My Dog Is Scared of Cats: What Do I Do?

When it comes to furry companions, some pet lovers subscribe to the “more the merrier” philosophy. Whether adopting from a shelter, adding to a purebred group, or simply taking in a stray, mixing cats and dogs can be both challenging and rewarding. While the two species are often portrayed in the media as being mortal enemies, they can learn to live in peace and harmony if they’re introduced, trained, and managed the right way. It can feel like an impossible feat, however, when the family dog is scared of the denizen cat. The hissing, the barking, the drama – is there any way to avoid it and bring peace back to the home?

While new multi-species owners usually anticipate dogs acting aggressively towards cats, the truth is that even large, formidable dog breeds can be frightened around cats. Sharp claws, unfamiliar scents, and new vocalizations will put a dog – whether he’s new or a recent household addition – on edge. Pet parents may find their pup getting more aggressive, or even sulking and hiding, depending on how vocal the household cat’s displeasure may be. While time has a way of settling even the most rambunctious four-footed companions into a routine, there’s a lot pet owners can do to smooth the transition when socializing a cat with a dog.

Consider Territory & Gender

While home may feel like a cozy place to kick back and relax to the folks who live there, to a new pet, it’s something of a battlefield. Male cats and dogs may spray to mark territory, though the chances of this behavior is reduced considerably when both are neutered prior to introduction. For the sake of furniture and other belongings, it may be prudent to keep an eye on a new cat or dog when they are travelling through a room or area frequented by an existing pet. Strong scents of another animal trigger an instinct to overwhelm that scent with their own scent, which leaves owners with an unpleasant mess to clean up and a lingering odor that’s hard to get rid of.

Whenever possible, deep clean the area a new pet will occupy, make sure to take dogs for frequent walks, and scoop the cat’s litter often. Incentivize going in the “right” place by offering new pups a treat when he goes outside, even if it’s a very familiar routine. If a dog keeps trying to mark a specific area, try covering it with a puppy pee pad while teaching him not to engage in the behavior. For cats prone to marking, a pinch of catnip in the litter box will pique a cat’s interest to visit (and hopefully “disarm” their bladder in the process).

Female cats and dogs are less prone to marking, but not entirely immune – some females will mark, and will continue to mark even if they’ve been spayed. Understand it isn’t because an animal is “bad”– they’re simply falling back on something that comforts and reassures them: their own scent. Short-circuit the urge by giving either animal a safe space that is their own, and try to wall off that space so that it’s genuinely theirs to explore and occupy.

Another smart “hack” for calming down cats is using a feline pheromone diffuser. Cats have two ways to mark territory – urine and cheek rubbing, which is why it’s a big honor for a cat to head-bump or cheek-rub you. Feline pheromone products mimic the chemical makeup of cheek-marking hormones, making the cat believe he has already marked the room or area as “safe” and “theirs.” This prevents the urge to mark by lifting up their tail, and saves you a lot of cleanup (and odor issues).

In short, clean common areas in the home and spay or neuter pets before they meet. Don’t let biological urges leave you buying industrial-sized bottles of cleaner. If marking accidents do occur, use a blacklight to find them quickly, and be sure to opt for pet-safe cleaning products without bleach. (The ammonia in pet urine and bleach can combine into a caustic chemical that’s harmful to both humans and pets.)

Consider Breed & History

In the instance that a dog is a “hunting” breed, he may be more inclined to attack or physically harass a cat. Remember, his genetics tell him that it’s normal and natural to chase smaller creatures, especially if they’re trying to escape or hide. For this reason, it’s best to introduce a larger dog to a smaller cat with the dog on a leash. This way, he won’t be able to lunge or play roughly with the cat until the two are used to one another. Likewise, if a larger cat is being introduced to a very small or “toy” breed dog, it’s a good idea to hold the cat and allow the dog to move as he needs to. For cats that were formerly feral or lived outdoors, it may be a deeply-ingrained habit to be suspicious of (and try to attack) anything new.

Remember, in the beginning, pet siblings have not yet figured out one another’s appetite for play, particular weaknesses or injuries, or even weight. Therefore, pet parents will need to be the referee to make sure they don’t hurt one another – intentionally or by accident.

Consider Vocalizations & Body Language

In terms of mood, both cats and dogs can be easy to read when you know what to look for. In both animals, pinned-back/flattened ears and bared teeth show aggression and a willingness to physically fight if confronted. A wagging tail on a dog is not necessarily an indicator of friendliness, and can indicate nervous, jittery excitement or agitation if it’s accompanied by aggressive facial expressions. A low, sustained growl spells trouble, as canine curiosity will more readily manifest as whines or intermittent, inquisitive rumbles. A dog will “play bow” to indicate a willingness to harmlessly examine one another – body language that’s a bit like a mullet: business in the front (with a low-to-the-ground stance and muzzle pointing at his “target”), and party in the back (with a hiked-up rear end and a slowly wagging tail) that shows he’s ready to pounce!

