How to help dogs and cats get along

Whether or not dogs and cats can get along depends entirely on the human. The human needs to be in control of the situation, and that means in control of the cat, too. Although some dog-cat combos will need supervision at all times, most dogs and cats can get along if rules are enforced.

My cats do not like dogs, not at all. But they are good sports and tolerate all the dogs I bring into our home, which tends to be a lot. All of my life, I plan to have at least one dog and one cat. It is reasonable and possible to have both as pets.

Here are some tips for helping dogs and cats get along:

Cat watches black dog and woman standing in an field

1. The cat is usually dominant.

In our home, there is a very clear “pecking order,” and it goes humans, cats, dog. Ace is 65 pounds, and the cats have total control over him. Ace yields to them in doorways, backs away when they make eye contact, and if someone is being chased, it is usually Ace. Many people make the mistake of protecting or favoring their cats when really it is the dog that is insecure. Learn to read the body posture of both animals. For example, the more dominant pet will claim her ground and move forward, while the submissive animal will look away.

2. Correct the cat when she swipes at the dog.

Don’t let your cat get away with aggression just because she’s a cat. There is no reason for her to walk by and swipe at your dog’s face just to make a point. Cats can learn what no means. Like dogs, they need rules. My cats respond well to the sound of me snapping my fingers and saying “Hey” or “No.” It’s their signal to back off.

3. Stay calm.

Humans create all the problems in dog-cat situations. Loud, excited voices, laughing, insecurity, nervousness or intentionally getting the dog or cat worked up is asking for trouble. I’ve seen more than one situation where the dog and cat were fine until a person said something like “Is that a cat, Rover?” Then the dog went into an excited, guarding mode and the cat wanted to flee. Dogs read our signals more than we realize. It’s so important to stay relaxed. Act like the cat is no big deal and your dog will do the same.

4. Don’t let the cat hide.

Provide the cat with a safe place she can retreat to, but don’t let her hang out there for days on end. Some cats will want to remain under the bed or on top of the highest shelf without coming down to eat or go to the bathroom. Give your cat a few hours as a break here and there, but make her be around the dog so she can get comfortable with him. Also make sure she feels safe enough to get to her litter box or she might have accidents. When we have a new dog around, I get out an extra litter box so the cats have two bathroom options.

5. Block dogs and cats from staring.

All animals communicate with body language. In both dog and cat worlds, direct, head-on eye contact is a challenge. If you catch your animals staring at one another, it is a disaster waiting to happen. Usually it results with the cat fleeing and the dog chasing.

My cat, Beamer, is a very dominant animal and will stare down any dog. This is OK until he meets a dominant dog that will accept his challenge and attack him. This was a problem with one of our foster dogs. Having two dominant animals in the house kept me busy at all times. I corrected the foster dog from staring by keeping her on the leash and re-directing her attention as needed. Dogs and cats will respond to a firm, direct “No” or a snap of my fingers. Yelling, running at the animals or acting flustered makes the situation worse.

6. Correct all excited behavior from the dog.

Excitement leads to chasing or aggression. When I have an excited dog around my cats, I put the dog in a down position until he is calm. A dog in a down-stay position can’t stare, bark, spin in circles, chase or obsess over the cat. Even if the dog is not acting aggressive, it’s unacceptable for him to be fixated on the cat’s every move.

7. Don’t comfort either animal.

If the dog or cat is afraid, don’t comfort the animal by saying “It’s OK, it’s OK.” This only reinforces insecurity. If I notice Ace is insecure, I will step into the cat’s space to make the cat back away, giving Ace more power. If my cat, Scout, is insecure, I will calmly move him to a higher status like the couch or a chair.

8. Muzzle the dog if needed.

There’s nothing wrong with muzzeling a potentially aggressive dog. We only fostered the dog I mentioned above for about two weeks, but if we’d had her longer I would’ve gotten a muzzle for her so she could interact closer with my cats. A muzzle would’ve made me calmer and more comfortable, which would have benefited all the animals.

9. Put the cat in a kennel and let the dog approach calmly.

If your cat is relaxed and comfortable with being in a kennel, it is a good opportunity to allow the dog and cat to smell each other from a safe distance. Don’t let the dog charge, bark or pace around the kennel. Make sure he approaches the cat calmly. Correct or re-direct any excited behavior and try again once he is calm. If the cat is too nervous and hissing, whining or swiping, try again when both animals are calm. Don’t allow the dog to stare directly at the cat.

10. Put the dog in the kennel.

The reversed situation can also work as long as both animals are calm. One problem I often have is that the dog will try to stare at the cat from inside the kennel, and it’s difficult to correct him.

11. Give the animals breaks from one another.

When I’m introducing my cats to a new dog, I always make sure to set aside time for them when all dogs are in their kennels in a separate room. I get out the cat toys and catnip and give them lots of attention so they can be comfortable in their own home. This is good for the dogs too because they learn to have quiet, alone time. They don’t always get to be the center of my attention.

12. Allow the dog and cat to be together in a controlled environment.

Keeping the dog and cat separated at all times will only increase the tension. They need to get used to one another. It will take time, but they can’t learn anything if they are always separated.

13. Restrain the dog.

When I’m introducing a new dog to my cats, the dog is always on a leash, I don’t care who is the dominant one. It is very important to correct unwanted behavior from a dog, and it’s not possible to do that if the dog is out of reach.

14. Supervise the animals at all times.

Before a dog and cat are comfortable with one another, they should be under direct supervision. Don’t leave them alone together just because they are fine when you are around. Crate the dog or put them in separate rooms so everyone is safe until you are 100 percent sure you can trust them. Begin leaving them alone for short periods at a time and build from there.

15. Reinforce good behavior.

Only pet the animals when they are calm and relaxed. Verbal and physical praise is better than food. Food can bring out dominance and possessiveness in dogs and cats and can lead to a fight. I make sure to give calm verbal and physical praise because if I get too excited, problems occur.

Do you have a dog and a cat? What did you do to introduce them?

Blue merle great dane in kennel with gray tabby cat approaching

The top photo was taken of my mutt Ace, my cat Scout and I by Tawna Whitford. The large photo directly above is of Scout and my friend’s great dane pup, Piper.