Introducing a New Pet

In the last 15 years, I have merged 18 pets (yes eighteen), from various shelters, assorted cats and dogs, young and old, large and medium and small, healthy and special needs. None of them knew each other before hand; some of the dogs had never lived with cats before (or nothing was known) ditto on the cats.

I've always worked it out through a little training, a little consulting my veterinarian or the shelter for advice, and a healthy dose of common sense and patience.

My goal in sharing my learning experiences is to prevent returns for easily solveable "problems" - which often aren't problems, just temporary anxiety on the part of the new owners and the animal.I see so many returns to shelters for what could have been easily be solved in a  matter of hours or days with a little patience, training, and creativity. 

Common Reasons for Returns:
I often see an animal being returned 1 day after adopting because it was "acting anxious". Well, if you'd been pulled from your family, put in a shelter, then put in a new home, you might just be a bit anxious at first too; this is not a reason to return. This is a time to show patience, positive reinforcement, and love just as you would to an anxious foster or adopted child new to your home.

I also see cats or dogs returned the same day because their existing pets and the new pet do some posturing, or hiss at each other. Well, I can tell you all of my human friends frequently talk about how they hated their little brother/sister when he/she first came home and used to be cruel to them but their parents didn't take either one of them back to to the hospital for a return! The parents exercised patience and teaching; its the same for bringing in a pet. 

I also see many returns within 24 hours as the dog or cat had an accident. Its important to remember the animal has been in a very small kennel, sometimes with no room to move around, sleeping next to their own urine or feces overnight in the kennel or for cats, right next to their litter box. So expect the first week or 2 to be training involving potty areas, because their "area" has been just a few square feet right next to their food and bed for possibly months. 

For example, when I brought Kenny home, he was a 3 time return and had been branded by the shelter as not possible to potty train; so it was no surprise he was on the kill list as unadoptable and age (10). I brought him home and in 2 weeks he was potty trained; he simply had to learn how to tell me he needed to go, and that if he did that, I'd open the door and he could go outside to potty, or if I wasn't home, he could go to the door and there'd be potty pads. In our video,
potty training a senior dog - and frankly this works for any adult dog - we go over how this was achieved. 

One more thing about accidents - it can be a medical issue such as bladder infection - esp. with cats which can be caused by new food (this happened to my Alex), or a medical condition. Have your Vet check them out. There are incontinence meds for very old dogs, but remember for a very old dog, or a dog on heart meds which cause frequent urination, you'll need to have outside access or potty pads - its not reasonable to expect a 12yo dog - esp one with medical issues - to hold it like a 5yo dog could, and its never reasonable to expect any dog to go 12-14 hours without going.

Posturing and accidents at first are perfectly normal and in no way an indication of long term behavior.
They may be still in "shelter shock" (high anxiety from the stress of the shelter environment noise, space limitations, etc), they don't know you yet, they don't know your house/yard yet, they don't know your other pets yet, they don't know where anything is like food, water, litter, potty pads, yard; they don't know if this will last or is for 1 night or a few days (this can happen if they've been fostered).

My First Dog and Cat Merge:
The first time I merged pets, I merged a 7 year old Siberian Husky who weighed 115 pounds with a 9lb Russian Blue cat called Mr. Frisky and another petite female cat, Fiona. Taku had never lived with cats; the cats had never lived with dogs. Fiona has been a partial feral when I took her home and it took her months to be friendly and she never was what one would call a "cuddly" cat even though she was sweet and loved to play with her toys and be petted.

The merge took a couple weeks, not because of the dog who everyone warned me "would kill the cats because that breed does", but the problem "child" was Mr.Frisky the cat. Taku was friendly and inquisitive, Mr. Frisky was resentful and angry. He whacked Taku's nose and ear enough to draw a drop of blood. Poor Taku - this huge dog I'd been warned "had a strong prey drive because he was a Husky and might kill the cat" was absolutely terrified of the cat and hid behind me. The cat would actually shove him out of the way to eat his food and the dog would just stand there looking at me helplessly.  

Spray bottles weren't working and I stopped using them after this because all it does is make the animal afraid of you or hate you. Hitting and screaming doesn't work on pets and should not be done, just like with children.

I kept them separated while I was at work - not because I was worried the dog would hurt the cat - I was worried the cat would hurt the dog!  

Again, I asked my Veterinarian. He asked me an a question no book and no trainer had thought of: "What does the cat hate most of all?" The answer: being away from me and not being center of attention (sound like children?)

The vet's advice was to setup a small room - like the laundry room - with a water and food and litter pan. When the cat began to act aggressively toward the dog, IMMEDIATELY put him in there for 10 minutes even before anything happened. While this seems silly - I mean, who ever heard of a "time out" for cats -  it was the best advice I've ever received.

Within a couple of days, the cat was leaving the dog alone. Within 2 weeks, the cat was actively nuzzling the dog, purring, all the while looking at me to see if I was noticing. Eventually he and the dog became snuggle buddies. But even if they hadn't, even if they just ignored each other, that is success - a peaceful household for all inhabiting, human and cat/dog!

Tips and Tricks:

  • Praise GOOD behavior; when the newbie is friendly with existing furbabies, praise with voice, petting and a treat especially if they are food motivated (some are more motivated by your acceptance than by food; my dog is like that)
  • Setup a time out room
  • Setup a "safe" room for while you're gone; the first few days or weeks you may need to keep them separate. Watch our video on how.
  • Some hissing and posturing is normal and it needs to be worked out between the cats; in other words, if its not excessive, and no one is getting hurt, let them work it out. Its their way of communicating with each other on who's boss; the pecking order needs to be worked out.
  • Use Feliway plugins to keep cats calm (see our Unique Tools page)
  • Get them Spayed/Neutered
  • Dogs are pack animals and whether you are male or female they consider you the pack leader. Keep this in mind when working to merge 2 dogs.
  • Start with litter boxes near food/water then over time move the box, a few feet at a time, to the ultimately desired location.
  • Start with potty pads near food/water, then over time move them a few feet at a time to next to the door (watch our video on potty training for more information and tips). Remember, senior pets have to go much more frequently just like senior people (and us chicks) esp. if they are on heart meds which cause frequent urination.
  • Don't expect them to share food and water and beds immediately; put out separate food bowls, and beds. Most humans I know didn't want to share their stuff with their siblings - ever - let alone at first!

As always, consult the Shelter, your Veterinarian or a Trainer if you're having problems.  Most Shelters will happily work with you to solve it so the animal can stay in the home.