Dogs and Cats: Keeping peace in the house

Dog with cat

Those of us raised on cartoons have stereotyped ideas about dog-cat relations—and usually they involve images of frightened cats running at light-speed from an angry, dog.

Like most ingrained notions of animal behaviour, this one is hard to put behind you. But once you know the truth about canine-feline relationships, you’ll start to see both animals in a new light. And you may even be tempted to add a cat to your dog-as-the-only-animal household.

Why dogs (may) chase cats

Mention dogs and cats to some people and there’s one word that comes to mind: "enemies." But that’s a very strong word. Yes, some dogs do have high prey-drive instincts, and depending on how the dog was brought up, those tendencies may at times cause him to act out against a cat. For example, if the cat’s insecurity causes it to hiss or act aggressively towards your dog, the dog may be instinctively driven to give chase.

This is called "predatory aggression" and involves stalking, chasing, catching, biting, and even killing. Trainers should be recommended if this is the case. The age of your dog also plays a factor. Many puppies just want to play when cats would rather not. For older dogs it often takes a little re-socialising to get the two to get along.

Canine and feline body language

Dogs and cats have very different body language, so they need to get to know each other first. For instance, if a cat swishes her tail, it means she’s irritated; if a dog wags his tail a certain way, it usually means that he’s happy. This is a difference they have to learn. Similarly, how would a cat know a dog is angry and should be left alone if he’s growling low in his throat without exhibiting stiff body language and/or direct eye contact? The cat may perceive the growling as purring, which means satisfaction and well-being in cat language. And, if a dog raises his paw, saying, "Let's play," it could be taken by the cat to mean rejection. If a cat and dog grow up together, though, they’ll learn each other’s language and will likely become playmates.

Introducing a new cat to your dog

No matter what you've heard, cats and dogs can get along. You just need to be patient. Don't expect the dog and cat to become instant buddies. Most of all, relax. If you're stressed, your pets will feel it, which could botch your peacemaking efforts. In time, you may find that your dog and cat are getting along so well, you’ll forget those old cartoon images of canines chasing felines.

Step 1: Personal space—Put the new cat in a room with its bed and litter box. Feed both your new cat and your dog on their respective sides of the closed door to this room—but at a little distance, so that the cat and the dog aren’t agitated by each other. Progressively move the dishes closer to the door until they're eating their food calmly. As they get closer to the door, use doorstops to prop it open just enough for them to see each other. Repeat this process a few times.

Step 2: Face-to-face—Now that they're comfortable with each other's scent, put your dog's leash on and command him to "sit", "get down," or "stay." Use treats to reward him when he obeys, and have an experienced and trusted handler hold onto the dog’s leash. Sit down with the cat on your lap on the other side of the room. (By letting the dog associate you with the cat, your dog learns that the cat is another member of your pack.) Gradually move the animals closer. Be sure to also offer the cat treats, too. If the dog gets up from his "stay" position, he should be repositioned. If the cat gets frightened, move back slowly. Eventually, your pets will be close without panicking or getting aggressive. Repeat this several times until both are completely calm.

Step 3: Home alone—When you aren't home, keep your cat and dog separated until you're sure they can safely handle each other.

A few pointers

  • Dogs often like to play with cats by chasing them. Your cat may not realise that this is a playful act and, as a result, your cat may become fearful and aggressive. So keep a close eye on things.
  • Reward your dog's good behaviour while he's in the presence of the cat. If your dog is reprimanded every time the cat is around, he may direct his aggression towards it.

Feeding time

Now that your dog and cat are bosom buddies, there's a good chance their food bowls are next to each other. You should watch your dog at feeding time because he may steal food from the cat's bowl, and vice versa. Remember that cat food is designed for a cat's unique dietary needs, and dogs have different needs. So it's important to keep your dog away from your cat's food bowl and your cat away from the dog's. The easiest way to do that is to put your cat's bowl where your dog can’t reach it, such as a wide shelf or piece of furniture that only she can reach. You also might try cutting a "kitty door" into a closet, or into the door of a no-dog-allowed room, where your cat can eat in peace. This is an especially good idea if your cat gets stressed by your dog at mealtimes.

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