Mind of the Cat: 09/06

You're a committed cat lover. Your new husband prefers dogs. Here's help in creating a happy home.

Sometimes, even though I am a veterinary behaviorist, I am asked about couples therapy. You are probably familiar with the situation. Two humans meet, marry – and then remember that their respective pets have not been formally introduced. Bad enough when this is cat-meet-cat. But cat-meet-dog can be quite a challenge.

Sometimes, it is the dog that stands to lose the most. Some cats are just plain tough. Pair a tough cat with a small dog and there can be serious complications. Safety must be first — dont give the cat the benefit of the doubt.

Most introductions, however, involve minimal physical risk to the dog. It is the cat that must be protected. What to do? Dogs are hunters of small beings. Can they be trusted? Should we even try to teach our cats to trust a member of THAT species?

Assume first that all will go well. Nevertheless, do get those safety measures in place at once. Find a secure place to house the individuals when they are not actually “in therapy.”

To begin, let the newcomer explore the house in peace. If the cat is moving into the dogs home, let him explore while the dog is safely out of sight. Both parties should have ample time to explore, relax and then go back to their confinement areas while the second pet does the exploring. The two will learn about each other through sniffing.

During this pre-introduction period, it may be helpful to introduce your cat to some type of physical restraint. If your cat is fairly placid, then leash and harness training can be used. Practice for 20 minutes each day, offering your cat special pleasures such as play or food while you hold him by his leash.

Some cats will bite any nearby person, leash or not, if they become frightened. If your cat has a tendency to be fearful or aggressive, try a dog crate instead of a leash.

Once both parties are able to explore the house casually, and once restraint or confinement is well tolerated, the real introduction can begin. For the purpose of this discussion, let us assume that we have a normal dog that does not show evidence of aggression toward the cat. An aggressive dog would of course need individual therapy, and the cat would need to be protected until this therapy had been completed.

To begin the introduction process, first get an overview. This may be accomplished by having the pets on either side of a screen door or a secure baby gate. The dog should be held on a leash several feet from the barrier so he cannot lunge. A person should stay close to the barrier to be sure that the cat does not try to clear it.


Hopefully, the two will show curiosity. They may approach each other calmly, sniffing to learn more. The dog may gently wag his tail or play-bow. The cat may chirp or rub the barrier himself. If the two pets are curious and willing to approach the barrier, then couples therapy may begin. Start with both pets on leashes (or your cat in the crate) at opposite sides of a good-sized room. One person in the household should be responsible for each pet. This handler would keep the attention of his or her pet. Food, play or brushing may be used to keep the pets from spending too much time watching one another.

Every day, spend 20 to 40 minutes at a comfortable distance. Gradually move the two closer to one another. Continue to keep their attention on pleasant diversions such as food, but allow longer glances. Watch body language to confirm that they are exhibiting friendly gestures.

Next, add some changes to the sessions. You might play more actively with your cat, making sure that the dog does not become overly excited. Try to walk the dog past the cat several times, watching for any hissing or nervous retreat.

Each session should be used to confirm that there is no evidence of aggression or undue fear in response to common activities. Should there be any concern, your veterinarian or a behaviorist should be consulted. If all continues to go well, you may be ready to allow the pets to sniff each other.

Dont try to rush the process. You must avoid having the pair engage in a chase-and-flee scene. The fear and aggression that are reinforced by such a cycle can be quite difficult to reverse. And remember: Dogs are predators and cats can run quickly. So until the relationship has been cemented, the pair should be separated when you leave the house.