Adding another furry family member to your home is an exciting time.
But as with all change, this can be a stressful shift.
Things get a bit more complicated when we’re talking about a household with three species at play: dogs, cats, and humans.
It’s a well-known fact that dogs and cats don’t always get along, but there are cases in which they’ll become the best of friends. There are a lot of factors at play to predict whether a dog and cat will get along, but we’ll do our best to create a step-by-step plan to help guide you in this adventure!
Key Takeaways: How to Make a Dog & Cat Get Along
- There are things you can do to help foster a good relationship between a dog and a cat. That doesn’t mean all dogs and cats will get along, but there are things you can do to set your pets up for success.
- Some dogs and cats are more likely to get along than others. For example, dogs and cats who’re young, calm, and don’t have a history of bad interactions are more likely to get along than older pets with a history of conflict.
- Patience is the name of the game. Follow our complete nine-step plan below, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that introductions need to happen slowly and gradually.
Predicting Outcomes: Will My Dog and Cat Get Along?
Dogs and cats are individuals with distinct personalities.
Even with all the training in the world, there are some pairings that will never be “friends.” In fact, some pairings may never be truly safe. To help you know what to expect, I’ll break down some of the red and green flags I look for in each animal. This should help you predict whether your dog and cat may get along.
Right now, I assume that you either have a dog or a cat in the home. Take a look at the factors below for whichever species you have to see how your current pet stacks up.
Then, when you’re deciding on your new dog or cat, try to keep these factors in mind to ensure you adopt or purchase a dog or cat that is likely to work out in a multi-species home.
Your Dog: Green Flags
- Gentle with other small animals
- Has met or lived with a cat before
- Is well-trained and responsive to you
- Is under 30 pounds (really, the smaller the safer)
- Does not fixate on squirrels, bunnies, or stray cats
- Has great play skills and the ability to self-handicap with puppies or smaller dogs
- Is young (under 5 to 6 months is ideal)
Your Dog: Red Flags
- Chases, lunges at, or grabs small animals if given the chance
- Falls into a breed category known for predatory behavior (terriers, sighthounds, hounds, natural breeds, primitive breeds)
- Has no history with smaller animals
- Is large or powerful
- Has a history of harming small animals.
That last red flag for dogs is especially important.
In fact, I would avoid getting a cat at all if your dog has high predatory aggression and a history of harming or killing squirrels, bunnies, or cats. While training can help a lot, it’s simply not worth the risk in my opinion.
Your Cat: Green Flags
- Is confident and calm
- Has met other dogs
- Is well-adjusted and does not have litter box issues
- Is likely to stand his ground when approached
- Is young
Your Cat: Red Flags
- Already has stress-related behavior issues such as litter box problems
- Is generally nervous, flighty, or shy
- Has never met a dog before
- Has had bad interactions with dogs before
- Is difficult to handle or pick up
Hopefully you are able to find a few green flags in each of your animals to make for a successful introduction. Now, let’s talk about how to introduce them to each other!
Making a Dog and Cat Get Along: An Easy 9-Step Plan
Whether it takes two hours or two months, safely introducing a dog and a cat generally necessitates that you follow a relatively consistent nine-step plan. It’s just a matter of how long we spend at each stage and how granular we get with the steps.
We’ll break it down for you below.
1. Keep the Pets Separate (at First)
Physical barriers are the best way to ensure that neither animal startles, harasses, or harms the other.
Generally, I recommend using closed doors as your main barrier. Both dogs and cats can often jump over indoor dog gates and exercise pens, so they aren’t the safest primary barrier: Use a door instead.
This allows each animal to feel comfortable and safe in their space while sniffing and hearing each other on the other side of the barrier.
The cat’s space can be a bedroom, bathroom, or an entire sector of the house. Ensure that space is large enough to be comfortable and enriching for the cat so that the separation does not cause distress.
Based on your animals and your stage in the progression plan, you may make other barrier choices.
When introducing my kitten Norbert to my dogs Barley and Niffler, I stacked a couple chairs in front of the bathroom so that Norbert could come and go as needed, but Niffler and Barley couldn’t enter Norbert’s space.
This was all the barrier that we needed, even on day one — but I got lucky.
With many of my clients, I recommend using a baby gate covered with a towel during the later stages of the introduction. This allows us to increase or decrease visual contact between the dog and the cat by moving the towel, setting both of the animals up for success.
If your dog or cat is fixated, distressed, or overly excited, add more buffer distance or visual barriers between them.
Several years ago, I had a client whose dog-cat introductions were going horribly.
