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Feature January 2013 Issue

Planning to Adopt a New Cat?

If you live in a multi-cat home, itís important that you plan ahead for successful feline introductions. Experts share ways to safely welcome the new addition.

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It might be tempting to rush the process, and just hope that everyone gets along. But patience will pay off when introducing a new cat into your home.

Congratulations! You’re the proud owner of a new cat or kitten – and you can’t wait to introduce your adorable new friend to the family. As a caring owner, you know your cats well, and you’re sure that they will be just as thrilled with the new addition as you are. Why not just put everyone together in one room, hope for the best and see how it goes?

Not so fast! According to Dr. Nicholas Dodman, that is the most common mistake cat owners make when introducing a new cat or kitten: “Just dumping the newcomer into the mix and assuming things will be well.”

Dr. Dodman — director of the Animal Behavior Clinic and professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, MA — advises taking plenty of time, exercising vigilance … and always letting the cats set the pace.

Plan ahead for success
There’s a lot you can do to set yourself up for success in introducing a new cat — even before the newcomer comes home. First, choosing a cat of a certain age and gender can make a big difference. For a multi-cat family, a kitten (or a pair of kittens) might be a better choice than an adult, for example. Many experts feel that adult cats tend to have more difficulty integrating harmoniously into a new family setting. Depending on their personal history, adult cats can arrive complete with significant emotional baggage. Adults also have a greater tendency to view unfamiliar cats as threats and competitors rather than as potential friends.

Kittens are much more adaptable, usually considering other cats as potential playmates rather than competitors. Their small size and babyish ways also seem to bring out a protective instinct — or at least a measure of bemused tolerance — in older cats.

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Each day, swap out your new cat's bedding with some bedding that has been used by your other cats. This "scent mingling" will help with introductions.

When deciding on gender, look to your current mix of cats for clues. Most experts feel that a well-balanced, mixed-gender group works better than, for example, an all-female feline group. However, cats are all individuals and it’s hard to predict how any particular cat will fit into a group. Your best bet is to adopt the cat you fall in love with — and then work diligently to provide the very best possible environment for harmony and success.

Next, consider your space. A new cat means a need for more “good spots” — high-quality, cat-attractive hangouts. High perches and cozy dens are especially prized by cats, as are locations in close proximity to you and your daily routines.

It’s never a bad idea to add a new climbing tree/scratching post, says Dr. Dodman, author of The Cat Who Cried for Help. Cats live and think in three dimensions, and providing abundant three-dimensional spaces can be reassuring to your cats that there’s enough space (and other resources) for them. Trees with multiple high perches are especially prized. You should provide a wide range of attractive locations for your cats to lounge, nap and observe the world. Ideally, offer an abundance of high-quality spots so that every cat can always find one.

Provide plenty of resources
For your cats, offer plenty of everything, plus extras. Cats — especially cats living in groups — are extremely aware of resource availability and allocation. Although your cats may be pampered house pets, they’re still “hardwired” with the mindsets and reaction patterns of the vulnerable, solitary predators they’d be in a more natural environment.

To your cat, a new, unfamiliar cat is not a potential friend, but a potential threat to his resources. Your job is to dispel these concerns and convince all your cats that there will be plenty of everything for them. A sense of peace, prosperity and plenty makes for a harmonious cat household.

For each new cat you add to your mix, add at least one litter box, for a total of one box per cat plus at least one extra. Ideally, boxes should be distributed in “clusters” around your home, especially if you live in a multi-level space. Multiple litter box stations provide a built-in defense against “litter box guarding,” a form of feline bullying that can arise when one cat decides he wants to monopolize that important resource.

Review your cat-proofing
Many multi-cat owners who adopt a kitten or young cat after living for years with a stable, more mature group will need a quick refresher course in Cat-proofing 101. You may have forgotten how intelligent, agile and curious young cats are – and how apt they are to put everything in their mouths. Insure that poisonous substances, cleaning products, medicines and sharp objects are kept inside closed cabinets with child-proof latches. Stray bits of string and similar objects are particularly enticing toys for young cats, but can cause life-threatening illness if swallowed.

Securely screen all windows, including upper casements. Consider storing fragile objects, valuable antiques and the like in a space designated as a cat-free zone. In your home office and elsewhere, tidy up dangling cords and other dangers.

Prepare your cat isolation room
Bringing a new cat into your home is a big change for everyone concerned — and you already know how cats feel about big changes. Therefore, plan for a slow and gradual introduction process. Well in advance of homecoming day, prepare a space just for the newcomer, cat-proofed with extra care. This can be a spare bedroom, bathroom, laundry room or other space with a door that can be closed.

Even better, fit out your “new cat room” with a screen door in addition to the regular door. This will give you much more flexibility in conducting the introductions, as your established cats can clearly see and greet the newcomer initially, without having to go all the way to physical interaction until they’re all comfortably ready.

