Ask Elizabeth: April 2013

Q. A friend has had two cats for several years and will be bringing in a service dog for a family member. My friend is looking for the best way to handle the situation. One concern is that the cats may run away. Can you advise her on how to handle this adjustment as smoothly as possible?

A. First, I think it is great that your friend is taking advantage of the joy that a service dog can bring into people’s lives, and I want to give a shout out to my dedicated canine friends and the wonderful people who work so hard to make their mission possible. These dogs are awesome and are, for the most part, very carefully screened with respect to behavior, so I doubt there will be any problems with the dog having difficulty with the cats. It wouldn’t hurt, however, to speak with the foundation providing the dog to see if it has advice regarding the introduction.

With respect to the kitties’ adjusting to their new housemate, I would recommend that she first make sure everyone’s nails have been trimmed to minimize the possibility of the kitties injuring the dog. Sharp cat nails can be very damaging to a dog’s face, particularly to a dog’s eyes. We don’t want the service dog needing a service dog! The other issue is the possibility of my feline friends running away. Here at the Feline Health Center, we highly recommend keeping cats indoors. If the kitties are kept indoors, they can’t run away!

To make the introduction less emotionally stressful for her cats, I suggest your friend obtain a piece of material or another object with the dog’s scent on it before the introduction and put it in the house, so that the kitties can become accustomed to this new scent. After allowing several days to a week for this acclimation, she can consider their actually meeting.

I would recommend having the dog on a leash during introductions, so that your friend can control the situation. If possible, making the introduction through a barrier, such as a screen door or baby gate, allows visual and olfactory contact and may minimize stress to the cats. It is also important that she provide an escape route in case they feel threatened — cornered kitties are dangerous kitties. A means to get away can be as simple as a path to another room or a perching site such as a kitty condo or counter.

It’s best to allow the cats to approach the dog and provide positive enforcement, such as praise and treats, for appropriate interaction. Maintaining a calm demeanor in terms of body position and tone of voice is also important. Both cats and dogs can sense and feed off an owner’s tension. If your friend senses her kitties are tense, call it a day, and remove the dog from their area so they can recover their composure and relax.

The kitties may just want to observe their new friend from a distance for a while, and this is OK. She should be sure they have access to their food, water and litter pan without having to travel through an area in which they may feel threatened by the dog. She should also spend a lot of quality time with her kitties to provide emotional support. The critical issue is to keep things positive and safe for all involved. Your friend should not get between the cats and the dog if the cats become agitated, as she may end up being bitten or scratched, and we don’t want that happening.

I think that, with patience, your friend can make this transition without too much trouble, but the time this may take can vary considerably, depending upon the individual. If these suggestions are not successful, your friend may want to consider consulting a veterinary behaviorist, who may recommend other tactics, such as the use of synthetic feline hormones that tend to calm kitties, or in very extreme cases, medications that may be used to calm frantic felines.

— Best regards, Elizabeth