We ended up using two baby gates, one at either end of the stairs, both covered in towels. In other words, for weeks, the dogs and cat were separated by several meters of “neutral” space. This was necessary while we worked on scent swapping and neutral behaviors from the dogs.
I would also avoid putting the cat inside of a carrier, crate, or other small space. While these small spaces may physically protect your cat from your dog, they don’t help the cat feel safe: Your feline friend is essentially trapped while your dog can get way too close to him.
A door, baby gate, or exercise pen allows the cat to approach and retreat from the door as desired.
2. Scent Swap
Dogs and cats learn a lot about their worlds through olfaction, so use this to your advantage!
A helpful way to let them get to know each other through time and space is to bring items from one side of the barrier to another. For example, allow each animal to sleep on a specific towel or bed for a couple of days, then swap bedding.
I also like to fully swap spaces, when possible.
For example, when your dog is on a walk, let your cat explore the entire house before replacing him in his “bedroom.” If your dog sleeps in a crate at night, you can also experiment with letting the cat roam the entire house while the dog is crated.
This is partially how I introduced Norbert to my friend’s humongous Belgian Tervuren puppy, Lenore.
3. Feed on Opposite Sides of the Barrier
Eating is a calming behavior, as many of us learned during the COVID pandemic. Here again, we can use this to our advantage.
A major step in helping dogs and cats get along is to teach them to eat calmly in each other’s presence. Eating also helps focus the dog’s attention away from the cat, all while keeping the cat stationary. Running and playing cats are much harder for dogs to ignore!
I have a lovely video from just a couple hours after finding Norbert in a ditch, in which each of my dogs and Norbert are calmly eating, separated by several feet and a physical barrier.
If your dog is too excited to eat or your cat is too nervous to eat, your animals are too close to each other.
Some dogs may eat faster, more slowly, or in an otherwise “odd” way if you’re feeding the critters too close to each other or you’re progressing too quickly. Note these types of changes and use them as a hint to slow things down or add more space between them.
But if things are progressing well, move your dog and cat a few inches closer to the barrier at each meal.
Eventually, we’d like them to each calmly eat on opposite sides of a sturdy but see-through barrier, such as a glass door, baby gate, exercise pen, or sturdy dog-proof screen door. Then we can increase the distance again but remove the physical barrier, while using leashes as needed for back-up (see step 7 for more on this technique).
This stage may last just one to three meals, or it could last weeks and weeks. Your goal is to have both your dog and your cat calmly eating meals within a couple feet of each other with a see-through barrier between them.
4. Prepare Your Dog With Obedience and Calm Behaviors
Whether you already have adopted a cat or not, teaching your dog some basic obedience and calm behaviors will help immensely.
I routinely used cues, such as “leave it,” “stay” (or wait), and “go to bed” while helping my dogs get used to living with a cat. They also already knew some basic default calm behaviors thanks to lots of work with impulse control games.
The “Leave it” cue will help your dog learn to turn away from the cat if he’s excited about the cat’s movement or is just getting too close.
It’s helpful to not just teach this with food, but also with toys and squirrels. That will ensure your dog understands the concept and can apply it to your cat.
“Stay” or “wait” will help keep your dog in place as needed. I used that often to help my dogs stay put while Norbert moved around them. This helped them get used to him walking and playing while I rewarded the dogs frequently for not chasing or pouncing!
Finally, a “go to bed” behavior (or “kennel up” or “on your mat” cue) can help you send your dog away while training. I usually used this in conjunction with “stay.”
Ideally, most of this training will take place before your cat is even home. Of course, sometimes cats come into our lives unexpectedly and sometimes you’ve got a cat first before adopting a dog.
In any case, you’ll want to practice each of these skills on opposite sides of the closed barrier before removing it.
5. “Catify” Your Home
As you prepare to have your dog and cat share a physical space, it’s important to ensure your kitty has ample space to hide, an elevated place or two that are safe from the dog, and other options to create “elbow room” for himself.
This can be a combination of cubbies, shelves, or spaces under futons or couches. You can also find plenty of adorable options online.
Personally, I’m dying to pick up some of these cactus-shaped cat trees and cat shelves as soon as I’m not living in a van. These spaces are super important to keep your cat safe and feeling comfortable.
Remember: Cats may be predators, but they’re also small, which makes them prey too. This means they’re happiest when they can perch up high, above potential threats like your beloved Fido.
Providing dedicated spaces for this will also reduce the time your cat spends scaling your bookshelves or screen doors.
When introducing Norbert to my friend’s Belgian Tervuren puppy, we used vertical space to allow Norbert and Lenore to observe each other safely and interact at Norbert’s pace. We introduced this vertical space and stopped using barriers around step 7 or 8 below.
