DEAR DR. FOX:
My boyfriend and I are getting ready to move in together (into a new-to-us home). We each have a pet: I have a 7-year-old formerly feral cat, and he has a 2-year-old golden retriever mix from the pound. Both pets are extremely important to us.
My cat can be grumpy. She loves me and she loves my boyfriend, but it takes awhile for her to warm up to most people; and forget about dogs. She’s met a few in her life, but it usually ends up with her hiding in various places and not showing her face for hours.
The dog is wonderful. She’s sweet and well-trained, but she has no experience with cats, and she’s very energetic.
I’m nervous about how to introduce them. I’d really like these soon-to-be sisters to get along. My worst nightmare would be that the cat ends up spending her whole life in the basement, trying to keep away from the dog. (We are designating the basement as a cat-only zone, complete with a cat-sized entrance, to ensure that she feels safe.) Is there anything we can do to make sure our pets like each other? Thank you so much!
E.P., Mission, KS
First, I trust that your cat is a good judge of character. That she gets on with your significant other is an important test!
Hoping that you have several days before the interspecies co-habitation commences:
- Have your boyfriend bring over a blanket or towel that his dog has been sleeping on for a week and switch it for one your cat has been sleeping on. This way the animals will get to know each other’s scent. Also switch grooming brushes.
- Have a tape recording of the dog’s barks and play it occasionally at low volume for the cat.
- Your cat-only basement safe-zone may work but she may hide there for ever when the dog is in the house. Steps to take below may help avoid this. Be sure there is no place down there where she may get trapped between wall and pipes because you will have to bring her up to spend time with the dog and overcome her fear. Set up a baby-gate with sufficient space beneath it for your cat to slip under so she can get to her litter box. Otherwise the dog may start cleaning out the litter box.
- You may want to set up a separate feeding and drinking area temporarily for your cat in a ‘safe room’; with a similar gate set-up to keep the dog out if you are not using the basement for this purpose.
- If your cat is not too spooked, leave her drinking water in the usual place ( presumably upstairs) and with the dog’s water bowl next to it. Eventually they could share the same water bowl.
- Initially, after the dog has been fed ( and let the cat see this), restrain the dog when it is time to feed the cat in her usual place upstairs. If you opt for basement-feeding and litter box for the cat she may prefer to start living down there.
- Keep the dog on a leash when she first comes in to your home. The cat will probably hiss and run away. Putting a couple of drops of essential oil of lavender on your cat’s neck prior to this first introduction may have some calming effect.
- It is debatable if one should allow the cat to run away and hide rather than facing up to the dog while being held in your arms (protected by a padded coat) or in a harness and leash or in a wire crate so she can see the dog but not flee. This is ‘total immersion.’
- My choice would be over a week-end before dog and boyfriend move in, ( ideally the next long weekend) keep the cat in the same room, one way or another—and you humans be calm—with the dog leashed but allowed to sniff around and settle down. Groom and pet her and give her treats. Ditto your cat if she is not too out of her mind. Maybe put on some music or watch TV. Then your boyfriend should leave with the dog and come back after 2-3 hours for another session and more through the weekend.
Best wishes to all of you and consider having a video camera on hand to record this for internet posterity! Cats and dogs do not have an innate animosity so much as cats have an instinctual, self-protective fear of larger animals and their flight response triggers the dogs’ chase-reaction. Our ex-feral cat Mr. Mark Twain chooses to go into threat-attack mode when ever a friend comes over with his huge black Labrador who would never hurt a fly. Once these innate reactions are defused, cats and dogs can be buddies for life. One cat I know of became a seeing-eye guide for her blind canine companion!