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Dogs and Cats: Overcoming the Myth

For me, there has only been a very short portion of my life when I did not have both cats and dogs living together in my home.  I can also say, I have never seen a dog attack a cat, in my own home.  I don’t think I am a magician or a “whisperer” I just think that the myth is quite a bit off…

First of all some dog breeds are more drive-y than others; they are bred and raised to chase and catch small, fast moving animals, and cats fit that description.  It isn’t often that a dog is specifically going for the other animal because it is a cat, but rather because it is a small, fast moving animal.  These breeds will of course make the relationship a bit more challenging, but it is still not impossible if you are committed to working on it!

When first introducing a dog and cat it can be a good idea to have the cat in a plastic crate where he is safe and can’t scratch through the bars.  We are trying to keep the cat and the dog safe, remember that cats can harm dogs too, it doesn’t only go one way!  Next I would say that it is unfair to test a declawed cat with a dog.  The cat has no way to defend itself and it also will have a harder time getting away, as jumping and grabbing onto things are much harder for declawed cats.  Of course I think that declawing is completely inhumane and unacceptable, if you happen to have a rescue who was declawed before you got him, it might be best to only have him around dogs who you know to be good with cats.

I also want to be sure there are plenty of places the cat can jump up to, to get away from the dog.  Depending on the size of the dog this will be more or less difficult; if you have small dog, having some high shelves, or a cat tree will work, but if you have a bigger, more agile dog, you might need to be sure there is higher ground that only the cat can get to.  you can do this by buying some shelves and lining them with carpet so the cat can jump up to them.

Another good tool for the introduction is a Thundershirt.  I find the Thundershirt to be very effective for dogs being introduced to new animals.  I also like Rescue Remedy and Pet Natural’s of Vermont Calming biscuits for both dogs and cats.  Don’t try to hold your cat because when he decides he wants to get away, he needs to be able to do so and he could scratch or harm you in the process.

Once you have gotten over the initial introduction, you will still want to make sure you supervise the dog and cat while they are together, and separate them when you leave.  I like to keep a pot of water handy because this will safely break up a fight if one should occur between the dog and cat, and while it might make your floor wet, it will do no other damage.  Another option is to have a Pet Corrector handy.  These are powerful air cans that make a loud and startling noise and can break up a fight.  Please do not point the Pet Corrector at your pets-ever.

If your dog is having trouble with your cat then I like to use a clicker to help the situation.  If your dog barks at or lunges at your cat then I would start by warming up the clicker (see: What Is Clicker Training?).

Next I would keep the dog and cat at a safe distance, even with a baby gate between them if you need it for safety.  You want your dog to be counter conditioned and desesnsitzed to your cat.  Desensitization happens by exposing the dog to the cat in very small, non threatening ways, so distance and gates, or even a leash can help with this.  Counter conditioning is the good following the bad; so for your dog the cat is the bad, choose her favorite treat to be the good, and anytime your dog looks at the cat and doesn’t lunge, bark or do something naughty, click and treat!  The tasty food treats should come quickly in the beginning.  Little by little you can allow the dog to look at the cat for longer periods before earning the click and treat.  If you happen to push it a little too far and your dog does react, then take a break and try again later.  We want the dog to learn that the presence of the cat earns her treats, but only if she behaves.

You could also teach your dog cues such as “leave it” and “stay” and then add the cat to these cues as a distraction.  We of course want to teach new behaviors with no distractions, and then slowly add them in, so work slowly up to being able to do these things with distractions, and eventually your cat.

Dogs often make their own decisions if not helped out with the process, and sometimes they make the wrong choices!  By teaching them what you actually want: a stay or a leave it, they can actually understand the behavior you are looking for, making it much more likely they will listen.  After all your dog can’t be expected to “stay” away from the cat, or “leave it” to the cat if she has never been taught these things!

I have never had problems with cats and dogs living in harmony together, and I truly don’t believe it is because I am special, I believe it because I take some time to understand both dogs and cats, and their needs, and I do my best to provide that.  Dogs need to be shown what we are looking for, otherwise they tend to bark, jump, lunge and play; they are dogs, it’s what they do and one of the reasons we love them!  But cats don’t love this sort of behavior, especially from an animal that tends to be much bigger than them.  Cats need to be provided with a safe and easy escape, because if they have the escape they will likely use it, but if they have to fight the dog, they will do so, and trust me, sometimes the dog is the one who needs a trip to the vet after these interactions!  If you simply teach your dog how to behave around your cats, and provide your cats with safety; you will likely see your dogs and cats can live harmoniously together.

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