6. Exercise and Enrich Your Dog Prior to Introductions
Here at K9 of Mine, we’re always talking about setting your dog up for success. One of the most important things we can do in the final hours before introducing a dog and a cat is providing your dog with ample exercise and canine enrichment.
In some cases, you may even want to let your dog take a quick nap to ensure he’s not over-the-top antsy. This is particularly true for teenage dogs between 5 and 18 months of age.
So, take your dog for a long sniffari, a quick jog, a hike, or play some dog training games to ensure that your dog feels satiated before introductions. If your dog is super excited, he’s less likely to make good choices around your cat.
7. Allow for Full Introductions
Before starting this step, go back to the instructions at step 3.
Are your dog and cat able to calmly eat meals on opposite sides of a see-through barrier with just a few feet between them? If not, you’re not ready for this step!
As I’ve said before, getting to this step may take just a couple hours or several months of hard work.
Start with your dog on-leash and in an environment where the cat has plenty of hidey-holes and elevated perches. Remove the barrier while your dog is several feet away (across the room or even down a hallway, if possible).
When the cat approaches the barrier and your dog notices, give your marker word (examples include “yes,” “good boy,” or a click of your clicker if you’ve done clicker training) and feed your dog a treat.
One of a few things will likely happen:
- Your dog may be too fixated on the cat to eat or respond to you. If he can’t eat, the session is over. Go back to using a barrier, even if he “just wants to play.”
- Your dog will barely notice the cat and focus entirely on your treats. Great! You can move a bit closer and repeat. Reward your dog for ignoring the cat every 5 to 10 seconds.
- Your dog will look at the cat but look away and accept treats from you. If his response seems intense, grabby, slow, or super-chompy, practice at this distance until his response becomes typical for him in training. Then you can go a bit closer.
If your dog is struggling or your cat is extra mobile, you may want to feed your cat a plate of wet food to keep your kitty still during initial introductions. A stationary cat is much easier for your dog to work with than a playful, “darty,” or mobile cat.
Over time, your dog and cat will get closer and closer together. Carefully watch your dog’s body language. If he is relaxed or “loose and waggy,” things are probably OK. If he’s tense or holds his weight forward, is kangaroo-hopping on the end of the leash, or is otherwise stiff or over-the-top, move further away for several more repetitions.
At this point in the process, it’s time to repeat our brief introductions.
Just understand that it’s better to do several one-minute sessions per day for a week than one 30-minute training session in a single day.
Take lots of breaks and give your dog and cat time to relax apart. Pay careful attention to the body language cues discussed above. Remember that if your dog can’t eat or turn away from the cat, you’re too close for now. You want to see your dog acting calmly – even bored!
When in doubt, give your dog and cat extra space and extra time. In some cases you may want to muzzle your dog for initial introductions — we plan to do this with my friend Kim’s dog Taco, who has a history of grabbing stray cats but has also lived well with cats in the past.
As your dog and cat get closer and closer together, eventually they’ll need to greet each other in up-close fashion.
This often happens within about 5 to 6 feet of distance. Let your dog sniff the cat and let your cat react. Stay vigilant but don’t add tension to the situation. Don’t punish the animals for minor rude behaviors, like a cat that hisses or a dog that gently noses the cat. You’ll work on these things over time, but once they’re in physical contact with each other it’s important that they feel relaxed.
After the initial greeting(s), call your dog away for a treat. Lather, rinse, and repeat a couple times, then scatter some treats on the ground and take a longer break. Next time, do a few more on-leash interactions and then consider dropping the leash.
Making a dog and cat get along isn’t a one-and-done sort of thing. With many dog-cat introductions, you’re constantly taking two steps forward and one step back.
So, start out with supervised semi-cohabitation, like cooking dinner with the dog tethered to your hip or watching them interact while your dog drags a leash.
Eventually, in most cases, the dog and cat are able to get along while unsupervised, but this isn’t always the case.
For example, I still have to put my dogs in crates or in separate rooms while I play with Norbert because they get too excited and try to chase his toy. My friend’s dog Lenore is able to be loose with Norbert only after a good, hard play session with my dog Niffler, yet also before she’s so tired that she’s cranky.
If Possible, Make Introductions While Dogs & Cats Are Young
Baby animals are less likely to be fearful, aggressive, and/or predatory than adults.
Whether you’re introducing a soft young puppy to an older cat, or introducing a brave little kitten to a gentle dog, young animals are often more adaptable than adult critters.
Teenage dogs and older cats are often a bad combination. Older cats are more likely to flee in fear, which causes dogs to chase. Following the steps above can help, but running behavior makes things harder.
