By: Abbey Johnson and Chelsea Murray, Special Thanks to Christy Robertson for the media contributions
Thinking about bringing a new kitten or cat into your home can be so exciting! You likely have dreams of your new addition and your current animals hitting it off immediately, then successfully integrating it into your family dynamic and routine quickly. While this sometimes can be the case, it’s very important not to leave this possibility up to chance as there are also lots of possibilities that things could start off on the wrong foot, too. To make sure that you DO get that happy, healthy dynamic you’re dreaming of, we need to take several factors into consideration as well as prepare yourself and your current animals for successful integration.
Check-In On Your Expectations
Visualizing what you want your animals’ relationships to look like can be a great place to start off on the right foot when bringing a new cat home. But, before even thinking about your current animals, you first need to think about your own ability to manage a multi-species household. With adding a new cat into the mix, not only will the beginning integrations take a lot of time and effort, but the following years will too! Make sure that you’re willing to divide up your time and resources further to accommodate another animal long-term.
Once you’ve decided that you’re ready for the additional commitment, it’s also important to consider the current animals in your home and their suitability to accept a new member into the household. Through this entire process, your current established animals also need to be a priority, so make sure to consider whether accepting a new animal into the home would be too stressful or too disrupting to their daily routine for them to continue to have a good quality of life. For example, adult dogs with high prey drive outside who have not yet been socialized with indoor cats may not be a suitable home for a new kitten. And for our well-socialized dogs, adding in an adopted adult cat who has not been around dogs could be too overwhelming for the cat. While there are definitely means to help your new addition feel more comfortable and help your resident animals learn appropriate ways to live in the same home, sometimes these dynamics just end up not being the best fit and it may be better to hold off on bringing that new pet home for a while for your current pet’s sake.
Preparations for Bringing the New Cat Home
Once you’ve made a decision on a new cat and put consideration into the dynamic you realistically can expect in your new household, it’s time to get prepared! The best place to start for success is to invest in preparing a good management setup. This includes baby gates to separate different rooms/areas of the house (ones with cat doors), incorporating vertical spaces and safe boxes (for cats) to allow them to get away from the dog when needed, crates, playpens, a good tethering system, etc so that you have several means of keeping your new cat separate from the current animals, or connected to you when needed.
You should also be investing time into brushing up on training with your current animals as well to make sure that their life skills are sharp and ready to go when you need them, especially any skills related to impulse control, relaxation, and redirection tactics. Lastly, make sure that you’ve done your research (which it looks like you’re doing if you’re reading this). It’s important to be well versed in reading subtle body language cues of stress between all the animals in your home, as well as brushing up on learning the skills you will need to train and redirect your new cat or resident dogs to help them integrate more smoothly like positive interrupters, hand targets, and station/mat training. The more you prepare, the less stress you will feel down the road!
Bringing the New Cat Into the Home
It’s no secret that bringing home a new kitten is a challenge in itself, so adding in the dynamic of integrating them into your household with already-established animals can feel very intimidating. Luckily, you can keep stress levels down with your adult animals while helping the new addition integrate into the home gradually by using a concept called management. This will become your best friend throughout the early stages in general, but especially so when starting to build a positive relationship with your current animals. It can be defined as really any equipment or tactic that you use to prevent unwanted behavior from occurring. Preventing your new addition or resident animals from practicing what you don’t want (like resident dogs chasing your cats or your cat feeling scared and defensive and swatting at a dog) only makes showing them what you do want that much easier, since there won’t be a history of unwanted behavior to “unravel” first.
