Christine Hibbard, CTC, CPDT-KA
National Adopt a Cat Month means that many of us will either be introducing a new cat to our home or at least contemplating whether adopting a cat is a good idea. Cats are very different from dogs in that regardless of whether you’ve socialized your cat well as a kitten with other cats/dogs, not all cats adapt well to a new feline family member. The good news though is that most cats learn to adapt and even enjoy one another if introduced properly and over a long enough period of time. Here are the tips we give owners for increasing the chances of a successful cat adoption:
What is cuter than a kitten? One that gets off on the right paw! Set up a management area for your new kitten which contains food, litter box, hiding places and toys. Do not let your kitten have free access to your home since it’s easy for a young kitten to get lost and forget where their litter box is located. Over a few weeks, slowly increase the range of your home you make available to your kitten. As you expand the area of your home, add additional litter boxes. There should be at least one litter box per cat, per floor. If you catch your kitten using the litter box or scratching at their scratching post, give them a treat or a play session with you when they’re finished. Reward the behavior you want and you’ll get more of it!
Set up a safe area for the new cat which contains food, litter box, hiding places and toys. Give the new cat a few days to acclimate and realize they’re safe in their new home. Make time to play with your new kitty. If you have existing cats in the house, wipe a damp cloth over your existing kitties’ heads and bodies and leave that cloth in your new cat’s area. We want the new cat to get used to the scents of the other cat(s) in the home. After a few days, it’s time to give the cat a tiny bit more access to the other cats in the home by feeding the cats extra tasty wet food or treats on opposite sides of a closed door. After a week of this, you can try replacing the door with an extra tall baby gate or netting. We want the cats to see one another but not allow them to have access to one another just yet. Now you can feed them on opposite sides of the netting or gate for a few days but only a few days. If the cats have visual access to one another but can’t physically get to one another, you risk one of the cats spraying/marking at the barrier.
You’ve decided things are proceeding smoothly so it’s time to give the cats physical access to one another. Here are some tips for keeping initial introductions positive:
- Make sure there are plenty of escape routes including cat trees, cat condos and perches for a quick escape (no confined spaces or closing the cats into an area).
- Keep the interactions short at first (a few minutes the first time).
- If you see either cat beginning to stiffen or posture, separate the cats and try again the next day (if possible, never let a fight break out).
- Keep the cats’ interactions positive using toys and treats.
- Only leave the cats out together unsupervised when they’ve been interacting positively for several weeks.
- Keep the environmental enrichment high (lots of interactive toys, work to eat puzzles, scratching posts, etc).
Is your dog a good candidate to have a feline housemate? Does your dog have any experience living with cats? Does your existing dog sometimes chase your cat(s)? Most often, dogs are curious about cats and if they run, the game is on (toys that move)! If this is your dog, try to brush up on your dog’s training. Useful commands to brush up on are: leave it, go to mat and stay. Increase your dog’s daily exercise and environmental enrichment: work to eat toys, chews, etc.
If your dog has high prey drive (they’ve proven it by bringing you a mole, bunny or other small creature), trying to add a cat to your household will be anywhere from extremely difficult to impossible depending on your level of management and commitment to training. Remember, a behavior with a high genetic component is the most difficult to change. I’ve seen dogs with high prey drive learn the difference between a furry family member versus prey but I always worry about instinctual drift. This can happen if the cat becomes startled, runs or gets cornered. Your dog can go from family pet to predator in a split second.
Litter Box Problems: If one or more of your cats stops using the litter box, look at the placement of your boxes. Most owners like to put litter boxes in out of the way areas. After all, we like privacy, don’t our cats? Not if the litter box can allow them to be trapped in a dead end hallway or inside a laundry room.
Spraying/Marking: Most owners assume this is territorial behavior and it is but it can be started or exacerbated by anxiety. Increase environmental enrichment and encourage positive interactions between the cats. Make interactions positive with play and/or treats. Increase environmental enrichment opportunities.
Aggression: If aggression breaks out, we recommend early intervention by a qualified animal behavior specialist. Aggression rarely resolves itself and is likely to escalate.
Are you planning to adopt a cat or kitten this season? What have your experiences been integrating pets into your household? Do you have tips for cat adoption success? We’d love you to share them!