Making room for a new pet can be an adjustment for the whole family — including the faithful pup already at your home. Even if your dog has lived with cats in the past, it’s always best to take things slow when introducing a kitten to a resident dog.
Every dog will react differently to a new addition entering his territory. For some dogs, the new family member will be an annoyance, while others may be excited for a kitten playmate. You can never predict how things are going to go — take Ozzy the pit bull.
When Ozzy’s family fostered a pregnant stray cat, they weren’t sure how their rescue pup would adjust to their rapidly growing family. When five kittens were finally born, Ozzy couldn’t have been more delighted. The doting dog loved to lick and cuddle the kittens. In fact, Ozzy got along so well with the cats that his family decided to adopt the mom and one of the kittens.
Kittens are notoriously energetic, so the age and energy level of your resident dog should be taken into account when making introductions, explains Dr. Katherine Miller, director of ASPCA’s anti-cruelty behavior team.
If you have a senior dog who likes to be left alone, he will probably not be thrilled to have a new kitten sibling using him as a jungle gym. Care should be taken during those first few years, notes Miller, to keep both parties happy. “You’ll want to make sure the new kitten has plenty of other outlets to exercise and use up her energy so she is not tempted to play with the dog,” Miller adds, “which may stress him out and cause tension.”
So what should you do once you’ve decided to open your home to another pet in need? Here’s how to introduce a kitten to a dog so they will become BFFs or, at least, really good roommates:
Refresh your dog’s manners
“First impressions are important to a cat, so you want the initial introduction to be as stress-free as possible,” Miller advises. “Prepare for the arrival of your new cat by working with your dog to refresh his obedience skills.”
Your pup doesn’t have to be star student to get along with your kitten. Simply working on two commands will help things go smoothly: recall, or “come,” and the “leave it” exercise, Miller says. If your dog gets overly excited around your kitten, these skills will come in handy to control their interactions.
Set up a separate space for your kitten
Kittens are more vulnerable than adult cats, so you will want to keep your kitten and dog separated while they get acquainted. Provide a safe space in your home for the new kitten that your dog is not able to access, such as a spare room or bathroom. Make sure the room is stocked with all the essentials, such as bedding, food, water and a litter box. “It’s up to you to protect your new kitten and set up introductions carefully so that she feels safe and has a pleasant experience getting acquainted with your dog,” Miller adds.
Share their scents
Before letting your kitten and dog meet face-to-face, introduce your pets nose-first. Miller recommends distributing the scents of your dog and cat in their separate areas to get them accustomed to each other’s smells.
“When animals share a common scent they consider each other as belonging to the group,” Miller explains. “When they smell unfamiliar they are considered strangers.” This can be done by gently rubbing your cat and dog with the same cloth several times a day, or putting a towel your pet has slept on in the other animal’s area.
Introduce them through the doorway
Start slow, and allow your kitten and dog to meet for the first time through a barrier. Open the door to your cat’s area, and block the entrance with a baby gate (make sure the kitten is unable to slip through the bars).
Walk your dog slowly by the doorway several times each day, and reward him with praise and high-value treats, such as bite-sized pieces of chicken or cheese, for his calm behavior. If your dog overreacts to the cat, reinforce his basic obedience skills, advises Miller, with commands such as “sit” and “down.”
As you work with your dog, be sure to reward your kitten with treats as well. When she approaches the baby gate, toss her a treat to build a positive association with your dog’s visits.
Do not feel disappointed if your cat doesn’t feel comfortable with the arrangement right away — these things can take time. “Let your new cat set the pace. If she chooses to run and hide under the furniture when you and your dog walk by, let her,” Miller notes. “It simply means your introductions will take longer … Keep in mind that cats can take months to form relationships with other animals.”
Let them meet “in person”
If your cat is showing interest in your dog when he approaches the baby gate, you can start to introduce them in an open, neutral space. During these supervised meetings, keep your dog on-leash for the first couple of weeks while giving your kitten plenty of room to “retreat, run and hide, or slip beneath a piece of furniture where the dog can’t follow,” Miller says.
Keep these first important meetings positive for both dog and cat by avoiding scolding, shouting or jerking on the dog’s leash. “You don’t want them to learn that everyone gets tense and angry and bad things happen when the cat or dog is around,” Miller says. “Dogs are more likely to engage in chase or prey behavior when they’re tense or aroused.”
For some dogs, these introductions may take a long time, and that’s totally OK. Sometimes two animals will need extra help getting along, and owners can enlist professional behavior experts, such as a certified applied animal behaviorist or a certified professional dog trainer, to help them through the process. The most important thing is that both pets feel happy and safe in their shared home.
When your kitten and dog seem content and relaxed around each other, you can allow your two pets to interact unsupervised. Soon, they may even bond and become one big happy furry family.