Humans domesticated the dog’s wolf ancestors more than 15,000 years ago. Being pack animals, the wolves responded to humans acting as pack leaders. Cats, according to recent studies, were attracted to humans due to the presence of rats and mice feeding on human food scraps. Thus, cats effectively chose to live with humans and became domesticated through this relationship.  

Cats are predators and much of a cat’s behavior is predatory, including the games they play, the stealthy way they move, and the ways they mark and “own” territory. Cats are not necessarily solitary creatures, but may live in groups according to the availability of prey. 

Thus cats are more flexible than dogs with regard to their social structure. They are capable of living a solitary life or living in a group. This means that social hierarchy is not as important to cats and they have different ways of communicating than dogs have (see the article, “General Dog  Behavioral Advice”). Cats are much more measured and cautious in their behavior than dogs.  They are also more concerned with territory. It is typically more difficult for a cat to adjust to a new situation than for a dog. For instance, if a dog is brought in to a cat’s household, the cat will likely not be pleased about having the dog in his or her territory. 

These behavioral differences between cats and dogs affect communication between the two species. Cats who have been around dogs (particularly well socialized and balanced dogs) will have an easier time understanding dog communication and the purpose behind a dog’s behavior – and vice versa. Therefore, such a cat will be less threatened and confused about being around a dog at any point. Having exposure to the other species from a young age will also make this understanding easier and more natural to the cat.  

The human must observe and direct the initial and beginning interaction between cat and dog and control the situation. (This will also make both the cat and dog more at ease if they know that the human is in control and that there is less for them to worry about.) Miscommunication can instigate problems between the two species that can persist and escalate if not corrected. For instance, cats do not have clear, submissive behaviors in the way dogs do. To a dog, ears back or exposing the belly are submissive behaviors. To a cat, this could actually mean a dominant or even defensive posture and you could have a problem with the interaction. Cats can also perceive a play bow from a dog as a threatening behavior. 

First and foremost, the introduction should be done correctly – or you may experience a major setback. For cats, first impressions are extremely important. One of the biggest mistakes people make is to simply bring a dog straight into the house and allow the dog and cat to have immediate contact. (Many people also allow their new dog to come in and inspect the home right away in a rude and dominant manner, which should not be allowed.) The human should think about the situation from both the cat’s and the dog’s perspective and take more time and have patience with the introduction.

An introduction should take place very gradually for both the sake of both cat and dog. Cats are more likely to be fearful of dogs and dogs are more likely to view cats as prey. It is important for the humans in the household to be established leaders to both the cat and the dog prior to any introduction. This means that the cat and dog trust and respect the human, knowing that the human is in control at all times, which will ease the stress on both sides (because they both know that the human will not allow instability on either’s part and that neither the cat nor the dog can get  away with unstable behavior).  

Something to consider prior to selecting a dog (or cat) to introduce into your household is compatibility. Is your cat older or younger? Is your cat laid back and easy going or even very low energy? Is your cat higher energy? Anxious or fearful? Try to remedy these unbalanced ways of being in your cat before you introduce any dog into your household (and also with a dog). It is best to then select a dog that is more compatible with your cat’s natural personality and energy level (and yours as well). For example, if you are an adult, laid back, mild energy cat, a hyper, anxious dog will probably stress you out, right? Natural compatibility is important. However, a hyper, anxious dog in this case can be worked with to become a balanced dog and live in better peace with the cat, eventually. Furthermore, encourage your cat to be more confident and relaxed, particularly around dogs. This will help your cat’s state of mind as well as help the dog to see the cat more as a dominant or equal companion and less as prey. 

Nose, ears, then eyes. Ideally, the cat should first be exposed to the dog’s scent. You can bring in blankets with the dog’s scent and leave them in your home for your cat to investigate and become familiar with. Likewise, introduce the cat’s scent to the dog when the dog is calm and submissive.  

Preferably, this would happen at least one or many days before bringing the dog into your home.  At the very least, both the dog and the cat must be exhibiting calm and relaxed behavior after investigating and becoming comfortable with the scent. After scent comes sound. When bringing the dog into your home, have the cat closed off in one part of the house where he is comfortable.  You can then secure the dog in a closed room where the dog is comfortable and allow the cat his normal free rein of the house to investigate further the scent and sounds of the dog. Do not allow either the cat or the dog to become overly anxious, fearful, or excited. Correct overly excited or otherwise intense behaviors and help either pet with their confidence or correct dominance,  depending on how each is reacting. After hours or a day or two of this (again, make sure that both the dog and the cat are exhibiting calm and relaxed behavior after investigating and becoming comfortable with each other’s scent, sound, and presence), you can allow sight of each other with a barrier. This could be a screen door, gate, or having the dog in a crate. This interaction is a slower process and can be drawn out over days or weeks, depending on the reactions of the cat  and the dog. When the dog and cat are more at ease with this setup, you can begin feeding them in the vicinity of the barrier, giving treats, practicing obedience commands and tricks, and sitting with them and providing a relaxed atmosphere with petting or massage for both dog and cat. You can then graduate to having the dog on leash, etc. while they become comfortable with each other’s presence. Again, make sure that the humans are controlling the situation and that both the cat and dog know this.  

I advocate the cat being dominant over the dog in a balanced way – at least at first. The cat is fed before the dog, allowed on certain furniture and rooms where dogs are not, etc. This is simply so that the dog understands that the cat is above him in the hierarchy and knows not to challenge the cat and to give a respectful distance. I also practice strict relaxation in the household. Especially when introducing a dog into a cat’s home (or simply introducing a dog into your home), the dog must know that only calm submission is allowed inside the house. You can even massage your cat and dog in a relaxing manner as long as they are first calm and submissive. There should be calm, pleasant outcomes associated with the first meeting for both the dog and the cat. After a  reasonable amount of time has passed and the cat and dog are familiar and comfortable with one another, you can implement further bonding activities. Continue with feeding the cat and dog at the  same time in the same room and you can graduate to closer and closer proximity. Practice obedience with both your cat and dog at the same time. They will focus on you, have feelings of accomplishment together, and receive treats together. You can also play with your cat while having the dog be calm and submissive and vice versa. Eventually, you can direct playtime with your cat  and dog together. 

If you are introducing a cat to your home with a dog already living there, you can practice the same steps, but instead start by putting the cat in a separate room with water, food, litter box, etc. where he or she feels comfortable and safe. 

You can also purchase Feliway products, which are feline pheromone diffusers, and install them in your home. These products are recommended by most veterinarians. When cats “mark” their territory by rubbing the sides of their faces against a surface, they are rubbing these feline pheromones in their territory. These pheromones (odorless to humans) make a cat feel comfortable and safe in their territory. By using a Feliway diffuser, a cat can become less stressed,  anxious, or fearful.  

Many cats and dogs will learn to live peacefully with one another and even affectionately. The human must remain the leader to both cat and dog and everyone in the household can live in harmony! 

These are general guidelines to consider when introducing a cat and dog. Please contact a behaviorist in order to provide further insight and more specific advice.

Pet Whisperer © 2012 Kendra R. Mojica.