Fostering Dogs with Cats in the House

dog chases cat

The first dog I fostered, about seven years ago, was a little Corgi mix named Trixie from the Boston MSPCA. She needed a place to stay for a few days until her new family could come down from New Hampshire to pick her up. Trixie ran around my house like a whirlwind, coming up to my roommate and I for alternating treats and praise. The day she left with her family – behind wiggling with joy, her new family all smiles – I knew I was hooked.

Trixie wasn’t my first foster -- I’d had foster cats before her. But since I don’t have enough time for a long-term dog, fostering Trixie showed me a way to get my dog “fix.” Ever since, whenever I’ve been spending too long on, pining over the thousands of adoptable dogs, I’ve taken in foster dogs.

Can you foster dogs and cats together?

Taking in dogs with cats already in the house can be tricky, but it can be done! Some dogs have high prey drives and can pose a real danger to cats. Other dogs just don’t pick up on cat body language and put themselves in line for a swipe to the eyes – also scary. But there are ways to safely take on both.

With some careful planning and a watchful eye, having foster dogs and cats that coexist can be rewarding. Even better, it gives possible adopters who already have cats an idea of whether they should adopt your foster dog.

Before you foster a dog

It’s important to get as much of an idea of the dog’s cat-temperament as you can before bringing him into your home. Here are a few questions you should be sure to ask the shelter or rescue group:

  1. Has this dog ever lived with cats before?
  2. Has the dog been cat-tested (the shelter puts the dog near cats in a safe environment and watches how he reacts) and, if not, can he be?
  3. Does the dog chase squirrels, cats or birds while he’s on his walk?

Any single answer to these questions shouldn’t absolutely turn you away from fostering a dog, but the answers will give you an idea of what you’ll be working with. If the dog has lived with other cats, been cat-tested in the shelter and doesn’t try to chase small animals on his walks, then there’s a better chance he’ll learn to coexist peacefully in your house. However, if the dog chases cats all the time, you’ll know he might be more likely to do the same in yours.

Take your cat’s health, personality and needs into consideration

For most cats, getting up and away from an annoying dog isn’t too hard. However, I also foster senior and special-needs cats who might have a harder time running away if they feel threatened or scared. Some dogs might even be able to outrun an able-bodied cat, leading to problems. Some cats also have a harder time adjusting to an interloper in the house, so watch to make sure your cat’s eating, drinking and using the litter box regularly when you bring in a new foster.

Before you bring a new foster dog into your home, think about how easily your cat will be able to get away. You might even want to rig up escape routes around your house – put up extra shelves where your cat can jump but the dog can’t reach. You could also move the cat’s food, water and litter box up onto a shelf or somewhere where your cat can access them easily, but the dog can’t. (There’s really nothing like the realization that a dog’s just licked your face after “snacking” in the litter box!)

Likewise, think about where the dog will be when you’re not watching – and make sure it’s somewhere separate from your cats. (To be safe, never leave a foster dog alone with your cats.)

Bringing your foster dog home

No matter whether your foster dog is a 5-lb Chihuahua or an 80-lb Rottweiler, you need to take things slowly at first. Remember, your cats were there first and should have freedom to roam. But your foster dog will probably do best under strict observation and structured play time.

In my house, my cats are allowed to go anywhere they want. My foster dogs – even Tilly, my 12-year-old, blind Miniature Poodle mix – are tethered to my side by a leash at all times until I’m certain that my foster and cats will be ok together.  (Leash your foster dog and then attach the other end of the leash to your belt loop with a knot. Note: This approach is not recommended for dogs with separation anxiety.)

When I’m away or can’t be watching, my foster dogs are crate-trained. I might add that this also does wonders for housetraining. But if you don’t want to leave your foster dog in a crate, or you’re away from home too much, be sure your foster dog is enclosed in a room separate from the cats while you’re away.

Helping your foster dog and your cats get along

When you first introduce your new foster dog to your resident or foster cats it’s a great sign if both just completely ignore each other. In most cases, however, your cat will decide to sulk under the bed while your foster dog tries desperately to go play with your perturbed cat. Ignore this and try to get your foster dog’s mind onto something else.

A great trick for distracting your foster dog is having a frozen Kong that’s stuffed with peanut butter ready and waiting. Just show your foster dog the kong and ask for a “sit” – then reward him for his good behavior if he does what he’s asked.

It may take a few days to a few weeks to get this routine down, so don’t be afraid to call your shelter or rescue group for advice if you get stuck.

Enjoying both cats and dogs in the house together

Once your foster dog loses interest in your cat, you can try letting him off leash for short periods of time with you watching. If he starts to bother you cat, just re-tether him to you and try again the next day. Eventually, he should get the message that leaving kitty alone means he gets more free time and your cat will learn to accept the newcomer in your house.

Most shelters and rescue groups will help you work through the transition if you get stuck or need advice, so don’t hesitate to contact the staff or other volunteers with questions. After all, the shelter wants you to keep welcoming foster dogs into your home!