How to introduce a new cat to your family

Published on March 2, 2013 by in Blog

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One of our cat sitting clients in Mesa recently had a challenging situation. (Names have been changed to protect the client’s privacy) My client’s daughter was moving with her cat, Kevin, into her mom’s household. Her mom already had a cat, Saxon.  Now these two boys had met each other before, but when they were introduced the owners unknowingly just put them in the house together and hoped for the best. Unfortunately cats are NOT like people and this is definitely *not* the way to go about having cats meet each other. Previously when brought into Kevin’s home, Saxon, chased, scratched, and generally terrorized Kevin. And so Kevin, whose home this was at the time, became terrified of Saxon.

Flash forward to now: the women are moving in together and understandably anxious about trying to merge the 2 cat household given their past experience. I suggested several steps to the ladies and assured them that if done right, it was possible for the boys to get along.

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Whether you are introducing a brand new kitten or cat into a household, or you’ve had an issue with redirected cat aggression and need to re-introduce cats, the steps are always the same.

1)      First you must separate the cats in two rooms. They must have their own food, water and litter boxes. Allow them to smell each other under the doorways. They will probably paw and hiss at each other under the door, too. Leave something with each cat that they can sleep on such as a towel, blanket or bed, and every other day, switch the things they have slept on. Cats are highly attuned to smell.  This will allow them to begin to accept one another’s scent.

2)      Second, switch the cats into each other’s space for short periods of time again allowing them to smell each other in the house. This allows their smells to intermingle into the house slowly. Then switch them back to where they’re most comfortable. Steps one and two should be done for a minimum of 3-5 days giving them time to get their scent around the house (they will probably rub themselves against walls and furniture) and get used to smelling each other’s scent on household items.

3)      Next you will want to feed them at the same time but separate (you may need to remove their food dishes so they don’t eat otherwise). Choose something that is a special treat that they don’t get often. (I’m particularly fond of Fancy Feast Fish and Shrimp flaked wet food – it’s smelly and cats love it). Place the dishes on the floor close to the door opening at the bottom. However when you feed them, keep the door closed between them. You’re just allowing them to enjoy the treat, smell each other on the other side of the door and begin to associate each other’s smell with something pleasurable, i.e.  the yummy treat. They may not eat or they may only eat a little. That’s ok. The association is what you’re going for. Continue with the other steps and this step for a 2-3 days. If there is little or no hissing occurring when they’re eating, you can move on to step 4.

4)      Now it’s time to let them see each other. You can do this a couple ways. You can place the food dishes right by the opening of the door and crack it just a few inches so they can see each other, or you can get a tall baby gate and place it between them. Be careful though that neither cat will jump over the gate and go after the other, otherwise you’ll undo everything you’ve accomplished so far and have to go back to step one. They may or may not hiss at each other or growl a little; this is normal. This is the tricky part because you will have to gauge your cats’ reactions to each other to determine the length of this step. If it’s loud angry hissing and growling, or there is a lot of hair raising and body puffiness, go slow! Don’t rush this step!  I’d say no less than 3 days. If however the cats seem relatively comfortable with one another in between the gate you can go to step 5.

5)      Time to remove all barriers to each other. Best to introduce them in a large open room where they feel free to escape if too scared. If you have any concerns that one will attack the other, you can use a cat harness. The first couple of face to face meetings with no barriers should be short – probably no more than 5 minutes or so. This gives them time to get used to seeing each other and feel safe that they aren’t going to be attacked. After a couple of these meetings you can extend the time, but always leave a place for them to go to escape if something goes wrong. You should still keep the cats separate when alone. Gradually extend the time they’re together, but supervised. Expect some slight hissing and pawing at each other. This is perfectly normal. They may swat at each other’s faces as a way to say, hey, back off this is my space. As long as it’s being done without any signs of possible aggression, it’s ok.

6)      Signs to watch for that one cat is not comfortable with the other and a fight may break out – extreme puffiness in the tail, tail swishing back and forth rapidly, ears pressed tightly against the head, severely dilated pupils (eyes nearly all black), staring each other down intensely, and deep growling or spitting/hissing. If any of these signs appear, it’s time to separate the cats immediately. They’re overly aroused and scared.

7)      Finally, when you are ready to leave them alone, do so for a short period of time, like a 15 minute errand to the store. Gauge their behavior when you come back to see if they need a break from each other.

It is always, always, ALWAYS best to go slow when introducing cats. In our excitement we want them to ‘hurry up’ and become friends, but as with all things cats, you must take direction from them. If you push cats too soon, you can undo everything you’ve done so far and have to go back to the drawing board. This process can take as little as a week and with some cats a couple months.

I had to personally deal with a case of re-directed aggression with my personal cats and it took months for me to be able to get them back together because I rushed it too soon the first time. Slow is better!

There is nothing better than a household full of happy, purring felines. I’m excited to say that for my cat sitting clients in Mesa, with my help following these directions, Kevin and Saxon are now best buddies who enjoy playing with each other!  🙂

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