How to introduce kittens to your dog

Jasper and Lilah are very interested in kitten Elsa Clair

Jasper and Lilah were fascinated when Elsa Clair and Calvin came to live with us.

Recently one of my readers, Kilby F., asked me for some advice on how to get her five-year-old female Newfoundland to act appropriately around her new 15-week-old kittens. She’d had the kittens only two weeks but was worried that her dog is a little rough with them. Her newfie didn’t seem to understand cat language; she didn’t back away when the kittens hissed. “She stops, but doesn’t leave…just looks at them..then shoves her head at them,” Kilby wrote. “I’m not sure if she wants to grab one or not. I cannot read what she is thinking.” Kilby keeps her dog leashed during the kitten-dog interactions but is a little concerned about the roughness and wanted to know what to do.

Having introduced dogs to kittens, a puppy to cats and dogs, and kittens to dogs and cats, I can offer some advice. 

Kilby already has her kittens at home, but if you’re contemplating adding felines to your canine family, prepare a safe room where the kittens will stay until they—and any other household pets—are appropriately acclimated to each other. This can be a bathroom or a spare bedroom. I found out too late that a basement isn’t necessarily the best idea, since the dampness can encourage accidents outside the litterbox. The safe room should contain everything a kitten could want or need: a place to sleep, a litter box, a scratcher (I’m a huge fan of the lounge type), and water. A small box or hidey place is also a good idea; cats are prey as well as predators, and they need places they can run to when they feel threatened. I don’t recommend leaving toys out for them—particularly anything with strings or feathers—as they could potentially chew and swallow them, which could be life-threatening. 

Assuming you have a safe room, here are some additional tips to help introduce your kittens and your dog. 

Be patient. This is really the most important thing. Accept that it might take weeks or months to get everyone settled. Then it won’t be frustrating if it takes a long time. If things go quicker, then that’s a bonus.

Always supervise early interactions between the dog and the cats. Try to make the interactions short, and stop them on a positive note—when everyone is still happy and tolerant and behaving in ways you like. Keep your dog on a leash until you are completely confident in her relationship with the kittens.

Reward the dog profusely any time you see her behaving correctly. This means giving her pets and treats and love when she ignores the kittens, or turns her head away, or lays down and looks less interested. 

Be a serious student of your dog’s behavior. You can’t read her mind, but there are lots of cues that tell you what she’s thinking. A dog who is stressed or anxious (which is what you want to avoid) will lick her lips, yawn, or stiffen up. You also don’t want her hyper focused, ears far forward with a stiff posture. Think how your dog reacts when she sees a squirrel or prey animal. You don’t want her to act like that toward the kitties. So, again, reward her when she acts like it’s no big thing. 

Give your dog lots of attention when the kitties are around. You want her to think kittens = nice time. Give her extra love and treats when she’s exhibiting the behaviors you desire: calm, friendly, disinterested.

Ensure your house has escape routes, hiding places and climby places for your kittens, and help them learn where those are by giving them access to different parts of your home when your dog is not around.

Introduce the animals to each other in stages.

  • Allow the dog to sniff under the door of the room where the kittens are. Let them all get used to each others’ scents.
  • Once the dog seems to get familiar with the scent of kitten, it’s time to let them see each other. There are several ways to do this. A pet gate in the doorway to the safe room will keep the animals separate from each other. This works until the kittens figure out they can climb the gate. You may have to stack the gates, or get creative; we used a old screen from our door, braced against the wall.
A screen separates my dog and cat from the new kitten.

Lilah and Dawn looking through a screen at kitten Calvin.

  • When Dawn and Athena first came to live with us, their safe room was the basement. (Again, not a good idea; we learned the hard way.) Lilah and Jasper were too boisterous and excited when the door was open and the gates were in place, and the kittens would race down the stairs and disappear around the the corner. Not only did that make it impossible for a calm introduction, but the dogs were rewarded (in their minds) by skittering kittens. The pooches thought it was a fun game. I needed another option. When the dogs were outside, I brought the kittens upstairs and put gates on the two entrances to our dining room. This let the kittens learn their way around the room, and become familiar with safe hidey spots and climby spots. Once the kittens felt comfortable in the dining room—which took just a few days—I brought them to the gated dining room. With help from other family members, we were able to make this work; someone stayed in the dining room with the cats, playing with them, and ensuring their safety. Then another family member was stationed at each entrance to the dining room, with handfuls of treats to reward desired behavior. 

    Lilah and Tucker examine Calvin who is safely gated in the dining room.

    Calvin as a kitten getting to know Lilah and Tucker.

  • Once the dog is used to seeing how the kittens move and smell, let them come out of the safe room, but make sure they have a way back in without the dog. We raised our pressure gate a few inches off the ground, so the kittens go in and out of a room, but the dogs couldn’t follow.  It’s also a good idea to let the kittens get used to your house one room at a time before they meet the dog, so they can map out escape routes and safe spots. When the kittens are out, the dog should be leashed, with a person attached, who should be liberal with handing out treats for desired behavior. (Notice a pattern yet? Positive reinforcement of desired behaviors.)

    A raised gate keeps the dogs out of cat-only areas.

    A raised gate keeps the dogs out of cat-only areas.

  • You can create any number of stages in the dog-kitten interaction. We brought Calvin and Elsa Clair out in a large pen that we set up in our family room. This allowed dogs and cats to see, hear, and smell the kittens, but kept them protected.
Jasper noses kitten Calvin, an interaction made safe with the kitten in a pen.

Jasper noses kitten Calvin, an interaction made safe with the kitten in a pen.

Train your dog. My dogs have been trained on several very key commands: Sit, Stay, Down and Leave It. Leave It means you may not touch the thing you’re looking at, whether it’s a treat, a toy, dead mouse you found on a walk, or a really interesting kitten. We employed the Leave It command a lot, when the dogs got too interested in a kitten—always accompanied by a lot of treats, love, and positive reinforcement. 

Remember training is life long. This is key. Your dog may be totally fine with a kitten or a cat, until one day the kitten gets the zoomies and goes running around the house for seemingly no reason. This can trigger a pursuit reaction in your dog, who could go on canine “must get it” autopilot. So when you see your kitten (or cat) do something different or new or crazy or fast, look immediately to your dog—not the cat. Notice the dog’s reaction, and reward her for the right behavior, or use a command to get compliance. My dogs and cats have been living together for years, but recently Jasper has decided that he’s the community peace officer, and barks at the cats if they hiss at each other. When Tucker hears Jasper bark, he barks and then Lilah joins in. Then they all go running after the cat and I’m not sure they even know why except the other dogs are doing it and they’re pack animals and they will do what the others are doing because they’re dogs. This type of behavior could escalate in ways I don’t want to imagine. So, now, whenever a cat hisses, in that split second before Jasper barks, I say, “Good Quiet” (Quiet being another command), and hand out some treats. It’s starting to work and there are less hiss/bark incidents.

You can read some of the stories of how Dawn and Athena, and then Calvin and Elsa Clair were integrated into our family. 

Cats and Dogs Living Together

Dogs + Cats + Kittens = ?

Life in the Pen

Living Together

Do you have any additional tips for introducing kittens to dogs? Feel free to share them below.

1 Comment on "How to introduce kittens to your dog"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: