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Q. My fiancé and I want to get a dog and a cat. Is it better to get them at the same time or get one first? As adults or very young?
A. There can be no definitive answer to this question. I have known people who've adopted all ages of dogs and cats, together or one at a time, and everything has worked out fine. In the most general terms, though, the best strategy would be to adopt first a middle-aged, well-mannered dog who shows little interest in cats, and then a kitten who has been raised in a household with friendly or indifferent dogs around.
Many breeds of dogs (and their mixes) are not all that great around smaller, fast-moving animals such as cats, and you might want to avoid dogs of that type. These breeds would include many Terriers and other dogs with traditionally high levels of prey drive, such as Alaskan Malamutes and German Shepherds. Yes, there are homes in which dogs with high prey drives coexist with smaller animals, but if you are not experienced with dogs, you may want to find a dog of a breed or mix that’s more likely to get along with other creatures.
Why an adult dog and not a puppy? Because even sweet-natured puppies are often more “in your face” than most cats appreciate. While cats who are used to being around dogs will generally just take off when a puppy is being a pain in the behind, the stress and fear may be too much for other cats to handle, particularly one who is not used to living with a dog.
Skip the puppy but get a kitten, rather than an adult cat. Adult cats generally react poorly to change, while kittens (and dogs of all ages) are more adaptable. A kitten is more likely to settle in to a house with a dog.
As for which animal to adopt first, again there’s no absolute answer. I would be inclined, however, to recommend that you adopt an adult dog first so you can make sure your new pet understands and performs basic obedience behaviors such as “down” and “stay” that will make the introductions easier on the feline family member you'll get next.
But there's another option: I bet if you put the word out at your local shelter, there’s a good possibility that you can adopt a dog and cat who were given up together. Many pets have had to find new homes when their families lost theirs to foreclosure or faced some other pet-unfriendly life change. A cat and dog who already know and like each other would be a perfect choice for you. It is possible to find almost anything at the shelters if you use a site like Petfinder and you're patient.
No matter what order you bring home your pets, make sure you offer the cat a place to get away from the dog. A baby gate across the doorway of a spare bedroom — one that's tall enough so your dog can't leap over it — is ideal for this purpose.
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