For the first few days (or weeks - depending on your dog), we want to allow almost complete separation to allow the dogs time to get used to the smell and sounds of the new cat and for the cat to decompress and find some comfort in their new home. Additions of pheromones like Feliway and Adaptil can help reduce signs of stress and aid in the integration. Work in short training sessions (3-5 minutes), where you can allow the resident dogs to see the new kitten. With a baby gate in between the dogs and cat and direct supervision, you can help the resident dogs relax and disengage. Reward your dogs for attention to you to help the dogs learn to look away from the kitten. You can also work on settle on a mat, to help the dogs learn how to relax in the proximity of the cat. If you have two household members, one can be playing with the cat during this time to help increase the distraction of the cat as the dog’s skills improve. In these early stages, it is also helpful for all animals to have plenty of “alternative” activities to do so that they don’t become too fixated on one another. This can include training and play with humans and enrichment items waiting and prepped to give as a more appropriate form of expending their energy. These items can be anything from a snuffle mat with their kibble hidden in it or stuffed enrichment items like Kongs or LickiMats. Give these items while your new addition is physically separated from the established animals by an x-pen while you supervise or a completely closed door. It may help the established animals to get a special treat at the same time as well so they learn good things happen in proximity! It’s important to continue giving your existing animals plenty of exercise, enrichment, and attention even while the newcomer is around.
Increasing Interactions with Supervision
As you continue to work with the barriers, you should begin to see your resident dogs relax. Their ability to watch you, disengage from the cat, and remain calm on their mats should improve. You should begin to see fewer stress signals and body language should loosen/soften and become less alert. As it becomes easy for the dogs to ignore the new cat even with motion, you can begin to allow more interactions (still with management and supervision). You can allow the dogs and cat into the same space. Management like a leash attached to you or tethered in one stationary spot can help give the allure of more freedom (when compared to a gate), while still having a safety net there. It also allows the cat to approach and retreat while you reward the dog for calm and stationary behavior. If you have any concerns about your dog’s behavior as you decrease physical barriers, using a basket muzzle can be helpful to ensure no undesired nipping/biting behavior happens (be sure to have previously trained this behavior with your dog so there is no additional stress added during this introduction).
As all parties involved do well you can then transition to supervised off-leash relaxation time, like the cat snuggling with you and the dogs at your feet. You can also work on training your dog while the cat moves around the space (on a leash at first, and then off-leash as the dog shows you reliability in their behaviors). Asking your dog to disengage from the cat and rewarding that behavior is a great way to prevent pestering and rowdy behavior and reduce the excitement the cat can provide.
It’s crucial to allow the animals to acclimate to each other by sharing limited space in this way while preventing undesired behaviors and teaching your established animals that the new presence is not a threat and how to relax in proximity. Social skills and boundaries need to be introduced slowly and reinforced generously. During this slow introduction, allow the animal’s stress signaling and offered behaviors to guide you. When they are successful that is when we continue to allow more interactions and we observe carefully to know when to end a session and make the next session easier. If your dog can easily look at you on their own and when cued, move away from the cat, and remain relaxed on a mat with the cat around then you can begin to decrease management (closed door, to x-pen, to leash tether or holding, to freedom). If you notice any stress like staring/fixation, quick movements towards the cat, vocalizations, stiff body language, or inability to easily respond to cues then you have gone too fast and need to go back a level or two in training (from leash back to x-pen or back to the full barrier).
Below are a few video examples of training exercises. You can work on all of these exercises starting with a closed door, then x-pen, then leashes, and then freedom. The amount of time it takes to work through all of these and get to house co-habitation varies on a case-by-case basis. Moving slowly will ensure that only positive associations are made, and desired behaviors are learned.
[Video above: Here you can see the dog is rewarded for disengaging from the cat when he offers it on his own and when asked. The dog was previously exercised to help improve calm behavior and is still quite alert to the cat's presence but does well showing desired behavior voluntarily and when cued. In addition to praising and rewarding desired behaviors, the owner is also displaying calm body language and calming signals (yawning and deep breaths) to help communicate relaxation to the dog. This dog has previously been around other cats, but this is a new addition. If your dog was unable to respond to your cues or disengage on its own then you will need to go back a step and put the x-pen back in between the cat or use a leash on the dog to prevent the dog from chasing the cat.]
[ Video Above: Here is another great way to work with the dog on ignoring the cat and building positive associations by engaging in a trick or manners training session. Here the dog is asked to do a series of known tricks for reinforcement. Afterward, the owner helps bring the energy level back down again by sitting and displaying calming signals to the dog (yawning and deep breaths).]