At the same time, teenage (roughly 6- to 20-month-old) dog brains simply aren’t wired for calm, thoughtful processing and patient waiting. If possible, wait until your teenage dog has matured before bringing home a cat.
When I got my puppy Niffler, I knew I’d want a cat at some point before Niffler died. I wasn’t ready to bring a cat home yet, though.
My compromise was to foster an adult cat and her litter of brand new kittens when Niffler was 5 months old. Niffler got to experience a cat and befriend her kittens when he was young and impressionable. A year and a half later when I found Norbert, Niffler was much more receptive to living with a cat.
Now they’re best friends! They snuggle and play for hours every day.
Fostering a Bond Between Your Cat and Dog
It’s one thing to help your dog and cat simply cohabitate. But most of us would rather foster a true bond – a friendship, even – between our pets.
How do we do that?
The reality is, this starts with selecting personalities that are likely to match up and performing a proper introduction — exactly what we’re talking about today!
Having a good match, a solid introduction, and establishing boundaries are all important to helping the critters get along.
Aside from that, here are some friendship-fostering tips to consider for your multi-species household:
- Help each animal meet his or her species-specific needs away from the other. For example, I let Norbert chase and kill his Da Bird toy without the dogs around, since the dogs like this game and ruin it for him. Likewise, I take the dogs on trail runs to ensure that they’re not going to feel pent-up and more likely to pick on poor Norbert at home.
- Encourage resting, relaxing, and other feel-good activities together. For most cats, it’s easiest to trust a dog that is non-threatening. At first, your kitty may only feel comfortable snuggling up to a sleeping dog. Over time, this trust may grow into playtime – or it may not. Trying too hard to encourage playtime or high-energy shared activities often backfires.
- Accept whatever the animals are showing you. You can’t really rush or force a cross-species friendship, and for many animals a friendship is more about cuddling and mutual grooming than rough-and-tumble play. While you may yearn for playful wrestling matches, there’s no real way to promote that if the animals aren’t both engaged on their own.
- Monitor play, especially at first. If your animals do decide to give play a try, it’s best to be nearby and ready to intervene. Try not to hover and intervene constantly, as that will surely ruin the fun, but be ready to interrupt if one party gets too intense. For my crew, this often means simply calling Niffler’s name if he paw-smacks Norbert a bit too hard. Niffler is good at telling Norbert off if Norbert is too rough with him (it happens a lot), but at times I’ve needed to step in and remove the cat so that Niffler can sleep!
Above all, remember that you can’t force a friendship. As long as your pets are getting along well, give them the space to work out a relationship that feels good for them. Relationships often grow and change over years, so try to be patient.
What Do You Do if Things Go Badly?
Not all dogs and cats are going to get along. In some cases, you may need to use baby gates or doors to divide your house. This may be a 24/7 lifelong thing for some dyads, or it may be something you just use when your teenage dog is overly excited for a couple hours a day for a few months.
Just remember that it’s not a failure or an indictment on either animal if they’re simply uncomfortable or unsafe together. Interspecies cohabitation is hard!
Generally, the approach needed is to take a longer time at each step with smaller increments between each step.
Above, we outline nine steps. But you may end up implementing a step 3.1 and 3.2 and 3.3 (and so on) in order to help move your dog and cat from being 20 feet away from a closed wooden door to being 1 foot apart on opposite sides of a baby gate.
Don’t Hesitate to Seek Professional Help
If you’re feeling stuck, confused or overwhelmed, it’s a great idea to get help.
As I type, I have three ongoing clients at various stages of making their dog and cat get along. One doesn’t even have a cat yet, one is working through the basic steps and things are going smoothly, and a third is attempting to integrate a particularly challenging pair.
You may want to get professional help from a dog behaviorist to make your dog and cat get along if:
- You have been stuck at the same step outlined above for more than a week
- Your dog has a history of chasing or harming small animals
- Your cat is extremely fearful of your dog
- Your dog appears frantic or highly fixated on your cat no matter what you try
- The addition of your dog to the home has caused behavior problems in your cat, such as litterbox issues or petting-induced aggression
I also highly recommend the podcast It’s Training Cats and Dogs if you need help with your dog and cat getting along. Naomi has endless episodes on dog-cat relationships and has interviewed me twice for the podcast (once before I got Norbert and once afterwards).
When your dog and cat get along, both of their lives can be better. While some of us may settle for tolerance and coexistence, dogs and cats can absolutely be great friends. We hope that with this article and these suggestions, your dog and cat will get along for the rest of their lives.