Updated: Feb 1, 2021
We rescued our two cats, Othello & Jackson, in summer 2017. Both had had a pretty rough start to life; Othello arrived absolutely flea ridden after being dumped in a bag on the side of the road, and Jackson had been found down a drain at three weeks old. While Othello settled in right away, exhibiting more puppy like behaviour than that of a cat, Jackson was extremely wary and would often hide in the most inventive of places to keep away from us (including up the chimney; he's lucky it was summer).
While Jackson gradually came round to us, he remained pretty aloof, preferring to spend his days wandering in the wilderness and only approaching us if we remained Very. Calm. And. Still. Othello on the other hand would cuddle up to anyone who would have him.
We knew that we wanted to add a puppy to our family, and spent two years going back and forth between various rescue centres trying to find our new addition, however finding a dog who was suitable for our cats proved pretty difficult. We researched the best dog breeds to have around cats, which included some of the following:
- Golden Retrievers
- Bassett Hounds
- Bichon Frise
- King Charles Spaniels
As well as researching dogs with low prey drives, such as Dalmatians, Vizslas and Boxers. A lot of our research suggested that most dog breeds could learn to get along with cats if brought up with them from a young age, especially if the cat lived in the home first, but we didn't want to take any risks.
We knew we wanted a large(ish) dog that would have a lot of endurance and would also get on well with other dogs, so we decided on either a Dalmatian or a Labradoodle. We were still very keen to rescue a dog if possible (and still fully advocate exploring this route as your first port of call when looking for a new pet), but in the end we found a very reputable local breeder that had just had a litter of Dalmatians so decided to go and 'have a look'. Obviously, we left a few hours later having chosen a brother for our cats to warmly welcome in a few weeks time.
To prepare Othello and Jackson for the new arrival, we started off by swapping scents between them and our puppy while our puppy was still with his litter. We did this by leaving blankets that our puppy had slept on in areas of the house that our cats frequented the most, and sending the breeder blankets from the cat's bed (previously known as our bed) so they could familiarise themselves with each other's scent. We put boundaries in place so that our cats wouldn't feel pushed out, such as Elton not being allowed upstairs for the first few months (also helpful when toilet training) so they still had their own private space, and ensuring that Elton knew the cats were above him in our 'pack'.
When we brought Elton home, we followed all of our own rules to a tee. We introduced them gradually through a glass door, leaving their food on opposite sides so that they would associate each other with something positive, and not allowing Elton to infringe on the cat's space. While I'm sure all of this helped in some capacity, at the end of the day, a puppy and a cat communicate in very different ways. The cats weren't necessarily scared of Elton, and Elton wasn't aggressive to the cats - the cats just didn't want to play and the dog did.
I'm not going to pretend that socialising the three of them together was a quick process. For the first six months, Elton lived downstairs and the cats lived upstairs. We gave in to the cats way too much and kept their food and water in the upstairs bathroom and went so far as to put a cat flap in the bathroom window so they never had to walk downstairs. In trying to provide them with their own space, we were just extending the problem, because if they never came face to face with Elton even for a second, how could they get used to him? We started to put the cats in a large dog crate in the living room and did some concentration training with Elton, rewarding him whenever he ignored the cats, but the main hurdle was getting the cats used to Elton, not the other way around. As long as they didn't run for their lives the moment he glanced at them, he didn't bother with them.
After a while, we decided to progress to moving the cat's food back downstairs and into a room where Elton didn't have access. The more they saw each other around, the quicker the cats learned not to run from him and he learned not to chase them. By this point, he was literally 10 x the size of them, so I got the impression they wished they'd conquered this problem when he was a mere 8kg. It wasn't long before we blocked off the cat flap in the bathroom window, meaning if the cats wanted to come inside, they'd have to risk facing Elton. Othello took it in his stride and pretty quickly, he and Elton were getting along very well. Elton absolutely worships the ground that Othello works on and Othello treats Elton like some sort of peasant staff that we employed to observe him from a distance.
Jackson remained a tougher nut to crack, but he will tolerate being in the same room as Elton now (providing Elton doesn't dare to breathe). We aren't holding our breath for much more progress because Jackson is still terrified if Sophie or I move too quickly in his presence, despite having lived with us for four years, during which we have never once lunged to chase him around the house and eat him. We still make sure Jackson has plenty of private space where Elton can't bother him, and will occasionally treat him to the odd exit or entrance via the bathroom window if he's been good. I think in some cases, a peaceful tolerance is the best you can expect.
These are our top tips for trying to create a harmonious home if you're planning to introduce your cats to a dog:
- If possible, try to get a breed of dog that is known to be good with cats. Many Sighthounds, such as Greyhounds, Lurchers and Ridgebacks, as well breeds like Huskies, have a very strong prey drive that can prove almost impossible to train out of them. This is obviously not to say that none of these dogs have ever lived with a cat in the history of the universe, but if you choose a dog breed with a lesser hunt instinct, it will be easier to train them not to chase your cat.
- Swap scents before your dog arrives; ask your breeder or rescue centre for one of your dog's blankets and swap it for one of your cat's.
- Introduce them slowly. Your dog is in a new environment and has a lot to digest as it is, and your cat is most probably pretty uncomfortable with having an intruder in their home. Try and stick to brief glances through a window at first. Baby gates also really help with this, and you can get baby gates with built-in cat flaps for later down the line.
- Ensure your cats have space for themselves. The last thing they are going to want is to be left with nowhere for them to relax without being fearful a bouncy and curious dog is going to appear from out of nowhere! Jackson has a little den under our bed and Othello is comfortable in his cat box, but try and isolate the area of your home where your cats relax the most and make that a dog-free zone for the time being.
- Reward your dog for being calm whenever they see your cat. We would put Elton on the leas whenever a cat entered the room and reward him with a treat and lots of praise every time he looked away from the cat. Our aim was to make the cat as uninteresting as possible for him.
- Make your dog think they are below the cats in your household pack ranking. If you can, visibly feed your cat first, let your cat sit higher than your dog, greet your cat before you greet your dog - all of these are easier said than done but the sooner your dog learns to respect your cat, the quicker they will get along.
- It may not seem like it, but your cat WILL get used to it in their own time. We were absolutely terrified that Jackson would just move out so went out of our way to appease him but seriously, he is the most anxious cat you can imagine and if he can learn to live with an enormous Dalmatian then so will your cat. Don't get me wrong, he would still rather Elton didn't exist, but he will tolerate being around him. Othello is a much more confident cat than Jackson and it still took him probably a year to choose to sit in the same room as him but now they're the best of acquaintances!
- If you have adopted or bought a puppy, give them time! Everything is exciting to them at this time, including your cat. Elton started to calm down around other dogs when he got to around 15 months old, and it was around then that he also stopped getting so excited about the cats. It works both ways and your dog doesn't mean to be scary, they are just curious.