Bringing home a dog when you have another one at home (or two or three or more) is one thing, but bringing a cat into a resident cat’s territory is another thing altogether. Besides litter box problems, most of my “cat clients” were about aggression between a resident and an incoming cat. Blending cat families can be almost as complicated and fraught as two adult people moving in together with a group of unrelated and relatively unfamiliar adolescents. Let’s just say that if cats could slam doors, they would.
But then, who needs to slam doors when you can hiss, spit and attack with five discrete weapon sites on your body? Yes, dogs too can fight and might not get along, but in general it is much easier to add a dog to the pack than it is to add a cat if you have one already.
This is not unreasonable when you think about it: Cats are both highly territorial and have a completely different system of greeting and becoming “acquainted” than dogs (and people for that matter). The closest living relative of house cats, the African Wild Cat, (Go here for a great video of one) lives on an overlapping set of territories called home ranges. Females each have their own core area, but their territories overlap to some extent. However, unless food is especially abundant, the females use a shared area only one at a time. Thus, a female will sit and look, smell and listen for signs of another cat. If the land is “open,” she’ll move into it. If it is occupied at the time being, she’ll wait, sort of like we’d use a rest room. The males have exclusive use of their territory, which usually includes that of two or three females.
Now you know why your indoor/outdoor cat goes to the door, yowls to go out and then sits in the doorway until you lose patience and insist it make up its mind. But it’s just being a cat: waiting to learn what it needs to know about the environment before venturing out. Cats also greet unfamiliar conspecifics completely differently than dogs and people. Some cats don’t read the books, of course, but if left to their own devices, most cats greet other cats by avoiding any kind of close contact, including eye contact even if a good distance apart. As a matter of fact, their behavior looks like they are doing everything BUT greeting: they sit far away from each other, avoid eye contact at all costs, and basically pretend there is no other cat in view. It’s hard to label that greeting behavior, but that is how cats get things started. Cats will sometimes spend days or weeks, and sometimes months, just hanging out on the edge of another’s territory, until the sight and scent of them has become familiar.
Understanding the ethology of cat behavior is thus the key to knowing how to best introduce cats, by accepting that cats do best if they can avoid being close together and in visual contact when they first meet. Based on that, here is the best way, in my experience, to introduce unfamiliar cats:
1. NEVER force an introduction. Holding one cat up to another is a recipe for disaster, and can destroy any chance of the cats ever getting along. First impressions are hugely important to cats, and in my experience, cats have memories like elephants, and tend to never forget aversive experiences or what they consider to be offensive behavior.
2. House the new cat in its own room, with comfortable spaces in which the cat can feel safe, with food and water on one side and a large litter box on another. Remember that cats want to be up high and/or in areas in which they can’t be attacked from behind. Under the bed may be the place a lot of new cats go for safety, but it is never a place that a cat will feel safe and relaxed. If a cat is hiding under the bed, it’s scared, pure and simple, and not relaxed. Provide as many safe areas as you can create to give the cat the best chance of feeling comfortable in a new environment, remembering that cats want to be UP in space, not down.
Make the new room as relaxing as possible. When I adopted Sushi from the humane society I plugged in the pheromone Feliway for three days before I brought her home, and ever after that was one of her favorite rooms in the house. Of course, there might have been many reasons for that, but I suspect that the pheromones from Feliway played a role.
If at all possible, prevent the resident cat from going to the door to the new cat’s room and sniffing or vocalizing. The new cat is trapped in the room and knows it, and has no where to go. It’s best to keep the cats as far away as possible during the early period of introduction.
3. After a few days, put the resident cat in a secure room (hopefully in a place it enjoys) and let the new cat explore the rest of the house for 30 or 60 minutes. This is exactly like the shared “home ranges” seen in wild cats, in which each cat gets to use common territory, but only one at a time. Give the new cats lots of treats in the new environment; partly as a way of classically conditioning it, partly as a way of evaluating its stress level. If the cat won’t eat chicken or some other wonderful food, then you know it is still relatively stressed and you need to proceed slowly. After the cat has done some exploring, take it back to its own “core territory.”
4. If things are going well, and the cats are both eating and show few signs of stress, put a towel that has been rubbed on the other cat into their living space. This is another way for the cats to get acquainted without having to be up close and personal. The more familiar the scent of the other cat, the more likely they will be to get along once they meet.
