior Veterinarian at Chewy, “If you have both a dog and cat and your dog antagonizes your cat, this could potentially result in a dangerous fight where one pet or both could end up injured.” Confront the problem sooner rather than later. “I highly recommend not waiting to take action,” he says.

Why Do Dogs Chase Cats?

Before we explore the six steps to establish peace between our fundamentally different furry friends, it is helpful to explore, why dogs chase cats? As in most cases with dogs, it’s all about instinctual behavior. “Many dogs have innate hunting instincts born out of their wolf ancestry, and unfortunately, that manifests in dogs chasing things that are small and speedy,” says Dr. Aramendi. This chasing behavior manifests much more strongly in certain dogs than in others. “If you have a herding or hunting breed such as Shepherds, Cattle Dogs, Retrievers, or Pointers, they may be especially inclined to chase after cats,” he says.

Like other issues we have explored in our blog, we don’t have to live with behaviors we do not like just because “dogs will be dogs.” Your cat may be very tantalizing to your prey-driven pooch. Even though you may not be able to rid your pup of her chase behavior and prey drive, you may be able to train her not to go after the cat and other undesirables through positive reinforcement training.  As dog owners, we get to set the rules.

Countering instinctual behavior is no small feat, but it can be done—and nor does it really mean that your dog is “bad.” Dr. Aramendi explains, “Your dog may have very little control over the rush it feels when chasing a cat or an animal. But that doesn’t mean that you should throw up your hands and let it persist.”

What You Can Do

Just like with people, first impressions can be incredibly powerful. Introducing unfamiliar animals to each other isn’t something that should be done hastily. Please do not just throw them into the deep end and hope they’ll work it out. The fundamental differences between cats and dogs suggests their instincts will take over and will result in an unsuccessful pairing. It is recommended to keep dogs and cats separate for at least the first 3-4 days. The following six steps provide the recipe for a cat and dog friendship. 

Step One

To begin with, make sure your cat always has access to a dog-free sanctuary. The goal is to allow the pets to get used to each other’s presence and scents without face-to-face contact. Even if they can’t see each other, they can hear and smell each other. 

  • Sanctuary rooms can be any size but must have a secure door and ceiling.
  • The space should include a litter box, scratching post, water, food bowl, and toys.
  • Make sure to cat-proof the space by removing any poisonous plants, medicines, fragile items, and hiding or tying up cords.
  • You might also set up some hiding places or tunnels to help the cat feel safer.

Step Two

The next step is to feed them on opposite sides of a closed door. The idea is to teach them to associate the presence of the other pet with pleasant things, such as food. With each feeding, move their food bowls a little closer to the closed door. Continue this process until each pet can eat calmly right next to the door.

Dr. Brian W. Ogle, assistant professor of Anthrozoology at Beacon College,  suggests, “Once your cat and dog are comfortable in the space for some time, switch the two animals. Now, the animals can become more familiar with the other animal’s scent without making physical contact.” Dr. Ogle recommends we do this as many times as possible. The goal is for the animals to appear nonreactive to the other animal’s presence.

Disclaimer: if your new pet is a dog, before you begin the process of introducing your pets, make sure your new canine friend learns some basic obedience cues, such as “sit” and “down.” Keep training sessions short, pleasant, and rewarding for the dog. The more obedient your dog is before introductions the easier the process will be for you, your cat, and dog. 

Step Three

Once your pets can eat their food calmly right next to the door and your dog has learned some basic obedience cues, conduct meet and greets in a common area of the house. Don’t use either animal’s sanctuary area. Dr. Armendi suggests we, “do a few trials before you introduce your pets indefinitely. Ultimately the cat will let the dog know what their boundaries are and what lines cannot be crossed.”

Dr. Ogle states an intermediate step could be helpful before a full introduction. Before a full introduction, Dr. Ogle suggests, letting your cat and dog eat next to each other using a gate or cage to separate the two. Now they can see one another but still be physically separated. 

Step Four

Once full introductions begin, keep the first few sessions short and calm. Keep the dog on a leash and let the cat come and go as he wishes. Do not restrain either pet in your arms, as injury could result if either pet behaves aggressively. Ask the dog to sit and reward him with small, tasty treats for calm behavior. Give your cat treats as well. If either pet demonstrates aggression, calmly distract and redirect them. Toss a toy for the cat to lure him from the room, or call the dog’s name and reward his attention. Return the pets to their confinement areas.

Repeat these face-to-face sessions daily. Save your pets’ favorite treats for when they are together. If the cat attempts to leave the room, allow him to do so, and do not let the dog chase him. Try to end each session before either pet shows stress or aggression. Ideally, each session should last a bit longer each time. 

Step Five

When the animals appear to be getting along well, allow them loose in the room together, keeping the dog’s leash attached and dragging on the floor so that you can step on it and prevent him from chasing the cat if he gets excited. If tension erupts, go back to the earlier introduction steps and repeat the process. 

Make sure the cat has access to a dog-proof sanctuary room at all times. According to Dr. Ogle, “Your home should be designed in a way that each of the animals have their own space that is theirs alone. This will allow them to retreat, when necessary, but engage with the other on their own terms.”

Step Six

Continue to separate the pets when you are not there to supervise. Eventually, your cat and dog will become the best of friends. This six-step recipe for cats and dogs living in harmony with one another has proven successful for many pet owners. Try it out and let us know about your successes. 

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