We’ve all seen the cartoons–dogs chasing cats, cats outwitting dogs. And the phrase “fight like cats and dogs” had to come from somewhere. But what’s the truth behind the tropes? Are canines and felines really sworn enemies–or can they live in harmony?
According to the American Pet Products Association, 29% of American households own both cats and dogs, which suggests that cats and dogs do successfully coexist. But the relationships between individual animals are complex and depend on many factors. Let’s begin by examining the basic nature of each animal.
Cats And Dogs in Nature
In the natural world, canids (dogs and the wild cousins) are omnivores, which means that to obtain food, they’ll hunt, forage, or scavenge. A fox, for example, may eat voles, insects, bird eggs, and vegetation as part of its diet. Felines, by contrast, are primary carnivores (or obligate carnivores), meaning that their main food source is meat protein. The housecat’s wild cousins can bring down almost anything from a sparrow to a hippo in the hunt for protein.
In the shared ecosystem, this means that dogs (wolves, coyotes, etc.) can find themselves in competition for food with cats (cougars, bobcats, etc.). When resources are scarce or threatened, competition for prey can become acute–but neither animal is typically prey for the other.
Loners vs Packs
The differences between the “cat personality” and the “dog personality” often come down to group behaviors. Cats, for example, are often perceived as mischievous loners, while dogs are seen as gregarious pack animals. These behavior styles can affect how well individual animals will get along as pets, but a lot depends on the individual animals, their prior histories with other animals, etc.
When it comes to bonding with humans, dogs seem to be the favorite. And it’s true: Dogs make great exercise companions, they’re boisterous and silly, and they thrive on group activity. Cats have a reputation for being aloof and rather disinterested in us humans unless it’s feeding time, but cats do have subtle and complex bonds with their favorite people. Sadly, most don’t fetch.
Introducing A Dog And Cat
When bringing a new pet into a household where one or more pets already reside requires some preparation, patience, and finesse. Here are some tips to make the dog and cat introduction process easier.
- Keep them separated, at first. The Animal Humane Society recommends you keep your pets separated by a closed door for the first 3-4 days. This will allow them to get each other’s scent and to understand they’re in a shared environment. Continue to feed the animals separately to avoid food aggression.
- Make a safe space. When introducing a cat to a dog, prepare a “safe space” where the cat can go if it feels overwhelmed. A safe space would ideally include cat food, fresh water, a clean litter pan, some comfy bedding, cat toys, a “hiding box,” and a perch a few feet above the floor (a cat’s ability to jump is often it’s only escape from an overly exuberant dog).
- Make introductions in a controlled environment. When the pets meet, it should be in a place where neither feels territorial dominance. Neither animal should feel trapped or unduly stressed. Cats especially should have an escape route.
- Make the house rules clear to the new arrival. This will also reinforce the rules for the other pets and help them understand that the new pet is “one of us.”
- Be patient. Some introductions go smoothly from the start, but for most, there is an adjustment period. Give your pets (and yourself) the time to let everyone settle in.
- Ask for help. Your veterinarian is a great source of information and can help make the transition smoother.
What happens if not everyone in your household is as excited about the new puppy as you are? Accepting a new family member is a significant event for humans and pets. It’s an emotional time when other pets may feel threatened or frightened. Your cat, for example, may decide to urinate on the new puppy’s bed as a way of voicing her disapproval. Or your 3-year-old pup may chase the new shelter cat around the house. Such behaviors are extremely common during transitions and tend to diminish in frequency as your pets bond with you and with each other.
Every member of your household should feel safe. If you believe that one of your pets (newly introduced or not) is a real danger to anyone or any pet, contact your vet. They can recommend behavior tests that check for food aggression, aggression around other pets, hand shyness, and other behavioral factors, which may indicate a prior history of trauma. Your vet can suggest some corrective approaches you can try at home or may recommend an animal behaviorist.
Roxy Meets Bingley: A Dog & Cat Success Story
As a former veterinary technician, I’ve adopted and fostered dozens of animals over the years. We’ve had dogs and cats living under one roof for decades without a problem. Our current pet roster includes a 7-year-old shepherd-hound named Roxy and three cats: Leila, Yoly, and Bingley. Our most recent adoptee (Bingley) came to us in October as a neighborhood stray.
So how did we introduce Bingley to Roxy? Well, she is a rescue (like all our pets), and she’s had some experience with cats. That was fortunate. For our part we introduced them in the bedroom we share with Roxy, and we did so while Bingley was not yet at full strength. Roxy seemed to sense he was young and weak, so she was very gentle with him.
As Bingley grew in strength he also grew in confidence, testing Roxy’s boundaries. My husband and I are fortunate to telecommute and so were able to supervise them as they defined the territory between play and aggression. Despite a few bruised egos and a scratched nose, the transition was smooth.
Roxie & Mr. Bingley sitting on the bed together
Dogs and cats live harmoniously as pets in millions of households worldwide. While dogs and cats do have different temperaments, they have coexisted in their wild forms for eons. If you’re considering bringing a new pet into your family, and already have pets in the home, your best ally is patience. Let your pets get to know each other at their own pace, and in a loving supervised environment. The bonds you (and they) form will deliver a lifetime of loving reward.