5. After a period of days or weeks (depending, of course, on the cats), begin to feed the cats on either side of the door. The cats should not be able to see each other, but able to smell and hear the other cat as they eat. If the cats hiss or behave fearfully, feed them farther away from the door until they calm down. Then gradually, over a period of days move the food closer and closer.
6. Once the cats are eating on either side of the door and are comfortable with the scent of the other on a towel, it is time to add in visual contact. (The best measure of their comfort level at this point is to see if they will sleep on the towel that smells like the other cat, a point well made by Suzanne Hetts when talking about introducing dogs and cats at ABS last month.) In this case, create a situation in which the cats can see each other but not get too close. Avoid putting one cat in a crate and letting the other come over to sniff, that is far too frightening to the enclosed cat. Ideally, the cats can be put in a situation in which they can see each other clearly but not interact, but it’s true that this isn’t always the easiest situation to set up. Many of my clients ended up getting screens to temporarily put across indoor doorways, so that each cat was in a room separated by screens and another room. At the least have a glass door or window between the cats, and give each cat the chance to move away from the door if they want to.
7a. If things don’t go well and one cat looks alarmed or aggressive, go back and few steps and take a deep breath. Introducing cats can try anyone’s patience, but patience is the key here. It can take cats up to 6 months to settle in with one another, that is not an uncommon period of time for unfamiliar cats to relax in each other’s presence. (Note: If they haven’t at least learned to tolerate each other after 12 months there is little chance that they ever will. Some cats learn to divide the house up into territories, upstairs one cat, downstairs the other. If that works for them, that might be just good enough.)
7b. If things are going well, it is finally time to remove the barriers and let the cats interact. Often it works well to begin feeding them side by side, but stay close by to ensure that one cat doesn’t take the food of the other. I wouldn’t worry if there are occasional hisses and glares, but I wouldn’t tolerate one cat chasing another more than a few feet and more than a time or two.
Of course, cats are famous for not reading the books, so you may well have had two cats who got along beautifully from the word go. That does happen, quite often considering their natural history, but I can cite you hundreds of cases in which two cats were forced onto each other and despised each other ever after. Thus, you are wise to go slow and be conservative. “Better safe than sorry” is not just a trite saying here, it should be your mantra.
Cats and Dogs? If bringing a cat into a household with a dog, follow the same procedure, but be sure that the dog is on leash when they first interact. If you are bringing a dog in, keep the dog on leash until you are positive it won’t chase the cat or frighten it in any way. Give the cat its own room where the dog can’t ever bother it, and teach the dog to look at you every time he sees the cat to prevent chasing. Granted, some dogs and cats play chase as a game, but it’s not a game to a cat until the friendship is well established, it’s just predator with themselves as the prey.
What about you? I love hearing cat stories: What has your experience been? Do you have any good ideas for others about how to introduce cats into a new household?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Willie worked sheep! Oh oh oh, what a wonderful weekend! Granted, I asked very little of him and it was ridiculously brief, but what a joy it was for both of us. Just thinking about watching him do his first outrun on Saturday makes me all gooey.
And since the topic is about cats today, how could I resist taking pictures of Nellie and Polly? Here’s Polly bunting against her momma, Nellie. Both of them made it hard to take a photo, because they were all over me, rubbing against my legs, it being dinner time and all. Polly is getting cuddlier, which I love. She is a year old now and is growing up to be a truly beautiful cat; what a bonus that she is getting to be as sweet as her momma.
Here’s a portrait of Nellie, showing the classic “black on one side of the nose, orange on the other” of tortoiseshells. We are so lucky to have her, she truly is one of the great cats of the universe, and she makes me happy every day when I call “Nellie!” in a high, loud voice and she comes running, running from the barn like a trained dog. She bunts all over my legs, I pick her up and purr and stroke her back and rub her cheeks, then put her down for her dinner. Polly dives into her own dinner as if starving, but Nellie won’t eat until I pet her first. So I do, then I go in the house and wash my hands lest my eyes puff up like soggy sponges and begin to itch as if I had poison ivy in them. But it’s worth it, they are such wonderful additions to the farm and they make me smile every day; I am so grateful to have cats back in my life.