How to Introduce Cats & Dogs: A Step-by-Step Guide

Dogs and cats can be great friends, but the first introductions can be tenuous and stressful for all. Here's how to help everyone get off on the right paw.

Updated January 21, 2024
British Shorthair and Golden Retriever get along

Animal "odd couples" are all over the internet, but did you know that dogs and cats as friends isn't actually so strange? Many households have dogs and cats that not only get along but are best friends! While this isn't always going to be the case, first impressions and how you introduce your cat and dog are critical parts of building a positive relationship. Give these steps a try to help your furry friends start off on the right paw.

Related: Cute Pictures of Dogs & Cats Living Their Best Lives

Learn Dog and Cat Body Language

Before introducing dogs and cats to one another, you should understand basic dog and cat body language. You can "read" their emotions based on body movements and vocalizations. The sooner you notice signs of anxiety, fear, or predatory behavior, the faster you can intervene. Intervening before anything gets out of hand will help your dog and cat be more comfortable with one another and prevent both of them from getting hurt.

Related: 22 Signs Your Cat is Happy

Start By Keeping Everyone Separate, At First

It's important to move at the speed of both animals' comfort levels. The dog may be eager to meet the new kitty while the cat is terrified, or vice versa. Katenna Jones, an Associate Applied Animal Behaviorist, cautions, "The most uncertain one needs to determine the speed of interactions." Often, it's the cat who determines when you move forward, but either way, use this as a general precaution. Don't rush, and be patient.

Dog and cat napping together

1. Give Your Cat and Dog Their Own Spaces

Keep your dog and cat separate at first, both visually and physically. The cat can be behind a closed door in a bedroom or bathroom — somewhere your dog can't get to. To help your cat get more comfortable, prevent your dog from getting too close to the opening at the bottom of the door. You can stuff towels under it or use a draft stop to block access.

2. Make Your Cat Comfortable

Your cat should have a litter box, food and water, toys, elevated spots to enjoy, and a comfortable place to sleep in their little safe place. 

Quick Tip

Don't put their food and water dish next to the litter box as this may deter them from using one or both.

3. Switch Blankets Back and Forth

A trick Jones recommends is having each pet sleep on a blanket. After one night, place each blanket on the other's bedding. Switch them each day so that both get used to the smell of the other mixed in with their own. Do this for a few days or more until neither animal seems uncomfortable with the other's scent. If you observe either a pet avoiding the scent of another's or urinating on it, you may need to contact a behavior professional for help.

4. Give Kitty More Room to Explore

If possible, move your cat to another (larger) safe space in the home. This will allow them to explore new surroundings and get accustomed to another part of the house — `the smells, sights, and sounds. It can be a room with a cat door where they can access their food, water, and litter box or somewhere else in your home that can be closed off. You should preferably have two litter boxes if there's enough room.

Help Your Dog & Cat Feel Safe

Taking baby steps to get to where you're going may seem tedious, but it's important to introduce your dog and cat this way. If you try to introduce them quickly, it could end up taking them significantly longer to get along. 

Kitten playing with dog on sofa

1. Allow the Dog To Get Closer to the Door

Once you feel ready to move forward, and both animals seem to be comfortable, allow the dog to move closer to the door. The dog should be leashed, and the cat can be free behind the door. Move the cat food bowl closer to the door if the cat seems comfortable. Continue to move the dog forward if they aren't fixated on the door.

Need to Know

If either of them doesn't appear ready for this step, go back to the others and continue until they become more welcoming. 

2. Offer Positive Reinforcement

Provide plenty of positive reinforcement for each pet during the sessions, using whatever each pet prefers the most, such as treats, petting, praise, or toys.

3. Get Help, If Possible

It's helpful to have at least one other person who can work with the other animal. If you're by yourself, you could stay with the cat and toss the dog treats under the door.

4. Continue Short Sessions

Continue these sessions for no more than 10 minutes and end before either becomes stressed. You may have to do this for some time until they are comfortable. Jones explains, "You should do these sessions multiple times a day, for as long as it takes. It could even take months, depending on the animals."

5. Allow Your Cat to Explore

When the cat seems comfortable in their space, allow them to start investigating the rest of the home. While the dog is away or securely confined to a room with a chew or a toy, allow the cat to explore wherever they'd like to check out. At first, you should close off some rooms to not overwhelm the cat with too much space too soon. After your cat enjoys some exploration time, encourage them to go back to their safe space with treats or play.

6. Allow Your Dog to Explore

Once your cat is comfortable in other spaces, it's a good time to let the dog explore the cat's room. Secure the cat in another room with plenty of things to enjoy. Remove the cat's food and litter box, and allow the leashed dog to investigate the cat's home for several minutes. Repeat several times until the dog no longer really cares about investigating.

7. Allow Access

You can now allow unsupervised access to the door. Continue as long as everyone is eating and drinking normally, your cat is using the litter box, and neither is fixated on the door.

Allow Short Glimpses

Once your cat and dog both seem to think the door and other spaces are "no big deal" you can move on to letting them see each other for short increments. 

Related: How Dogs & Cats Communicate With Eachother

1. Use Gates or Screens

Keep them separated using baby gates or screens. You can also crate the dog if they're calm, enjoy their crate, and don't appear to be agitated. Give them a bone or a chew toy so they have something to do.

2. Don't Crate Cats

Never crate or restrain the cat, as this will make them feel trapped and exacerbate their anxiety. Dogs are den animals, so they often enjoy a crate, but cats are not and don't appreciate being trapped in tight spaces.

