Interview with Barbara Davis on Getting Dogs and Cats to Get Along

The idea that cats and dogs fight like, well, cats and dogs has been around for some time.

But take it from a pet owner who minutes ago witnessed her 10-pound black kitten curl up next to her 105-pound German Shepherd on his dog bed, cats and dogs can definitely get along and—even more than that—they can become best buddies.

There’s no magic potion, but there are some tips that may help. Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Certified Dog Behavior Consultant Barbara Davis, of BADDogsInc Family Dog Training & Behavior in Corona, California, regularly gets requests for help on getting dogs and cats to get along. Davis shares some of this advice with The Honest Kitchen.

The Honest Kitchen: Is there truth to the “dog and cat” myth that they don’t often get along?

Barbara Davis: Of course, this is not a rule at all. I can’t quote actual stats on this, but I believe that about 2/3 of my clients have dogs and cats, and many have other species at home as well, including birds, reptiles, pigs, fish and small rodents. The vast majority of my clients have been able to integrate all these creatures into their households without any professional intervention at all.

THK: What are some tips to integrating dogs and cats?

BD: First and foremost, maintaining the safety of both animals is the highest priority. Allowing one to frighten or injure the other can damage the relationship irreparably, so slow and controlled is the way to go. Some dogs and cats seem to naturally be accepting of the other species, some need a bit of help getting adjusted and others are just not going to work out at all.

In the initial stages of integration, the animals should be physically separated by a solid closed door so that they can’t gain access to each other. In my experience, the cat generally needs more acclimation time than the dog, but this will vary from individual to individual. Confining one or the other to a spare bedroom, for instance, allows both to interact with each other in a limited way and get somewhat comfortable with each other’s presence. Gradually, the exposure can become greater and greater by using a baby gate to maintain safe separation. These graduated steps to introduction should always be supervised by a human adult, and leashing the dog provides an added degree of security. I don’t recommend leashing, or worse, holding the cat, as a panicked cat being restrained can do quite a bit of damage.

Watch the animal’s signals carefully, and if one or the other is not interested in interacting with the other, keep the session short and try again later. You’ll want to be especially careful if one is significantly larger than the other. If either animal seems particularly fearful of the other, or very excitable, or becomes very aroused in the presence of the other, or anything about their interactions makes you uncomfortable, discontinue introductions and engage a qualified behavior consultant to help you.

While most dogs tend to be oblivious to having people and others around while they’re eating and toileting, this is not generally true for cats, so it’s important that the cat has some place he can go to enjoy his meals or potty time in peace. It’s also a great idea to invest in a cat tree or provide other high perches for the cat so he has some place to retreat to when he needs his space.

THK: What should pet owners do before bringing home a new dog or cat?

BD: Understand that integrating new pets into the household is a process, and make sure you have the time and patience to go about it in the right way. Try to choose a time when your life is least hectic and you have the time and attention to give to working with your pets. Getting a new dog or cat around the holidays, or just prior to going on vacation can be a doomed endeavor. Pick a time when the home is quiet and you don’t have a lot of distractions so you’re able to focus on making sure everyone is getting along.

Have all the supplies you need on hand before your new family member comes home. This includes proper food, treats, toys, bedding, crate, and equipment for a dog. For a cat, you’ll want to make sure you have enough litter boxes, litter, cat condos, toys, food, and treats. Make sure you have a plan for keeping the new kid separated safely from the resident pets.

THK: What are some common problems you see when it comes to dogs and cats in the same house?

BD: One problem I see quite frequently is the owner allowing one pet to annoy the other without intervening, expecting that they will work things out on their own. You see lots of not-so-cute videos like this on Facebook and YouTube. Not all animals have the kind of social skills necessary to negotiate these situations, and some can become so stressed by the other that bad things can happen. This is true of both dogs and cats. Some cats seem to get a big kick out of teasing their canine housemates, swatting their tails, playing with their food, dashing out and startling them as they go by (the “ambush”), to name a few. Some dogs seem to take this with good humor and recover well, but some really don’t appreciate it. Some dogs seem to enjoy startling the cat, chasing the cat a bit, raiding the litter box, and eating the cat’s food. If one’s behavior seems to be upsetting the other, find a way to curtail it through management of the environment.

Dogs raiding the litter box is a huge problem. It’s not healthful for the dogs and can cause emotional problems for the cats, who seem to prefer their privacy. Make sure the cat box is located somewhere the cat has ready access but the dog does not. One of my clients placed a litter box in a powder room and installed a cat flap in the powder room door. As long as the door was kept shut, the cat had her privacy, as the dog was too big to enter.

While dogs are usually fed on a schedule, cats tend to be free-fed, so making sure the dog has no access to the cat food is very important. Locate the cat food bowl where the dog can’t get to it—but not in the same place as the litter box.

THK: Can these problems be overcome?

BD: Almost all these relationship issues can be overcome by reasonable management. Always make sure the cat has high perches and other safe places to rest away from the dogs. Make sure the cat’s food and litter aren’t available to the dog. All the pets should have their own toys and bedding, and there should be enough play things and resting places so as to head off conflicts. Making sure you have individual time to devote to each pet also heads off any problems where one may get frustrated about not getting enough of your attention.

THK: Have you seen any pattern in terms of age of pets when trying to integrate a dog or cat? What about in terms of the number of pets in the household?

BD: Really, it’s all about the individual animal. Generally, the younger the dog or cat, the more easily he can adapt to a new living situation and new housemates, particularly if they’re all benign, friendly, and welcoming. I’ve seen adult cats and dogs adopted from a shelter basically plopped down in a home with other cats, dogs, and various others and get along just fine. In other situations, problem relationships never seem to get completely worked out.

THK: If a problem between a dog or cat arises, how long can it take to resolve?

BD: This is going to vary from situation to situation, and there are so many factors involved, including the age, temperament, and breed of the pets, their history living together, health status, experience level of the owners, and tons of others. These situations can sometimes be tricky to sort out for the people living them, so always a good idea to seek help from a qualified consultant. Certainly, if one or more pets seem to be intent on injuring another, get professional help right away.

THK: Any other tips you’d like to add?

BD: It’s important to remember that our companion animals are intelligent and emotional creatures with their own personalities, preferences, and experiences, so there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Trying to see each situation through their eyes can help you gain some perspective about what’s going on and lead you to a good resolution.

I also recommend that you don’t try anything you see on TV animal training programs, as many of them are built to create conflict, not resolve it. Even the best of them are addressing the specific issues of the animals featured, and what you see on the program may not be a good solution for your animal family members.

Similarly, be careful about “tip sheets” and other quick-fix stuff you read on the Internet, or hear from your cousin, your hairdresser, or others who don’t have any more expertise in animal behavior than you do. There are many qualified consultants who work with both dogs and cats, so if you encounter a situation you’re not able to resolve on your own, an animal behavior consultant can usually help get you on track.

Well, you see? Dogs and cats can get along. So if you’re thinking about integrating some species of the feline and canine variety, keep these tips in mind and consult an expert if necessary.

Meet the Author: Jessica Peralta

Jessica Peralta has been a journalist for more than 15 years and an animal lover all her life. She has had dogs, cats, birds, turtles, fish, frogs, and rabbits. Her current children are a German shepherd named Guinness and a black kitten named Riot (and he lives up to that name). It’s because of her love for animals that she focused her journalistic career to the world of holistic animal care and pet nutrition. In between keeping Riot and Guinness out of mischief, she’s constantly learning about all the ways she can make them healthier and happier.

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