Keeping companion animals safe from harm is one of the most important responsibilities of being a good pet owner. There are dangers everywhere. But when the danger is in your own home, you need to be especially vigilant. Teaching your dog to leave the cat alone can be tricky.
What's Going On Here?
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If your dog is going after the new kitten, your first order of business is to figure out your dog's intention. Is he looking to harm the kitten and eliminate the interloper on his territory? Or is he happy to have a new playmate and is just a little too exuberant? Although the manner in which you deal with the problem may be similar, it's important to make the distinction because, if it is the former, you must be very careful how you proceed. If your cat were more mature, she would know the difference between a threat and a nuisance. Since she's only a kitten, however, she needs your help in staying safe.
Both animals are at risk. A kitten can easily scratch a dog's eyes; a dog could easily shake the life out of a kitten. Always keep them separated and be sure the kitten has an escape route and hiding place.
Patience and Understanding
If your dog perceives the cat as a threat to his territory, he will be looking to eliminate the kitten. If your dog is happy to have a new friend and is going after the kitten so they can play, most likely it is only when the kitten is moving and playing that you'll have a problem. A territorial dog will go after the threat, a playful dog's play instinct is triggered by the prey drive. When the kitten moves, it triggers the dogs' "playtime" emotion, and that's when you need to step in.
If your dog simply hates cats or won't accept a newcomer to the home, you may never be successful in getting them together. If your dog wants to play, you are way ahead of the game. One method to get your dog to change his mind about the kitten is to be sure your dog understands the kitten has a high place in the hierarchy. If you are very demonstrable when you hold the kitten, telling the dog this is "Mommy's kitty" or "Daddy's pal" and showering the kitten with effusive affection, your dog will come to understand the young feline is under your protection and, if he hurts the kitten, he has to answer to you.
What's The Diff?
So how do you determine your dog's intentions? Watch his body language closely. If he's wagging his tail, assuming the play bow position and seems happy and playful, he wants to play with the kitten. If his body is stiff, he's staring hard at the kitten, the tail is "flagging" (stiff and moving back and forth in a stilted fashion) and he's barking or growling, most likely he would like to eliminate the kitten altogether.
Either way, you must be hyper-vigilant, especially in the latter case, because that instinct to protect his territory is almost impossible to overcome.
Steps to Take
Find a friend to help you make introductions. You should hold the kitten, and your friend should hold the dog on a short, tight leash. Allow the dog to sniff the kitten while under tight control. Hold the kitten still so the dog's prey drive is not triggered, and continue to show the dog how the kitten is yours and is not to be destroyed. Continue to keep the dog on a leash while you allow the kitten to move out of your arms. Let the dog observe the kitten in play while he is tightly leashed. At some point, your dog will either decide eliminating the kitten is a bad idea and give up, or he will approach the kitten with care and caution. When you see the change in your dog, you will be able to allow them supervised playtime until they can both be trusted.
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.