[Video Above: It is also a good idea to reward four on the floor and calm behavior while you interact with the cat. Think of how you will engage with the cat in your routine like picking the cat up, putting the cat down, encouraging scratching, petting, and playing. Reward your dog for calm behavior and remaining on the ground while you engage with the cat. If your dog were to show any increases in excitement during this phase, go back to the separation with the baby gate.]
What to Do When Management Fails
We’ve established in this blog already that management is your best friend when integrating a new cat into the home. However, there is a downside to management. We are all human and humans make mistakes, so occasionally your management may fail. You may not have latched your baby gate properly and your dog or puppy comes busting through into the cat room, you may drop your dog’s leash by accident while they’re over-aroused and trying to inappropriately interact, or any other numbers of scenarios in which an “oops” moment will happen. Knowing that this is likely to happen to you at least once in the process, try to get ahead of this issue by teaching some behaviors that will help you in these scenarios.
Teaching your dogs a positive interrupter and “touch” cue to come to target your hand will be very useful in getting them to return to you when they get loose in a situation where they shouldn’t be. It’s a great way to both ask your dog to disengage from the other animal(s) as well as encourage them to come back to you when you call.
When the situation has escalated to the point that your dog or puppy will not listen to a “touch” cue and come back to you, you have a couple of other options to try as well. As a precaution, set up several “treat stations” around the home with shelf-stable treats in containers. Sometimes just taking a few treats and tossing them on the floor away from the animal you’re asking your new dog to disengage from will do the trick to separate them and allow you to regain control of the situation. It also may be worth trying to initiate a “chase game” especially with puppies or energetic, playful dogs to get them to return to you. Making silly noises and running away from your dog playfully will usually catch their attention quickly, and they should be inclined to chase after you and engage in some play before you can separate them from the situation. Being more exciting than the other distractions can be a really easy solution to separate animals!
Training With Your New Household Dynamic
Now that you have another member in your family, it’s important to understand that your time spent training and working on desirable behaviors with your animals is going to double. You should be spending as much time as you did previously working with your established animals (and yes, this includes cats!), while also adding in additional time to work with your resident dogs. Your first priority in training should be life skills that will contribute to successful integration into the household dynamic and routine. For cats, this includes attention, how to go to a cat tower and relax, and disengaging from the other animals. With your resident dogs, this includes working on attention with distractions, disengaging from the cat, relaxing on a mat in proximity, and calmly spending time in their crate, pen, behind baby gates, etc.
As time goes on and your animals begin to spend more time together, you may also want to consider incorporating some group training into your routine. When working with multiple animals, be sure that you are only working with all the animals at the level of the most inexperienced learner. For example, say you’re working on group stays between two animals. If the established animal can stay for 30 seconds, and the new cat can only stay for 10 seconds, make sure you are catering the training session so that you’re working off of the cat who can only stay for 10 seconds. In these initial training sessions, you may even consider keeping management in place, like a baby gate or x-pen between the cat tower and the dog settle mats.
When training individually, it may benefit your cat to watch the other animals in your home participate in training sessions while behind a barrier at a distance. Additionally, training with positive reinforcement means your dog should find the training very enjoyable. Having the cat in the vicinity behind a barrier while training your resident dogs will help your dogs associate the new cat with the good feelings and fun of training! It will also provide a nice small distraction to your dogs as they work on improving their focus and relaxation skills.
Any time you run into issues incorporating a new cat into a multi-species household and you see chasing, intense staring, or defensive behavior from any animal involved, it’s best to give complete separation and get a professional in as soon as possible. Don’t wait for the situation to go sour, once negative associations between animals have been built, it takes much longer to deconstruct them over addressing issues when they’re still minor and in the beginning stages. Getting professional help as soon as you notice anything going wrong may save you a lot of headaches (and potentially heartache) in the future. When in doubt, hire a pro!