3. Focus on Key Dog Behavior

Control the dog's access to the gate with a leash. You can tether calmer dogs with a leash to a piece of heavy furniture. The person handling the dog should work on rewarding and praising them when the dog is calm and when they look over to you to ask for attention, not when they're fixated on the cat. This will help them associate the cat with something positive and know calm behavior is best around the cat.

4. Reward Calm, Distant Behavior

The goal is to find a spot that is close enough between them that the cat is interested but not so close that they get overly excited. Jones cautions, "You want to ensure the dog stays calm, even if he is friendly, as this can upset the cat." You don't really see cats excitedly prancing around like dogs do.

5. Don't Push Your Cat

Allow your cat to approach the gate, and do not chase them if they run away. Reward them for spending time closer to the gate with delicious treats, but don't push them. Shyer cats will need more time to feel confident approaching the dog. Don't rush the process.

6. Consistently to Use Rewards

During these sessions, continue pairing the interactions with good things like food, treats, a favorite toy, grooming, or petting. Make sure the toy you choose for the dog is one they play calmly with rather than a squeaky toy that makes them hyper.

Related: How to Calm a Dog Down

7. Consider Clicker Training

You can also use clicker training to shape good behavior for both animals.

When to Get Help

There are several scenarios where you should contact a professional to assist you in keeping everyone safe:

  • If the dog strains at the leash and cannot calm down or redirect their attention to you.
  • Aggressive or fearful behavior from either pet at any point.
  • If the cat stops using the litter box.
  • If either of your pets stops eating or drinking.
  • If the cat hides for days at a time.

Do not hesitate to get professional help. If it's your cat that is having a hard time, find someone qualified to work with cats and behavior, like a veterinary behaviorist or a certified cat behavior consultant. The same goes for your dog. If your dog is having a hard time, contact a behavior expert in that field. 

Try Extending Your Cat's and Dog's Time Together

The next steps involve getting the animals even more acclimated to one another. You'll start allowing them to spend longer periods of time together. Allow the cat to move around, and be prepared to intervene if necessary. The cat must be able to move toward or away from the dog when he wants to.

Dog and cat snuggled on a sofa

1. Remove the Gate for Short Sessions

Once they seem calm and relaxed about the process you just went through above, you can remove the gate. Do this for short, controlled sessions of about 10 minutes.

2. Use Leashes

Your dog should be leashed, under control, and able to take their attention off the cat. If they start getting rambunctious, you can crate them for a few minutes while your cat explores. Your cat should be leashed as well if you're concerned about them being aggressive with your dog.

Need to Know

Never hold the cat during these interactions. It can make the cat feel unsafe, and you can get hurt if the cat frantically attempts to escape.

3. Praise and Reward

Continue to praise and reward both pets anytime they move toward or look at each other.

Need to Know

Do not reward them with treats together, especially if your dog has food aggression. 

Exploring Freely, Supervised

Once you feel completely comfortable with their controlled interactions and each seems stress-free, you can make the sessions even longer.

1. Let Go of the Leash

Allow your dog to drag their leash, but be prepared to grab it if you need to. 

Need to Know

Never leave your cat and dog alone together until you're certain they're both comfortable and safe.

2. Continue Increasing the Time

Continue supervising the interactions for the first few weeks, and gradually increase the amount of time they are spending together as they feel comfortable doing so. 

Quick Tip

Continue to separate them when either your pet needs a break, or you can't supervise them.

3. Create a Cat Route

Install vertical spaces for your cat, like cat trees and shelves. Jones likes to instruct owners to "create a cat super highway." This is a series of trees, shelves, and tops of furniture where the cat can move from one room to the next, and the dog can't reach them. This will help your cat feel more at ease and allow both the dog and the cat to have a little space away from one another when needed.

Added Precautions to Take

Before you introduce your dog and cat, there are some precautions you can take to reduce their risk of injuring one another or making one another super uncomfortable. 

Dog and cat funny lying on a white blanket

Cut Your Cat's Nails

Before the introduction, trim your cat's nails. This reduces the risk of serious scratches should the cat feel threatened and try to defend itself. It's a simple yet effective step in preventing potential injuries, especially in the beginning stages of their interaction.

Keep Your Dog on a Leash

During their first few meetings (at least), keep your dog on a leash. This gives you control over the situation and prevents any overly enthusiastic or potentially aggressive behavior from your dog. It also reassures your cat, allowing them to observe and approach your dog at their own pace.

Supervise Their Interactions

Always supervise their interactions, especially in the beginning. Watch their body language closely for signs of stress, fear, or aggression. If either animal seems uncomfortable, it's important to calmly separate them and try again later, gradually increasing the time they spend together as they become more accustomed to each other.

Separate Feeding Areas

To prevent food aggression or competition, feed them in separate areas, especially when they first meet. This helps establish boundaries and reduces tension during mealtime.

Reasons for Concern

Some breeds and dog personalities may not be compatible with cats. Even dogs that have already lived with cats in a former home may not be good with cats in a new home. This doesn't mean that these pairings are impossible, but be aware of the potential for problems. You are likely to have a much higher chance of success if they are introduced to each other as puppies and kittens.

Related: Dogs Breeds Usually Who Like Cats

If they're seniors or approaching old age, they may be less tolerant of other animals due to pain or other medical issues. If you think there could be a medical reason for your pets not getting along, contact your veterinarian for a full check-up.

Go Slow for Success

While the process seems like a lot of work and takes time, allowing your dog and cat to have short, controlled introductions is the best way to create a harmonious household. Cats, in particular, are sensitive to change and their environment, and you should always move at the pace they are comfortable with.

How to Introduce Cats & Dogs: A Step-by-Step Guide