Adoption day protocol
In order to protect both your new cat and your existing cats, the new cat should be isolated in his own room until he has been to a veterinarian for an exam, vaccinations and parasite screening. In his isolation room, your newcomer should have his own litter box, climbing tree/scratching post, food and water bowls, bed and toys.

Once you get the all-clear, though, it’s time to start “scent mingling” – your secret weapon for super-successful introductions. Each day, swap out your new cat’s bedding with some bedding that has been heavily used by your other cats. Add to each set of bedding an unlaundered item that carries your scent (an unwashed T-shirt is ideal), so that all the cats will come to associate your scent with the scents of the new cat and the established cats.

The more everyone smells alike, the better your introduction process will proceed. An established, harmonious group of cats enjoys a familiar “group scent” that reassures everyone and gives them vital daily reminders that they’re family, not competitors.

Ready for face-to-face?
How long should you keep the newcomer isolated from your established feline family? Ask your veterinarian for her suggestions —her emphasis will be on insuring that the newcomer is completely healthy and parasite-free and will not pose a danger to your older cats. Don’t try to rush this, especially if your newcomer arrived with any kind of parasites. Insure that everything is cleared up completely, even before allowing the “paws under the door” stage to commence.

For the first few days, keep a rolled-up towel under the door. The cats will be able to hear and smell one another, piquing their natural curiosity without unduly stressing them. You’ll probably start to see cats hanging around by the door. That means it’s time to remove the rolled-up towel barrier and allow some under-the-door paw tapping. If this goes well for a day or so — producing more curiosity and friendly interest than stress — open the door, leaving the screen door (if you have one) closed. Or, just crack the door a bit so the cats can indulge in some nose-to-nose interactions. You can sweeten these first encounters with some tasty treats placed on the floor in the doorway.

Carefully observe the reactions of both the newcomer and the established cats. If you hear a lot of hissing or even growling, or see aggressive paw-swiping, back off for awhile and close the door, and immediately reward everyone with a few tasty treats. Wait awhile and try again. Pay close attention to the reactions of all your cats — some may be super-friendly, curious and ready for more interaction, while there may be one or more who feel more threatened or confused. Or, one or more cats may hang back in “wait and see” mode. It’s important to let the more hesitant cats catch up at their own pace before proceeding, even if this means going more slowly than you’d like.

At this point in the feline introduction dance, everything depends on the cats themselves. Be observant, and honest. Assure yourself that all the established cats are on board before going ahead. “If the response across the screen, or to a one-inch crack in the door, is curiosity and interest instead of hissing,” says Dr. Dodman, “then progress can be quite rapid. If everyone remains friendly and curious first through the barrier, than through the cracked door (or screen), then the first true, non-barrier face-to-face meeting should last half an hour or more.”

“Ideally, you’ll see interest, interaction and play,” says Dr. Dodman. “What you don’t want is hissing, raised hackles, bushy tails or widely dilated pupils.”

At this point, observe how each cat behaves, and note the general tone of the first meetings. “Owners should understand that cats, like people, do not necessarily like members of their own species,” says Dr. Dodman. “Some will immediately like the new addition; others will be mistrustful or territorial. It all depends on the individuals.” One newcomer will slip seamlessly into the established social order. Another — because of age, gender, energy level or personality — can ultimately cause a major shake-up.

Once you’ve presided over the first several successful face-to-face encounters, it’s time to back off and let the cats handle the “getting-to-know-you-better” phase. Don’t let your vigilance down, though, as subtle conflicts can arise that can sabotage group harmony.

Energy mismatches
Sometimes, the motivation to adopt a new cat arises out of loss. The owner feels that a new feline companion would be just the thing to lift a grieving survivor cat or owner out of the dumps after the loss of a long-term companion. And it’s true that the arrival of a fresh feline face can work wonders, giving middle-aged and older cats a new lease on life. But constant, exuberant overtures from an energetic youngster — however well-intended — can really wear on an older cat, threatening the equanimity of even the most tolerant, settled oldster.

Signs that an older cat is becoming stressed by the newcomer include withdrawing from family life, avoiding interactive playtimes, sneaking in to dine alone after the rest of the cats are finished eating, or hiding. Occasionally, an established cat can be so stressed by unwanted attentions from a newcomer that he stops leaving his hidey-hole even to use the litter box.

Ideally, you’ll notice signs of stress and withdrawal long before things get to that point. But if you start finding cat feces or urine in corners, closets or other locations where an older cat has been spending a lot of time, act immediately. Return the newcomer to his isolation room and focus your attention on restoring your older cat’s sense of safety and comfort in his home.

It usually takes at least a few months before cats will be completely comfortable with a newcomer. “Even if there are mild hostilities initially,” says Dodman, “these will for the most part settle down by four months out.”

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