By Patience Fisher
There are many challenges for shelters in finding adoptive homes for cats. As an adoption counselor, I always found it disheartening to have a cat returned to the shelter for not getting along with the resident cats.
During the adoption process, the concept of slow introductions was explained, but upon the cat’s return we often found out that the introduction process had been rushed. As a result, I saw a need for a very simple, short, how-to brochure for introducing a new cat to a resident cat. I am sharing excerpts from the brochure I wrote, titled Your New Cat (see below), to help other shelters, cat behavior consultants and cat owners.
Cat Introductions: Body Language
My focus when writing the brochure was to make it easy to read, understand and implement. This is why it gives concrete timeframes as a guide. Of course, some cats will adjust more quickly and others much more slowly, which the brochure mentions.
The concept of waiting for a week is repeated and in bold in the hopes that adopters will at least do that much. That is also why the stare and growl are mentioned as signs of stress; it is a bare minimum to stop exposure when this is going on, and these are easily-recognized behaviors.
Lip licking and body posture are not signals most people notice. I also shied away from any counterconditioning, since if done incorrectly the adopter could be setting themselves up for redirected aggression.
I recommended a bath towel instead of cardboard simply because everyone has one handy. I have seen so many simple procedures not followed because of small inconveniences. I wanted to make this very doable. I added a brief protocol for establishing an only cat in your home, introducing a cat to a dog, and kitten safety.
Too Much Too Soon
People are usually excited to let the new cat loose in their home and to integrate him immediately with their families, including resident pets. If they have never had a cat before, they probably will not have a good understanding of how cautious and easily stressed cats are.
If they have never added a new cat to a home that had a resident cat, they might not understand why slow introductions are needed. If they grew up seeing cats added to the household and seeming to fit right in, or at least work it out, they will often expect this new cat to do the same.
If this childhood pet was stressed by this instant immersion but the adopter did not pick up the clues, he may be shocked if his newly-adopted cat is aggressive or a target of aggression.
There is so much excitement and so much going on during an adoption it is not surprising that an adopter does not remember what was meant by slow introductions. The simple three-step guide I developed explains the concept, breaks it down into small steps and is a handy reference. I came up with the timeframes in the brochure from my personal experience fostering about 30 cats.
Since so many cat owners want to adopt another, I wanted to determine if my fosters would be best suited for a home that already had a cat, or one where they could be an only cat. My cats were very easy-going about accepting a new cat so I was able to introduce about 10 cats, one at a time, to my cats.
This gave me a good feel for timeframes and methods in developing this protocol. My cats are now retired from training fosters and enjoying their later years. None of my foster cats were returned following adoption.
YOUR NEW CAT: Science-based Manners for Cats
Congratulations on adopting a cat! This is an exciting day for you, but quite an adjustment for your new companion. If you keep in mind your cat’s point of view, the transition will go smoother, and your new cat will more quickly understand that he has a wonderful new home. Below are the three milestones a cat needs to achieve to truly feel he is at home-sweet-home.
1.Territory for Me (Three Weeks)
When you arrive home and plop your cat down, she has no way of knowing whether or not she is going to have to fight for territory.
Cats become socially mature between one and three years old and gradually become more territorial. It may take three weeks before they lose the desire to follow their homing instinct and try to return to their previous territory.
It is imperative that you keep your cat inside during this period. Of course, keeping your cat indoors is always a safer option.
In order to make your cat feel secure and to ensure that she knows where the litter box, scratch post and scratch pad are, you should set up a room for her, which contains all of these necessities.
If you can keep any other pets out of this room for a few days before bringing your new cat home, the room will not smell like someone else’s territory. At a minimum, she will have to stay in this room until she has used the litter box and scratch post or pad.
If your new cat is hiding or hissing, she will have to stay in her room until she settles down. Since this may take anywhere from a week to 10 days, you will need to put food, water bowls and a bed in her room.
As the room acquires her scent and days pass without incident, she will become more secure and more sociable.
2. Person on My Side (First Week Is Key)
Your new cat has no way of knowing if you have his best interests in mind. He may be especially suspicious if you smell of other pets or if there are lively children in the house. If you go into the room you have set up for him and he hides, let him have a few hours to himself.
Then go into his room and talk to him. Do not try to pull him out from his hiding place. Do not stare at him. Spending time in his room daily reading or watching television is a good way to break the ice.
When he stops hiding or hissing and lets you pet him, it is best to give him a full week to bond with you. If there are young children, you may try short, supervised visits before the end of the first week if he seems relaxed.
If your new cat is a kitten, he will need to be in a kitten-safe room at night and when you are not at home.
3. Pet Hierarchy Established (First Month Is Key)
Adult cats will set up a flexible hierarchy, with a linear or complex order for the other pets. When a newcomer enters the territory, you want to make sure the fur does not fly while she finds her spot in the social order.
This is often true when mixing cats and dogs too.
Either way, do not introduce a new cat to any resident pets until the new cat has had a full week to establish her one room as her territory, and trusts at least one of the people in the house.
During this time, spend most of your time with the resident pets – you do not want them hating the new arrival before they even meet her! After petting her, it is a good idea to wash her scent off your hands.
If there are no glaring stares or hissing (or barking) on either side of the closed door or at you after you have visited the new cat, and a week has passed, it is time to see the rest of the house.
Put the resident pets out of her sight in a room or crate and let the new cat explore the house. She needs to know the lay of the land and her way back to her safe room before the big stress of meeting the animals who claim this territory.
Return her to her room when she is done exploring; if no one was stressed, then you are well on your way to the next step.
When it is time to meet the resident cat, simply open the door to her room. You may wish to set up a toddler gate the first time. Have a bath towel handy should you need to block the cats’ view of each other, or separate them.
If the cats do not chose to meet, simply close the new cat in her room when you no longer have the time to watch them. Try it again later.
If all you get is a brief hiss and an air swat, it was a successful first meeting.
If the cats sit, stare and growl, calmly close the door. Try it again later. When they are relaxed in each other’s presence allow them to spend an increasing number of minutes in sight of each other.
If they fight or one cat chases the other, calmly put the towel between them to disorient and redirect the aggressor. Keep them separated for at least a day. The next time they meet, go back to using the toddler gate or a slightly-opened door so they are unable to fight.
Cat and Dog Introductions
When introducing a cat to a resident dog, use these safety measures as well as a leash on the dog to ensure the cat’s safety.
Whether it is the first meeting or a dozen meetings later, once they are merely hissing without arching the back or staring, let the cats interact for 10 or 20 minutes, working up to several hours a day.
Watch them the whole time. This second stage is very crucial to their future relationship. You must ensure that they are separated immediately if there is any stress or aggression.
You do not want fighting or aggression to become a habit; it may only take a couple of weeks for them to establish their hierarchy. However, if you have two assertive cats, this might take many months.
Keep in mind that some cats will never be friends or share litter boxes even after years together. They may, however, have a peaceful coexistence if introductions and resources are handled correctly.
Do not leave your new pet alone with the resident pets until you are sure it is safe to do so. This probably will not be until at least the third week she is living with you.
Signs to look for are sleeping close to each other, using each other’s litter boxes, playing with their ears forward or walking past each other without hissing or swatting.
Be very slow to move the new cat’s resources out of her safe room. Only move them after she is relaxed outside her room and move the resources gradually, a few inches a day.
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, September 2015, pp.44-46
Patience Fisher BS DipFBST CVA BSBIO is the owner of Walk, Play, Learn in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her focus is feline behavior consulting. She fostered cats and assisted with adoptions at two Pittsburgh-area shelters from 2006-2010. She is also a certified veterinary assistant.