Safe & Slow
Help your new cat feel safe.
Go slowly. Really slowly.
Step 1: The Safe Room
Cats bond to location, so please find an unused room where your new cat can start to learn the new home. He or she will need bedding, food and water, plus its own litter box. Even a bathroom will work, as long as it’s quiet at least for a few days.
If the new cat’s food and litter box are from a previous life, you’re a step ahead. Also helpful is something comforting from the previous space, like a blanket. The familiar scent on these items will help the cat feel safe. Let your new cat settle in, then leave alone for a few hours.
Let the cat initiate contact with you in the safe room, then add treats and playtime. Pay attention to how the cat responds. Your new cat or kitten may not be able to tolerate some handling because of its past, or have a fear of certain toys. Your cat will tell you when it’s ready for the next step with calm behaviors like purring, stretching and grooming. Be sure he or she is really confident before you go on to Step 2.
Step 2: Introducing the House
Now it’s time to for your new cat to learn about the rest of the house and your other pets. Remember, cats are very territorial, so you need to make sure that everyone has an abundance of resources. This includes not only extra litter boxes to avoid bullying, but also more beds, nesting spots, scratchers, cat trees, feeding stations, toys and especially time with you, their most precious resource.
First, get them used to each other by switching their bedding so they can smell each other. If they like to be petted, you can also use a small towel to pet one, then the other, switching around. This part is really important as it makes them smell familiar and like each other when they first meet.
Then try moving the food closer to the door while putting a food dish on the other side of the door for the home pets. Pay attention to signs of fear in the new cat. Be ready to move the food away from the door if it refuses to eat. Your goal is to get all the pets to eat without fear on both sides of the door.
Next introduce the new cat to a smaller part of the house, like a single floor. Remember, it’s one thing at a time with cats. If you have other cats, switch them to the safe room while the new cat explores the new space on its own. This will allow the home cats to smell and get familiar with the new cat’s scent. Keep returning the cat to the safe room after it’s finished exploring. Repeat if you can. Move to Step 3 when the cat is completely relaxed.
Step 3: Introducing the Animals
We all want our pets to love each other, but if you go too fast and your new cat becomes afraid, you’ll be back to zero. Repeatedly putting a cat in a fearful situation actually trains it for depression or aggression. Hissing is perfectly normal and a way for the cats to draw boundaries. Go slowly and stop if anyone, home pet or new cat, shows more than hissing or mild growling.
If you have both cats and dogs, start with the cats. Introduce the home cats one at a time, starting with the most cat-friendly one. Bring out the new cat and put it on your lap, letting the others know that you, as parent cat, approve of the new one. Rewarding non-aggressive behavior with treats for all animals will help make the experience positive for everyone.
Add cats at a level that feels comfortable to the new cat, looking for signs of stress and backing off if you see them. Depending on whether the new cat has lived with other cats or is naturally social, do this at least a couple of days if you can.
For most cats, some hissing, growling or maybe stalking will be normal while they sort out their territory. As long as no one ends up in fur-flying combat, this will probably lessen over time. If you can make some play barriers, like draping a sheet over some chairs or making a little bridge like this to hide under, it will let them get used to playing without direct confrontation.
It’s even more important to go slowly when introducing dogs. As animal behaviorist Dr. Suzanne Hetts says, “Dogs can kill a cat very easily, even if they’re only playing.” This is even more true when introducing a kitten.
Some cats have never been around dogs or have already had a bad experience with them. Please remember it doesn’t matter if your dog is comfortable around the new cat–-it’s the new cat who is having to adapt to the new situation. If he or she shows fear or stress, you’ll need to back up to an earlier step until the cat is relaxed again.
Include the dog in the eating and scent-switching techniques, above. The main thing is to avoid any chasing, which can set up the cat for fear and be hard to recover from. Then pick a room with you, a friend, the dog and the cat. To keep the cat’s fear level down, you’ll need to make sure the dog isn’t making big movements or noises. Leash the dog and keep it calm, or put it in a Down Stay, if it’s had training.
Start with the home dog and new cat on opposite sides of the room, each with a person giving treats so they both associate good things with the new animal. Build up exposure to each other with many short visits so neither animal gets antsy.
Once the cat is comfortable, allow he or she to approach the dog at its own pace, keeping the dog in the Down Stay. If the cat gets fearful or aggressive, you’re going too fast. Go back a couple of steps and start over. Repeat this process in small steps until they are clearly comfortable with each other.
We hear people say, “My new cat attacked my dog.” Unless your cat is a 20-pound Maine Coon and your dog is a 2 pound Chihuahua, your cat was probably acting defensively, not offensively. If you let the dog get close enough for the cat to go into attack mode, you have already pushed the cat way past its fear threshold, triggering a fear response that will be hard to overcome.
Always be sure the new cat has an escape route and can get to its safe room, and keep your dog leashed until you’re sure the new cat is no longer fearful. If you have more than one dog, introduce them singly just like the cats. Continue to read your dog’s and cat’s body language and keep them under supervision.
If the dog shows signs of aggression that weren’t there before, take them seriously. We know a person who adopted a new dog. They thought the new dog was “playing” with their senior cat by picking it up by the scruff, until the next day when the new dog killed their beloved old cat.
If any animal starts to act aggressively, please just separate them; don’t punish. Actively punishing any of the animals for being aggressive will link the new cat to that fearful response in everyone, setting up everyone for failure.
You may think that taking a couple of weeks to introduce animals is time-intensive. Please remember, that’s nothing compared to the time and emotion you’ll have to invest down the road, undoing fear that has turned into aggression or depression. If you’re patient, there’s nothing so rewarding as having a happy pet family that truly enjoys one another.