A cat is, well, a special being. They like to have their own space and their things “just so.” Every path, every object, every ray of sunshine in its place. So if you’re thinking of bringing a dog into your cat household, you have some planning to do if you don’t want to upset the apple cart…or worse. You don’t want your cat to decide that your house is no longer desirable or safe because no matter how gentle the dog is, a cat’s view of the world is different from ours.
Last month we wrote about how my Human’s son was getting ready to adopt a dog, and we wrote about how to pick the right canine partner for your household. Well now the dog is home with her new Humans and everything is going well; thanks to careful communication and observation, it looks like the match is a good one. But the household had prior tenants: two cats.
Turns out that the scientific proof of domestication is not whether an animal lives with Humans but rather if the animal’s genotype and even its phenotype have changed since living with Humans. We know that not just wolves but also possibly coyotes, wild dogs, and even foxes were the ancestors of today’s dogs and that the phenotypic variations we see in dogs and not in their ancestors, are evidence of domestication. These include different shapes and sizes of skulls, teeth, ears, noses and even coat color. There are also clear differences in behavior between dogs and their ancestors but the same doesn’t occur with cats.
Cats are our mysterious pets, living with us for 9,000 years without ever being fully domesticated, always in charge of their own surroundings. A cat’s world has a unique order organized by scents and they “read” and “paint” their environment through scent receptors and delivery outlets in their noses, mouths and glands throughout their bodies. And any change in scents sends alarms to the cat because they might be an indication of impending threat. Cats also measure their environment with their whiskers, long and stiff touch receptors known as vibrissae that send information about the cat’s surroundings to sensory nerves, allowing felines to detect changes in their world. To prevent issues of distrust and fear, then, the introduction of a dog into a cat household must begin by respecting the cat’s space, focusing on areas of grave importance to the cat like the location of food dishes, the kitty litter and favorite lounging spots (no matter how incomprehensible!).
To bring a dog home to your cat, plan in advance and introduce change carefully. Begin by deciding the best place for the dog to live for the first few days or weeks, as needed. Make sure it is a place that can be closed off with a door or a doggie gate. Ideally, this location will not have “belonged” to the cats before the dog’s arrival but if it did, spend several days or weeks encouraging the cats to stop using that space by removing any water and food dishes, the kitty litter and any toys. Make sure to place the cat’s belongings somewhere where the dog will not be able to access them and allow the cat several days or weeks (as needed) before the dog’s arrival to acclimate to the new digs. In small homes, however, remember that it is the dog that gets the restricted space; the cat must feel that this is still her home and that you understand and respect that.
Once the dog arrives, make sure to give her a chance to get the “sniffs” out all around the yard and/or the neighborhood. Bring her into the house only when she is calm and satisfied with her outdoor needs, then immediately introduce her to her new area, keeping her on leash as you do. You can keep your cats closed in a safe location or you can allow them to watch the procedures if they are the curious, calm types. For the next few days or weeks (as needed) allow the cats to decide when and how to approach the dog, with the dog safely behind a gate or by your side on leash. And at no point during this period, should you leave the dog and cat alone in the house without containing the dog to allow the cat to feel safe and in control of her environment.
Ideally, you will have selected a dog that is calm around cats but even dogs who initially get excited and even some with a slight prey drive can learn to live with cats. If you are not experienced with these latter scenarios, though, it’s best to pick a dog who can live with cats and who will allow them to approach without scaring them. Once the two start meeting nose-to-nose, watch the interactions carefully: a body pushed forward can be interpreted as showing dominance so if it’s the dog doing the “pushing” and the cat is retreating by moving his center of gravity backward, prepare to intervene if necessary. The cat might decide to swipe at the dog and even scratch her to regain some space, especially if she feels trapped and without a clear escape route. However, a cat scratch can slit the dog’s nose or scratch an eyeball so you may not want your dog to learn her lessons on space the hard way. Also, the dog might react aggressively in defense and that would be a missed opportunity for peace so before that happens, call the dog off the cat’s space. The cat will feel safer knowing that you are helping to enforce the rules of her household!
Teaching your dog to lie down can be a very useful tool to immediately help put a nervous cat at ease. Lying down, especially if it’s off the hip, is a sign of relaxation. It is understood across species because an animal will not come off his hip if he intends his next move to be a pounce. In fact, when the household’s cat and dog start just lying about near each other, that’s the white flag that indicates a long-lasting peace is near and even, maybe, a lifelong friendship.