What could possibly be more joyful than a household full of fur babies? We love them all equally, but sometimes, they don't love each other quite as much as we might like.
Let's consider a scenario. You have a happy household with a pair of rambunctious dogs. You love every minute with these furballs, all the ups and all the downs, and you've never really thought about adding more to your household.
Then, one day, you're out doing some yard work, and you hear a plaintive cry from the bushes. A single, cartoonishly long, high-pitched whine. Then, from out of the leaf litter and debris comes a cat. She's clearly young, a runt maybe, and she's not doing well. One eye is a little crusty, her fur is matted, and she's all skin and bones.
You can't just leaveher there, right? Of course not. This cat, who has been through so much, nevertheless worked up the courage to come into your life and ask you for help. Despite her ills, she's purring as she rubs your legs.
So, obviously, of course, you bring this poor creature to your vet. You get her cleaned up, fed, checked for a chip (none, of course), and vaccinated. Now you're just left with one big issue:
What will the doggos think?
Alright, so this is a bit of an emergency situation. You don't have a lot of time to prepare, but you can still introduce a cat to your dog-first household without too much issue. With a little care, attention, training, and watchfulness, you can introduce a cat to a dog family and end up with a happy family in no time.
The first thing you need to know is that there's essentially zero chance that this is going to go well if you just put the cat in your living room and let things sort themselves out.
Cats and dogs have different kinds of body language, different ways of interacting with one another, and different kinds of signs to back off. They don't necessarily understand one another, and one creature's curious investigation might be coming on a little too strong.
It's also important to remember that our animals have much better senses of smell, taste, and hearing than we do. That's why our dogs can get up and bark at the sounds of a raccoon in the yard in the middle of the night or why they can smell that one gross pile of garbage half a mile away and make a beeline for it when you let them out of your sight.
So, here's what you do. Your dogs have the run of the house, but you need to pick a room to designate as your cat safe room. This should be a place with a door that closes and that your dogs can't open (and yes, some of those little Houdinis can get into all sorts of places they shouldn't, so you need this to be secure.) A baby gate won't do the trick. At most, you want the barest gap under the door.
Before you bring the cat into your home, pull your dogs aside and put them in, oh, anywhere. A garage, a closet, another bedroom, the basement; the point is, somewhere they aren't going to be at your feet and trying to investigate the now-terrified cat in your arms.
You can let your dogs back out in a few minutes. You just want to bring the cat to the safe room without your dogs catching sight of her – and without her seeing the dogs. They'll definitely know one another are there, from the scents and the sounds, but keep sight out of the picture for now.
Make sure the cat safe room has everything your cat will need.
A cozy spot to hide.
A litter box.
Food and water bowls.
A bed and bedding with several blankets or other objects.
A toy or two.
You're going to be spending some time in this room, both helping the cat feel more comfortable and making sure your dogs don't bother her too much.
You will be keeping your animals out of sight of one another for at least three days, and more likely closer to a week. Remember, cats are creatures of habit, and you've massively disrupted the habits of this poor suffering stray (or, you know, a fresh new adoption you found, or a friend's cat they can no longer care for, or whatever.) Your goal is to shrink her world to something she can feel safe in, something she can control. If you just let her have the run of the house, there's a decent chance she'll bolt out the door the first chance she gets.
Now, you're going to be spending time with both the cat and the dogs, but that's not really enough of what you need here. This is where the bedding comes in. Your goal is to get both creatures used to each others' scents.
So, after a day or two of using the bedding, take one or two of the blankets from the cat safe room and put them out in the wider house for the dogs to explore and investigate. At the same time, bring something from the dogs – a stray toy, a blanket, a pillow – and put it in the cat's safe room. Make sure the cat still has their own bedding to use, and don't put the dog's object in the cat's safe space; just make it part of the room.
Open the Door
Once the cat is a little more used to this situation and is doing less hiding and more exploration, you can move on to the next phase of introduction. Your next step is visual introductions. You need the safe room to still be a safe space, but you want to introduce the animals to each other visually. A baby gate is usually ideal, but if you have dogs that are likely to try to jump it or push past it, you'll need to keep them close and supervised.
