Downtime

How Can I Ensure Peace Between a New Dog and My Cats?

I want a pooch, but I also want everyone to get along.

A dog and a cat taking tentative steps toward friendship
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to beastmode@slate.com.

Dear Beast Mode,

Because of my erratic work schedule, I’ve never had a dog. I have had (and loved) many cats, including my current kitties. In a year I will be retiring, and one thing I’m looking forward to is finally having the time to get a dog. My question is how best to get a dog who will fit in with the cats (who will be ages 11 and 9).

My guess would be that a puppy might be easiest for the cats to adjust to, and they’ll all get used to each other as the puppy grows. Is that right? I’m not particularly keen on housetraining a puppy and would prefer to get an older dog, one who is 1 or 2 years old, but I’m concerned that the dog would not be able to adjust to the cats, and vice versa. I plan to get a shelter pet, if that makes a difference.

—Growing Not Growling Family

Dear Growing Not Growling Family,

Having pets is fun because you get to enjoy the perks of being a dictator (loyal followers, unilateral decision-making) without any of the icky stuff (condemnation from the international community, coups). Were your household a direct democracy, I don’t think you’d be able to swing the heavy cat majority on this dog issue. Your dictatorship sounds like it’s a benevolent one, however, so I trust you’ll keep your subjects’ well-being in mind as you mull this decision.

Beast Mode gets asked about integrating cats and dogs often, and it’s a complicated issue that shouldn’t be taken lightly. “A lot of dogs and cats live together fine and have no problems, and the cats are safe, but it really depends,” says Melissa Bain, a professor at the Clinical Animal Behavior Service at the UC–Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “It depends on what the dog’s underlying temperament is. Is it a predatory dog? Is it a fearful dog? Does it tend to guard resources?”

Many shelters will include information about whether a dog has had experience living with cats. This is certainly good and helpful to consider, but it doesn’t always paint the entire picture. The situation may have been one where the cat was elderly and never incited the dog to chase it, or the pets could have lived in a house where the animals were separated. Your experience will be totally novel to everyone involved, so expect surprises if you decide to go through with it.

Nevertheless, there are some factors that can increase your chances of successful integration, like the size of the dog. A big, well-meaning pooch can injure a cat if he gets overexcited at the prospect of play, and you certainly want to avoid an Of Mice and Men–type tragedy. That’s not to say that big dogs can’t get along with cats. It’s just that a smaller pup will give you less to worry about. “If it’s an eight-pound Chihuahua and the cats are 15 pounds, then I’m not too concerned about the cats’ safety,” Bain says.

A puppy is a good option, but, as you note, training one requires a tremendous amount of work even without cats. We adopted our dog Ruby as a pup, and she got to spend lots of time with my mother-in-law’s cat, which helped her grow into the feline-friendly gal she is today. Here’s a picture of her lounging with a neighbor’s kitty and discussing the issues of the day.

The author's dog Ruby with the neighbor's cat.
Nick Greene

It’s totally understandable if you don’t have the energy to raise a puppy, but the process of safely integrating any dog with cats will take time and require near-constant attention from you during the early stages. “I would do it gradually and would have the dog on leash,” Bain says. She also recommends having baby gates or another means of separating the dog from the cats as they get used to sharing their home. Vertical space is important, as it will allow your cats the option to leap to safety if they get uncomfortable. Giving all parties room to roam is a must, too. So if your house is on the small side, you should figure out a way to give everyone their spaces in advance, to avoid crowding the pets and setting them up for failure.

The choice to adopt a dog is ultimately yours, but the addition will affect all beings under your roof. Run your situation by your vet as well as the shelters and rescue agencies you are considering. Integration will be tough, so hold off until you know you’re absolutely ready to go through with it. As a benevolent dictator, you owe it to your subjects to be compassionate when wielding that absolute power.