A cat is similar in some ways, and very different in others. Flattened ears and a low, sustained growl is also an indicator that he’s ready to attack, but sharp bursts of hissing will also occur. This is meant to put his theoretical attacker on the defensive. He may also adopt the “Halloween cat” look: a humped-back posture, fluffed tail, and extended claws are intended to make him look larger. In cats, a “lashing” tail that flicks back and forth shows that they’re irritated and may strike, but it isn’t necessarily imminent if they aren’t disturbed.

Consider Your Pets’ Resources

To a cat or dog, their food and water bowls are the source of their sustenance; the closest thing they have to a hunting ground in domesticated life. Imagine if a stranger suddenly started walking into your kitchen and eating out of your fridge: you’d be angry, and you’d want to stop them. It’s important to have different food and water areas for each pet for a variety of reasons: both dogs and cats can be food aggressive and attack anything going after “their” food. If there’s a pet-related illness going through the household, a community water bowl can pass along germs. In the event that one of the family pets needs to be treated with medicine, it’s safer and easier to add it to a separate food supply. It may feel like a hassle to keep up with two separate feeding areas, but ultimately it’s doing a lot of good for household harmony.

For pets that like to be near their owners, they’ll likely consider prime spots on the couch or nearby rug as “theirs” as well. Pet parents should try to situate themselves in an area that both animals can occupy until they get used to one another. Tucking a used shirt into a recently-homed cat or dog’s sleeping area will also help keep them calm with their new human’s scent, letting them know their humans are nearby and still a part of their pack or pride. If first introductions are still going a little rocky, try keeping one or both animals in their carriers beside one another, and close by. This will get them used to the presence of one another without the opportunity to fight or lunge.

Consider Their Means Of Escape

While forcing “together time” on bickering human siblings might work for children, it’s not likely to work on pets. Animals without a ready exit to a place where they feel safe will only get progressively more agitated – and may even result in them lashing out at their owners if it’s taken to an extreme. For a dog who’s fearful or aggressive around his feline roommate, the answer isn’t to simply expose him over and over and hope he “gets over it.” The dog needs to come around to the presence of the cat in his own time and in his own way, or else owners risk a fight breaking out the moment their backs are turned. In particular, pet parents should not leave new pets unattended if they’re planning to step out of the house – always put at least one pet in a roomy animal crate or kennel with fresh food and water to prevent potential brawls.

Items like dog gates and cat doors can help provide barriers for each pet to escape to their “safe space” without being followed by the other. While the eventual cat-dog companionship may be begrudging, a connection made at the new pets’ pace is far more likely to grow in a positive direction than a connection made at the family’s insistence and schedule. Cats and dogs are, arguably, natural enemies in every sense of the word, so it isn’t reasonable to expect they’ll get along without guidance, training, prompting, precautions – and most of all, patience – on the owner’s part.

Consider Talking With Your Vet Beforehand

Whether an existing pet is a cat or a dog, a trusted family vet knows them better than just about anyone. They may be able to make recommendations for certain techniques with the animal’s personality in mind. The better the first few encounters go, the less fur baby parents will have to worry about their fuzzy companions duking it out in their absence. After all, an initial trip to the vet with a new pet is required anyway, so it’s easy to bring up the subject during their first visit.

Consider If It’s A Good Idea

While it’s admirable to try out a multi-pet household, pet parents should also be prepared to stop the experiment if it’s causing prolonged stress to their animals. Sometimes cats and dogs, despite plentiful affection, resources, and space, just can’t get along. For pet owners that are not having any luck (and have consulted their vet about the problem to no avail), it might be time to reconsider the arrangements.

Just as loving, well-behaved foster animals are sometimes returned to the shelter through no fault of their own, not every living situation is a good fit for an animal. The most important point of the equation is the health and well-being of both cats and dogs, and sometimes the solution is to back away from a shared living situation. If the planned goal is to have a cat and dog household, try working with rescue organizations that offer “trial periods” in order to keep options open if things go awry. It’s also important to keep in mind that some dog breeds naturally get along with cats better than others. This information should be researched and considered if you want a fighting chance at having a two-species space within your home.

Cats and dogs may not often get along without a little guidance, but that doesn’t mean enthusiastic would-be pet parents can’t help them enjoy one another’s company. Make sure the household is ready to meet the needs of two very different animals, proceed slowly with introductions, and leave wiggle room for unexpected outcomes. The result will be a warm, loving environment that enriches not two, but three species at the same time: canine, feline, and human.  

Sources Cited:

“Socialization of Dogs and Cats.” AVMA.org (American Veterinary Medical Association), (no publish date), https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/Reference/AnimalWelfare/Pages/Socialization.aspx. Accessed May 29, 2019.

“Introducing Dogs to Cats.” American Humane.org, August 25, 2016, https://www.americanhumane.org/fact-sheet/introducing-dogs-to-cats/. Accessed May 29, 2019.

“Helping Timid and Shy Scaredy Dogs.” Pet Health Network.com, (no publish date), http://www.pethealthnetwork.com/dog-health/dog-behavior/helping-timid-and-shy-scaredy-dogs. Accessed May 29, 2019.

Kawczynska, Claudia. “Dogs Afraid Of Walking Past Cats.” The Bark.com, December 2013, https://thebark.com/content/dogs-afraid-walking-past-cats. Accessed May 29, 2019.

 

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