Basically, your goal is to let the animals see each other. They already know each other by scent, but now they can "put a face to the name," so to speak. Unless all parties are very friendly and used to other animals, chances are there's going to be a good amount of anxiety and staring.
This is one of the primary differences in body language and why cats and dogs sometimes don't seem to get along. In cat language, staring is a challenge. The "slow blink" and look away works on cats because it's the body language they use when they're comfortable with one another. Dogs, meanwhile, are just curious and will stare at that cat like there's no tomorrow. Your dogs don't mean anything by it – certainly not a challenge – but it will probably make the cat wary and uncomfortable.
This is why supervision is important. Make sure the two are still separate but can see each other. If there's hissing and barking, try to calm your dogs or end the session and try again in another day or so.
Explore the Floor
Once the critters are more accepting of each others' presence, it's time to let the cat explore more of your home. After all, it's going to be her home, too, right?
You want to set aside some time, like half an hour, for the cat to explore. Close off some of the trickier rooms or places where she could get into trouble (for example, if you have a basement with crawl space access, just keep the basement door closed.)
What do you do with the doggos during this time? Put them somewhere else. You can close them in a different room (not the cat's safe room), or you can put them outside if you have a yard, or even have a friend or partner take them for a nice long walk. This is the cat's introduction to the house, not to the dogs.
You'll probably want to do this a couple of times, and when the cat seems to have had enough, bring them back to the safe room and bring the dogs back in. Remember, this can be a long process, particularly if your furry children don't quite know how to get along yet.
At this point, your cat is very likely hoping to get out of that tiny enclosed space and is much more willing to brave the presence of dogs to explore. Meanwhile, your dogs are still excited and curious, but they aren't going ape trying to get a glimpse of this elusive feline.
Basically, you want to leash up your pups and keep them at your side, but arm yourself with a bag of treats. Meanwhile, let the cat out of her safe room and let her roam. She's going to explore, but this time, the dogs are there to watch.
This is where training on the part of your doggos comes in very important. If they aren't very well-behaved, this is going to be a long and tricky process. If they're obedient, though, you can sit them by your side and let them watch as she explores. Reward them when they relax and look away, and if they get a little too curious and start to get up and go, sit them back down.
Now, you're just gradually removing barriers between them. As your new cat family member starts to get more comfortable around the dogs, and the dogs get a little less curious about the cat, you can start giving them a longer lead, letting the cat get closer, and eventually removing the leashes entirely.
This might take a few days with friendly and calm animals, or it might take a couple of weeks with a nervous cat and excitable dogs. Over time, the barriers will be completely removed, and within a month or so, they'll be able to coexist without more than the occasional scuffle. Your cat might still need her place to go and hide and will probably want to keep her personal space dog-free, but she'll let them get closer.
What if They Don't Get Along?
There are two cases where a new cat won't get along with your dogs.
The first is if you've proceeded too fast and are trying to rush the introductions faster than your cat is willing to accept. She'll be anxious and scared, will hide, and will likely hiss and possibly even bat at the dogs. This is a sign that you're pushing things too hard and too fast and will need to back off, reestablish barriers and the safe zone for the cat, keep the dogs further away, and generally slow down the pace of introductions. The better you do with introductions, the happier your household will be.
The second case is where you have a cat that is veryfrightened of dogs, or vice versa; dogs that are either very scared of or very aggressive towards a cat. For one reason or another, your animals aren't going to get along, and while it's potentially possible for them to eventually feel comfortable in one another's presence, it might take a very long time, and it could be dangerous in the interim.
You can try to redirect aggression between the two and keep going with treats and training to try to supersede the aggression with discipline, but it's occasionally just an irreconcilable difference. In these cases, unfortunately, you either have your work cut out for you, or you might just not be able to keep the two together. You can still find a loving home for this poor feline fur baby, but it might not be viable to keep her in your home. It's a tough decision, but it's one you'll need to make.
Fortunately, nearly all anxiety and aversion short of true, unchecked, unrestrained aggression can be trained away, and your animals will get along with one another when it's all said and done. Just be prepared to take the time you need to get them off on the right paws together.
Have you ever had to introduce a new cat to your dog or vice versa? If so, what was your experience like? Was it a challenge, or was it actually quite easy? Let me know in the comments section down below! I'd love to hear all your stories!
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more