Can dogs be taught to get along with cats?


© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

In one form or another, I am frequently asked some version of this question, “My dog and cat do not get along; can this be fixed?” Just like with so many issues involving animal behavior, the answer can be thorny.

Let me explain some basics about dog-cat interactions.

In most cases, a particular dog will get along with cats or won’t. A dog will do well with all cats or won’t do well with any cats. When dogs are offered for adoption they are frequently “cat tested”. If a dog is tested with one cat and passes, he or she will most likely do well with all cats.

"Mr. Kitty may help supervise the dog’s behavior modification program, but he will most certainly not be interested in joining in."

These “cat tests” are actually fairly simple. The cat is crated near the dog that is being evaluated and the dog’s level of interest is monitored. Dogs that are going to have problems with cats typically tend to obsess around the cat’s crate and won’t leave kitty alone. A dog that is likely not going to have problems with cats will investigate the crate momentarily and move on to more interesting things.

If dogs don’t do well around cats it’s normally because of one of two reasons. If they want to have kitty for lunch, it’s called prey behavior. Because of domestication, dogs that are prey aggressive toward cats rarely actually seek them out as food. However, they will initiate the first parts of prey behavior which can include seriously injuring, or even killing, a cat.

The other reason that dogs can do poorly around cats is if they are overly aroused by cats and want to play too hard. Some dogs see cats as play objects and don’t know when or how to throttle back. Things start as play and can escalate into aggression and conflict.

I’m always a little nervous about recommending  that any dog (even one that has passed the “cat test”) live in a home that has a declawed cat. Declawing is a double-edged sword for cats. First, they aren’t able to adequately defend themselves. Sometimes if a cat swipes those claws across the muzzle of a dog once or twice, there are no further problems with doggie bothering the cat. Front and back claws also allow the cat to escape from the dog. Cats are phenomenal climbers and jumpers (when they have all of their claws) and find safety in high horizontal surfaces in a home.

When it comes to addressing a dog and cat living peacefully together, we know that we’re going to have to work with the dog. Mr. Kitty may help supervise the dog’s behavior modification program, but he will most certainly not be interested in joining in. In short, this is going to be remedied by working with the dog.

We can address the prey drive and over arousal issues that a dog may have toward a cat by desensitizing and counterconditioning the dog to the cat. Working with a qualified behaviorist, the owner will systematically help the dog essentially become bored with the cat. This can take quite a lot of time and patience for the owner to accomplish.

The number one concern with desensitizing and counterconditioning a dog to a cat is that there are no guarantees. There are no guarantees that it will work and there are also no guarantees that it will last for any specific period of time. Dogs may do well with a cat for an extended period of time and then rather suddenly begin to see the cat as a prey or play item again.

Are there cats and dogs that get along famously? Yes! It is possible.  But if you have a dog and cat that aren’t doing well together, seek the help of a professional dog behavior specialist and always keep an eye on the situation even if behavior modification appears successful. Best bet is to first “cat test” any dog you bring into your home or before bringing a cat into a home that already has a dog. If the test is positive (i.e., fail) then you might want to consider a different pairing of animals.