A certain amount of conflict and discord is natural in any group living situation. Owners of even the most mellow and congenial cat families know just how quickly conflict can erupt as group members experience the normal ups and downs of life. Wise owners understand how powerfully even seemingly insignificant changes can affect their cats and disrupt the harmony of the entire group. They also know how important it is to address the effects of changes positively and immediately, before the situation spins out of control.
Some of the trickiest situations to manage are those when a new family member enters the picture, and when a family member leaves the group. Loss of a human or feline family member — especially a sudden loss — can trigger a cascade of alterations in the group’s structure, upset existing relationships, or even bring to light previously hidden conflicts.
Life is full of surprises, and even the most prescient owner cannot anticipate how a loss or change in the group’s composition will affect his cats and their relationships. With cats, though, it’s always best to be prepared for just about anything: A minor change might cause a major upset, while something human family members see as a monumental hurricane might pass through the cat group like a spring breeze.
And so it is with introductions. Many introductions, whether of kittens or adult cats, simply go off without a hitch. But difficult introductions, more than any other household change, are what can bring the cat owner’s most dreaded word — rehoming — into the conversation.
Why introductions are hard
Why does introducing a new cat to a group so often cause such consternation? To a cat, an unfamiliar cat is not a potential friend but a possible threat, in a way that a member of any other species is not. Cats see other cats as direct competitors for the resources they prize the most, such as food, space (territory), social status and attention from favorite humans.
Wise cat owners know how to manage feline introductions to maximize their chances of success. “The ‘yellow’ brick road’ of cat introductions, if carried out religiously, should work most of the time,” says Nicholas Dodman, BVMS DACVB, Director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and author of The Cat Who Cried for Help.
But sometimes, even when an owner does everything right, some or all of the cats refuse to go along with the program. “Cats, like people, have different personalities,” says Dr. Dodman. Sometimes it’s the new cat who just refuses to fit in and get along; other times one or more of the resident cats make it abundantly clear that they have no intention of accepting the newcomer as a family member — ever. “Maybe the cats are incompatible, personality wise. No matter how slowly you go, you still see ears flat back, dilated pupils, hissing, and charging — all the hallmarks of angry, unhappy cats.”
Deciding to rehome
If all else has truly failed and you’re unable or unwilling to compartmentalize your home and/or break up your cat group, you may conclude that finding a suitable new home for the cat is the kindest and most sensible path forward.
If you obtained the newcomer from a breeder, that breeder should be the first person you contact. Many breeder contracts require that the breeder be notified if you can’t keep the cat for any reason, and that they be given the opportunity to take the cat back.
If you obtained the newcomer from a shelter, you might ask the shelter if they’d be willing to take the cat back. Obviously, a lot depends on the particular shelter, their management practices and philosophies, and how you feel about the shelter. But if you’re comfortable with the shelter, and feel that the cat has a good chance at finding a more suitable home through them, this can be a comfortable option.
One caution, though: Unless you’re quite sure that the newcomer’s own particular quirks were the cause of his failure to be accepted by your cats, resist the urge to take another cat home to “try again.” It might be better to wait awhile, and think more deeply about whether you and your cats are ready for any new addition. It may be that trying to adopt one more cat put your home past its natural cat-carrying capacity.
If neither a breeder nor a shelter return is an option for you, your task becomes much more difficult. Now you need to turn to your friends, family, social networks and other like-minded contacts.
And it may be best to seek out a new home where the cat will be an only cat. “If the cat is going to a home with no other cats, your only task is to vet the people, in the same way you would judge a daycare for your child,” says Dr. Dodman. “Make sure they’re decent people who will take good care of the cat.” If a single-cat home isn’t available, notes Dodman, tread carefully. “If they have cats, propose a ‘trial marriage.’ Put all the cats in crates, put them together in a room and see how they react. If you see interest and curiosity, that’s a good sign — proceed with introductions. But if you immediately see hostility, spitting, etc.— you don’t want to start on the bottom of that ladder again!”
Rehoming someone else’s cat
If more than a few people know you love cats, you’ve probably received many phone calls like this: A friend of a friend of an acquaintance has a cat or two (or three) who need new homes immediately — by this weekend! The owner has exhausted all her options, she’s at wit’s end — and now you are the cats’ only chance. The only alternative is a crowded municipal shelter — and you know what that likely means for the cats. This is a very difficult situation that can produce an overwhelming sense of guilt and obligation.
Although your first instinct may be to take the cats, think it through very carefully. What do you know about the cats and their history? Do they have any special medical needs? Behavioral issues? How will taking on the burden of one or more additional cats affect your own cat group? Is your own home already at its maximum cat-carrying capacity? And — most importantly — has the owner truly exhausted all alternatives? Whatever you do, don’t just impulsively agree to take the cats in yourself.
But what if it’s dear Aunt Tilly’s beloved pets — cats you’ve known for years — who need a new home, or the cats of a close friend who has had a sudden run of extremely bad luck? In this case, your feelings of obligation and guilt can run immeasurably higher. Again, think carefully about the ramifications of taking in the cats yourself. You’ll know if it’s the right thing to do, both for the cats and for yourself.
If you conclude that you’re just unable to make a lifetime commitment to those cats, be honest about it. Explain your rationale, and explain how it would not be the best thing for the cats. Then step up to the plate. Throw your energy into finding those cats a good, permanent home. Use social media, put the word out to your networks, use your connections to shelters and rescue organizations to find the perfect home for the cats.
Carefully research sanctuaries
One important note: Beware of large, privately run “cat sanctuaries” that offer to take in virtually any and all comers for a fee or donation. These organizations tend to be run by well-meaning individuals or small groups who really think they can care for as many cats as they can take in. But the supply of cats needing new homes is endless, and these outfits, too often, soon find themselves in over their heads. Some of them have blown up scandalously and very publicly, after revelations that the cats were living in atrocious conditions and were not receiving anything like adequate care. These situations are tragedies — for both the people and the animals involved — and offer important lessons about what happens when good intentions gallop ahead of good sense.
If you’re considering a private shelter or sanctuary, do your homework. It’s best to make repeated, leisurely visits to any shelter or sanctuary in which you are considering placing cats. That’s why working with local organizations is so important. A continuing working relationship with your chosen shelter or sanctuary is your best guarantee that the cats you place there will enjoy long, safe, happy, healthy lives. A regular volunteer commitment, plus regular donations of money and needed supplies, will go a long way towards helping insure that the shelter will welcome any cats you need to place.
What about your own cats? If something were to happen to you, what would happen to them? Have you made provisions for their long-term care? If not, you may be putting your own friends and family in the very difficult position of deciding what to do about your animals if you’re unexpectedly unable to care for them (see related article in the October 2015 issue of Catnip). — Catnipstaff