So you’re thinking of adding a kitten to your menagerie. The little voice in your head tells you it will make your family complete. Or an orphan shows up on your doorstep with saucer eyes and a fluffy coat, begging for a handout.
Introducing the newbie to your existing crew requires patience and caution. Keep in mind that a small kitten can become prey for an enthusiastic but untrained dog. In turn, that small kitten has claws, which could easily hurt a fragile bird. A fish tank, with its potential for kitty TV, can be hazardous for both fish and kitty. Rabbits? To a kitten, they can be perceived as cuddly companion or prey.
Happily, there are ways to introduce kittens to other pets safely so they can become friends. And when safety is an issue, you can take steps to protect all parties. Here’s what to know.
Kittens and Dogs
Yasmin Wijnands of the Netherlands breeds Russian Blue cats. But she also has two Mastiffs, Harley Quinn and Gibby, who weigh more than 150 pounds. They have a high prey drive and can be very fast.
However, Wijnands has found that her dogs have a special relationship with her blue cats and she frequently posts photos illustrating their closeness. She says her kittens are normally born in her living room, so they grow up with the dogs and are introduced gradually.
“My momcats love the dogs so Gibbs get to look at the birthing process. He’s gentle and loving but a bit clumsy. So we always supervise,” she says. “The kittens are in a wire birthing cage for at least three to four weeks. They sniff between the bars and see and smell the dogs. By the time they are running around free they know each other. We do always supervise when still young and unable to run and climb. But from about eight weeks, not so much anymore. They will cuddle together.”
Interestingly, the dogs have had a different reaction to non-blue cats. Wijnands observes that they reacted aggressively to cats outdoors, but not to a domestic blue cat they saw. When Beer, a longhaired Siberian kitty, joined the family, a more careful introduction process was required. Wijnands blocked off a doorway, which kept the “big noisy beasts” on one side and allowed easy escape for Beer, whose confidence gradually increased.
The sheer size difference between kittens and dogs requires caution in introductions. Knowing your dog’s personality, especially if you have a breed with a high prey drive, is critical, along with a review of training procedures before the actual introduction.
Make sure your dog is on leash or crated before he or she lays eyes on the kitten. Keep the initial exposure short, and do not leave them alone together. As an alternative, put the kitten in a carrier placed well out of canine reach, and introduce the leashed dog from a safe distance. In either case, back off if either animal shows signs of aggression or anxiety. In some cases, it may be necessary to always keep them separated for the safety of the kitten or cat.
Gradually lengthen the time of exposure. Make sure the kitten has escape routes: easy access to tall cat trees or shelves or a sofa or bed they can scoot beneath. Use treats for good behavior – for both pets.
Mia and Bun Bun
Mary Johnson of Branford, Connecticut, says her cats had always loved her house rabbit, Bun Bun, but Mia, introduced as a kitten had a special bond. Johnson says, “Mia thought she was a rabbit and Bun Bun thought he was a cat.” Mia decided to go into his cage, under supervision, and Johnson said they were like “two peas in a pod. All of her cats got a long with Bun Bun, Johnson added.
Introductions should be gradual, starting with letting them see each other daily. Move the cage and carrier closer together, keeping the pets confined. Feed them in view of each other. Play with your rabbit with the kitty in view, so the kitty can see that the rabbit is not a threat. Continue to supervise once they’re allowed to stay in a common space.
Fish, gerbils and other rodents, birds, and reptiles and amphibians are usually confined to tanks or cages, which should make introductions easier. Place bird cages high or in a hard-to-access corner. You may even choose to keep them in a room of their own. Likewise, the tops of tanks should have sturdy screened covers and limited access. Under no circumstances should you let these critters run around in the presence of a kitten. They are perfect prey, and a swipe of the claw or bite could result in a deadly infection.
Rather, provide hidey holes as shelter for the non-feline critters should they find the kitty’s presence intimidating. Offer words of praise for good behavior. And never let your kitten or cat stress confined animals by swatting or tapping at their enclosures. Keep them out of kitty reach.
If you find your kitten getting too close for comfort, distract her with treats or a fishing pole toy. By spraying water or yelling, you’re only making the kitten fearful and instilling a negative association with the other animal.
While the internet is full of cute photos of cats cavorting with birds and other “friends,” don’t assume that’s the norm. Strict supervision is critical.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.