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NOTE: This article is intended for otherwise well-socialized animals. If your dog seems non-playfully aggressive toward the cat, or if the cat seems predatory toward your smaller dog, you should seek out specialized advice. If you're in the Denver Metro area, please contact FetchMasters for assistance.
Regardless of who was in the home first, introducing cats and dogs can require both management and patience. While they ultimately will work out their own brand of friendship, our job is to make sure nobody gets hurt in the process.
When I adopted Sophie from Petco (which was acting as an intermediary for the Aurora Animal Shelter near Denver, Colorado), the lady helping me fill out the paperwork mentioned the kitten had been rejected by a another prospective adopter.
Evidently, a lady had brought in two dogs to meet the cat. But when the cat threw a hissy-fit, the lady decided to keep shopping. She was looking for a cat that was already comfortable around dogs. However, bringing two dogs into Petco and letting them both sniff at a scared, caged kitten is a little much to ask of any cat. Besides, there are a lot of cats out there in need of a family, and such issues are usually easy to work out.
It was my wife's birthday, So I threw caution to the wind, and decided that a little feline fearfulness shouldn't keep her from having her birthday present and the kitten from having a mommy.
My children and I brought Sophie home and introduced her to Alie, our 18-month-old Labrador Retriever. Suffice it to say it is awe-inspiring to watch a four pound kitten chase a 65 pound hunting dog under the coffee table and dare it to come out.
As you can see by the picture, we're now one big happy zoo. And if you happen to find yourself in a similar situation, here are some steps you can take to make your zoo happy too.
I recommend using Soft Claws / Soft Paws Nail Caps for Cats or some similar product. The claw caps are basically super-glued on, and they eventually will fall off. So it is important to check your cat's claw caps every so often and replace them as necessary. This leaves cats free to exercise their clawing instinct without damaging anything or any-doggy.
I recommend putting the dog and cat in separate crates for a few hours each day. Their crates should be positioned so they can clearly see, smell and hear each other. Start with the crates a few feet apart, and move them a little closer together each day. At this stage, the only interaction they should be allowed to have is staring at one another from their crates.
Whenever they are not in separate crates, they should be kept in separate rooms. As they become accustomed to this routine, as well as the sight, sound and smell of each other, desensitization (i.e. boredom) will start to set in.
After a few days, when the interest and agitation levels decrease, you can allow just one of the animals to be out of the crate at a time. Place the crated animal in a central location, and allow the non-crated animal to freely move around the other animal's crate if it wants to. After a few days, each animal will start to become desensitized to the movement of the other. In this stage of the training, do not allow the dog to bark at the crated cat.
If the cat approaches the dog, keep good control of the leash and talk softly and slowly to your dog to keep it calm. If you sense any imminent quick movements from the dog, preempt them with an "eh eh." The key is to keep the dog as calm as possible and let the cat explore. You can also walk the dog up to the cat, but if you sense the cat is getting alarmed, move back. It's important to be patient and let the cat's confidence grow, while allowing the dog to learn that it must be gentle and respect the cat's space.
Depending on the severity of the cat's fearfulness, this process may take up to a few weeks. But if you are patient and manage the interactions diligently, the animals eventually should calm down enough that they both can be allowed to roam freely again.
As they grow more comfortable with each other, life becomes a lot more fun. Our kitten and Lab are now best friends and play together constantly. We even put them in the crate together to keep each other company from time to time.