Introducing Dogs to Small Pets and Cats

Introducing a dog to small animals such as cats, rabbits, birds and rodents can be risky and should be carefully planned. You can be more confident that a dog will coexist peacefully with small animals if they have done so previously, as dogs raised with small pets are less likely to see them as prey.

Warning Signs

Not all dogs will be a good fit for a home with small animals, and that is okay! Predatory behavior toward smaller animals is a natural part of dog behavior. Keep in mind, however, that while some dogs coexist with a small animal that they were raised with, they may still stalk, chase or even kill unfamiliar small animals. The following behaviors are warning signs that the dog likely will not be able to safely live with small animals:

  • Intense staring at other animals, especially if accompanied by stalking (slow forward movement with head held low)
  • History of seriously injuring another animal
  • Growling or snapping when approached while in possession of food, toys or chew bones
  • Obsessively chasing or pulling toward squirrels, rats and/or rabbits on walks
  • Becoming uncontrollable when excited

Important: If your current or recently adopted dog exhibits any of the above behaviors or other signs of aggression or fixation toward small animals, we strongly recommend consulting with a certified dog behavior consultant and/or veterinary behaviorist.

Steps for Introduction

Introduce Gradually

When you introduce a dog to small animals, the general rule is to proceed slowly! For the first few days, keep your new pet completely separate from your resident pet(s). There should be a door between them at all times. Use this time to bond with your dog if newly adopted, and teach or review simple behavioral cues like sit, look and touch. Set your other pet up in a room that is completely inaccessible to your dog. Familiarize yourself with the body language of your pets, so that you can easily and quickly identify when or if your dog becomes overly excited or predatory toward your small animal, and when or if your small animal becomes overly fearful of your dog.

Step One: Scent Swapping

  1. Bring something with the other animal’s scent on it to your dog and allow the dog to sniff and become familiar with the scent. Provide a tasty snack while your dog investigates the smell to associate it with a positive experience.
  2. Do the same with your small animal and the dog’s scent.
  3.  Switch out the items daily so the scent remains fresh. When the animals no longer seem overly interested in the scent of the other animal, move on to the next step.

Step Two: Visual Contact

  1. Continue keeping your pets separate except during introductions.
  2. During introductions, do not allow the animals to freely access each other and keep the animals as far apart as possible to maximize the likelihood that all animals will remain calm and not stressed.
    1. Keep small animals in their secure enclosure
    2. Your cat should remain in their secure room with a secure gate blocking the cat from running out. Avoid holding your cat and let the cat choose if and when to get closer to the dog.
    3. Your dog should be on a leash for safety, even with a gate blocking entry to the room.
  3. Reward each animal with extra tasty treats for calm behavior. This helps them associate the other with positive experiences and helps them form a bond.

Tip: If your dog stares fixedly at the small animal, attempt to get their attention using some of the cues you have been working on such as “look” or “touch.” If that does not work, use a super yummy treat, like chicken, liver, cheese, etc., to lure their attention back to you. Continue redirecting their attention if they stare at the other pet for longer than 3 seconds.

Step Three: Reducing Distance

  1. Gradually reduce the distance between animals. Your small pet(s) should remain safely confined in their enclosure and your dog remain on a leash.
  2. At this closer distance, again reward each animal for any calm behaviors.
  3. Help your dog by cueing look, touch, and/or down if they are very distracted by the other pet.
  4. Continue gradually over the course of several weeks reducing the distance between your dog and the small animal, provided your dog can remain calm and focused on you (i.e., not pulling toward or fixating on the animal, responding to known cues, taking treats). Always monitor both the dog and the other animals for any behaviors consistent with fear or anxiety. If you see any of these behaviors, that’s a cue that you need to slow down the introduction process, potentially even taking a step back.

Step Four: Supervised Contact

  1. Carefully and closely supervise your dog whenever he is near your small animal or cat.
  2. Never leave your pets loose together unsupervised.
    1. We strongly suggest your dog never be allowed to freely interact with prey animals, like rats, gerbils, guinea pigs, rabbits, etc.
    2. If you are confident in your dog’s friendly, social behavior toward your cat, you may decide to allow them to interact freely with minimal supervision. However, we still strongly suggest that you do not leave them together unsupervised (i.e. when you are not home).
  3. Always reward both animals for calm behavior.

If your dog does not guard food or toys from other animals, you can provide your dog with a yummy stuffed Kong or chew item to help create and reinforce calm behavior around the other animal.

Still have questions?

Contact our Behavior Specialists at [email protected] or (212) 876-7700 x4191

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