Introducing a New Dog to Existing Household Cats

From the archive: Introducing a New Dog to Existing Household Cats

We’re often asked if it’s possible for pit bulls and cats to live together successfully.  Dogs and cats don’t have to be enemies; in fact, many of them become the best of friends! However, it’s very important to properly introduce your new dog to your existing household cats in order to get them off on the right “paw.” Here are some tips and tricks to help you safely introduce your new dog to your cats at home!  Click the file below to print our pamphlet!

Step 1: Cats Rule
Before bringing your new dog home, prepare your house in such a way so as to protect the safety of your cats. Because cats are often the smaller, more-fragile animal in the house, it is important to establish that cats and their safety come first. This has nothing to do with dominance; it’s just about territory and who gets to go where. For example, your cat may be allowed on your sofa (or a cat tower) while your dog is not. Your cat may be allowed to free-roam throughout your house while you are gone, and your dog may need to be crated. This is important because it gives your cat(s) a place to “escape” to should they become overwhelmed by the dog’s presence or desire to play.  Make sure that you always provide your cat with a “way out” of any situation. Whether that is a high cat perch, an open door that only the cat can get through, or a sofa/bed to hide under, your cat should never feel trapped with the dog. Before your new dog comes home, try to analyze each room in the house to ensure that “ways out” are available in each one.

You should also never leave your cats and dogs alone unattended, even if they appear to be the best of friends. It’s just not a smart idea. Dogs and cats communicate very differently, and things can go wrong should communication lines get crossed (for example, dogs avoid making prolonged direct eye contact with one another and can perceive direct eye contact as more threatening. They “look away” to show that they are not threatening. Cats, on the other hand, make a lot of direct eye contact and use blinking as a way to show that they are not threatening!).

Step 2: Bringing Your New Dog Home
When you first bring your new dog home to a house where cats already live, keep your cats in a separate room completely with the door shut. Allow the new dog to wander throughout the house and smell all the new smells while getting familiar with his or her new surroundings. If possible, leave out a blanket on which the cats have slept; the dog will be able to smell them on the blanket and throughout the house.

It is probably wise to keep the dog and cats fully separated for a few days at least. Try to get a blanket or pillow on which the dog has slept and leave it in the room with your cats. Your cats will smell the dog, and they will also hear the dog through the door.

Step 3: Working on “Leave It”
This step is one you can begin the moment your dog comes home. The “Leave It” command is a very important one for any dog to know. It helps your dog develop self-control and control over its natural prey drive (desire to chase/hunt running small animals).

To begin working on the “leave it” command, start by getting 2 types of treats: 1 high-value treat (liver treats, chicken, hot dog) and 1 lower-value treat (kibble or basic dog treats).

Hold the lower-value treat in your closed hand. Let your dog sniff/lick at your hand as much as he/she wants (without nibbling/biting). The moment your dog looks away or stops licking/trying to get at the treat, say “yes!” (or use a clicker if you are doing clicker training) and immediately reward him/her with the high-value treat from your other hand. Continue to do this until the dog clearly catches onto the fact that not trying to get the treat in your hand means that he/she gets the better treat in your other hand!

At this point, take a low-value treat in your hand, hold it out, and say “leave it!” The dog should look away/stop trying to go after the treat as he/she has already learned. Say “yes!” (or click) and reward with the high-value treat in your other hand.

When your dog has mastered the “leave it” command with a treat in your closed palm, try holding the treat in your open palm. When the dog goes after the treat, close your hand, and say “leave it!” Say “yes” and reward the moment the dog looks away.

You can go further and put the treat on the ground in front of the dog, put a series of treats on the ground and walk by w/ dog on leash, etc. Best of all, try using the leave-it command with a rolling ball. Roll the ball away from the dog and say “leave it,” encouraging the dog to stay put. Immediately say “yes!” and reward if the dog does not move.

The Leave-It command can also be taught using toys or whatever best motivates your dog! Knowing the “leave it” command will enable you to use

Step 4: Letting Dog & Cat See One Another
After about 3 days, put a tall baby gate in the doorway separating the “cat room” from the dog. Let your cats and dog see one another and, if interested, sniff or communicate through the gate, but do not let them directly interact. Keep your dog on a leash during the first through-the-gate meeting.

If the dog lunges or barks (even in play) at the gate, put your whole body between the dog and the gate, and say, firmly “Leave It!” If the dog continues to lunge around your legs, give an “ah ah!” Or “Leave It!” command, and back him or her up using your whole body (this is a technique called “body blocking”). Then, take the leash, and lead the dog away into a separate room/bathroom. Close the door, and take a 30-second “time out” to let the dog calm down.

Try again. The moment the dog begins to lunge or bark at the cats, give another “Leave It” and take him/her back to the separate room for another time out.

Encourage any and all positive behavior by having some sort of high-value treat (like boiled chicken or liver treats) ready. When the dog is calm, quiet, and giving calming signals (like sniffing away from the cats, looking away, “shaking off,” etc.), praise the dog and give him/her a special treat. If the dog obeys your “Leave It” command even slightly, say “yes!” and reward the dog. If your cats enjoy treats, also give them some treats to establish that the presence of the dog is a positive thing.

Continue working with your dog and cats this way until both are relaxed with the “through the gate” separation.

Step 5: Removing the Gate
When the time comes to remove the gate separating your cats and dog, ensure that your dog is leashed. This doesn’t mean the dog has to be restrained; he/she can simply drag the leash around. Having the leash on provides you with a quick and easy way to stop the dog should he/she begin chasing the cats.

More than likely, your cats will want nothing to do with the dog when the gate is first removed. The more important thing is that the cats are able to run away without the dog chasing them. Remember to use the “Leave It” command whenever the dog begins to chase the cats. You can also step on or pick up the leash to immediately stop the dog, and then walk him away from the situation.

If the dog goes to sniff or interact with the cats and the cats hiss or growl, give the “Leave It” command. If the dog does not leave the cat be, body block him away from the cat, clearly establishing the cat’s “personal space” with your body.

You should leave the leash on the dog until you reach a point where you are confident that the dog will not typically chase the cats. Even then, remember to use body blocking to re-establish the cats’ personal space any time the dog does not listen to the cat’s signals (hissing, growling) to leave it alone.


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