Ask Crystal: Scardy Cat 101

black dog and stripped kitten stand next to each other

Welcome to “Ask Crystal,” where you can ask your pet behavior questions! You can submit your question for Crystal at the bottom of the page!

Dear Crystal,

I just adopted a new kitten who is quite fearful. I already have an adult dog who I have been trying to introduce her to, but she becomes afraid and runs away. When she runs my dog chases her and I am afraid this is a vicious cycle and I will never be able to get them to be friends. Is this a hopeless endeavor?


How can they be friends

Dear How,

The process of introducing a new family member is always a stressful one. The rate at which the introduction process will go depends a lot on the individual personalities of the animals involved. When you have a fearful cat or kitten, the process is most likely going to take a longer time. Fearful cats tend to hide, run away when approached and can become aggressive if restrained or cornered. The running part tends to be the most challenging aspect of a cat to dog introduction. It is a very natural inclination for a dog to chase something that is running. When you bring a new animal home, you may recognize its place in the family, but the other animal will not. In their doggie mind, there is a fun running thing in the house. We want to avoid these chasing incidents as much as possible. Your new kitty is going to have a hard time trusting a dog that chases her and your dog is going to have a hard time seeing the kitty as a friend rather than a toy if she is always running.

There is going to be a period of separation when you bring a new kitty home. They need to get used to their new home and setup before you attempt face to face meetings. You need a separate space such as a spare bedroom or bathroom to confine the kitty. You will give her litter, food, water, bedding and toys in this area. We want to start the introduction process by scent swapping. When animals share a common scent, they consider it as belonging to the same group, so it is pretty important that the first step is getting used to each other’s scent. Rub a cloth on each animal and then place that cloth under or near the food bowl so that they can smell the other scent while eating. You will need to do this several times. Start feeding each animal near the door so that they will develop a positive association by associating the other with feeding times. You will probably need to work your way closer to the door if neither is willing to eat near the door yet. Next you may want to give the kitty free time in the dog’s area while putting the dog in the kitty’s area. Pick up cat food and cat litter box as those are very tasty treats to dogs. When the kitty seems adjusted in her environment which means she is using the litter box and behaving in a relaxed manner, it may be time to try to face to face meetings.

Before doing a face to face introduction with your new cat, your dog needs to have some training skills under their collar. It would be a great time to practice his skills while the kitty is still needing to be confined. Ideally, the dog would know sit, down, stay, recall and leave it. These are going to be the most important cues to living with a cat. Once you have practiced these skills and feel confident your dog can perform them in a very distracting situation and your cat seems relaxed in the environment you are ready to try some face to face interactions.

There are some different ways to do face to face introductions and how you choose to do them will depend on your setup or what works with your kitten. You can train the kitten to go into a crate prior to these introductions so that they won’t panic when they are put inside a crate. Or if you would rather not use a crate you can put a baby gate at the entrance of the door where you confine your kitty. Be sure that the cat cannot escape and don’t leave the door open all day if the dog is loose in the house. We don’t want any accidents to happen. Open the door with the baby gate in it whenever you are ready to do some training with your dog. Have your dog on a leash and walk him up as close to the gate or crate as you can while still getting him to respond to cues and not behaving aggressively. I would use an amazing treat for this training, boiled chicken breast always works well in my house. If your dog gets very stiff and stares or growls or barks, then you need to back up far enough away that you are not getting that reaction. When the dog looks at the kitty, say “yes” and feed the dog the treat. Every time he looks at the kitty, mark the behavior with “yes” and treat. Eventually he will start to look at the kitty and then look back at you as if to say, “Hey, where’s my treat?”. The point of this training is for the dog to have a positive association with seeing the cat. Avoid any negative reactions like yelling or jerking on the dog’s collar. We don’t want the dog to associate the kitty with bad things happening. If you have a helper, have them on the other side feeding the kitty treats as well. If not, you may be able to toss some treats over the gate yourself. The next step would be to ask the dog to hold a down stay in front of the gate so that we can teach him to behave calmly in the presence of the cat. I would do many short sessions like this until the kitten starts coming up to the gate to check out the dog and neither is showing fear or aggression. When you reach that point you may be ready to try an introduction in an open area.

If you have a helper, have one person hold the dog’s leash. The other person can feed the kitty treats. If you don’t have anyone to help, you can use a training tether. A training tether is a leash or cable that attaches to the door or a heavy piece of furniture. This way we know that the dog is secure and cannot chase the cat if it runs. Let the cat come out for some supervised time out. Practice your down stay with the dog on leash or tie down. Once the cat sits down and relaxes, you can sit next to her and feed her treats while tossing chicken to the dog or if you have a helper, they would be treating the dog. As long as he remains relaxed and down, the chicken keeps coming. If he gets up, put him back into a down. If the dog cannot contain himself, you may need to do some more practice on the previous step. If the cat runs away or becomes aggressive, you are moving too fast and need to go back to the previous step. Don’t restrain the cat, we want it to be the cat’s choice to be around the dog and not have a negative association with the dog. Repeat this step daily until the dog and cat can relax in the same room. Then you can try to have the dog walk up to the cat and lie down while you are holding onto the leash. The next step would be letting the dog drag a leash around the house while the cat is loose. Be sure that the cat always has escape routes and hiding places. I really like the baby gates with the tiny cat doors installed in them, it keeps the dogs out of the cat’s space.

Keep the dog and cat separate when you aren’t supervising. How long that will need to last will depend on your pets’ personalities. If your kitten is very small and your dog is very energetic, I would wait until the cat is fully grown. If your dog is old and grumpy and wouldn’t appreciate a kitty using it as a jungle gym, then wait until the kitty calms down. Some dogs and cats should never be unsupervised. I waited about 2 months after introductions to be sure both parties were quite comfortable with each other and to get a better feel for my new dog’s personality.

The process will vary a little for everyone depending on the animals. If you have a pet that has been around other pets the process may go easier and faster. I would suggest that you start over in the process and only proceed when your animals are ready. We need to respect their timelines and only move forward when both parties show comfort if we want them to be friendly to each other.

Until next time,