Foster harmonious new cat relationships

By Dr. Beth Leermakers

A co-worker who has two adult cats is reluctant to adopt another cat, fearing that the older ones won’t accept a new kitty companion. Just because your cat gets along with his current feline friend doesn’t mean he’ll welcome another one into the mix. Because cats are territorial, they won’t necessarily be receptive to a new cat. If you’re eager to adopt or foster a cat, here are some recommendations to help you introduce a new cat or kitten to your resident feline.

Choose a compatible companion. Where cats are concerned, opposites do NOT attract. Think about your cat’s personality and energy level and choose a new cat that’s similar. According to a certified applied animal behaviorist, “The more you can get cat personalities to match, the better. Cats that are similar in personality are more likely to hit it off. A playful cat will be a good match for a playful kitten.” If your cat isn’t playful, she may find a rambunctious kitten annoying.

The initial introduction is critical. The first introduction sets the stage for the relationship between the cats, so it’s important to handle it properly. Putting the cats in a room together right away and hoping for the best probably won’t go well. An abrupt introduction will cause cats to enter survival mode, displaying hostile behavior toward each other. That initial hostility can be tough for your cats to overcome. Patience and sensitivity are keys to success, so be prepared for this introduction process to take a little while.

Separate the cats in the beginning. When you bring your new cat home, put him in a room that isn’t your resident cat’s favorite hangout. Keep the cats isolated from each other so they can’t see each other — ideally with a solid door between them. Each cat should have his own litter box, food and water bowls, scratching post and perch. Give both cats time to feel relaxed and comfortable with the new situation before introducing them.

The cats may sniff each other under the closed door, providing a non-threatening, non-visual way for them to become familiar with each other. Scent transfer is a safe way to test how your cats are reacting to an alien presence. Rub a washcloth or T-shirt on your resident cat, then let the new cat sniff it and rub up against it. Then take the scented item back to your resident cat. If either cat hisses at the scented item, that’s a sign that it’s too soon for introductions. Wait until both cats are calm and relaxed before moving on to the next step. This may take several days, or even longer.

Let your cats see each other, while rewarding them with treats. Set up a baby gate in the doorway of the new cat’s room and cover it with a sheet so the cats can’t see each other. Grab a handful of treats you know each cat loves. Remove the sheet for a brief moment so the cats can see each other, then praise your cats, toss them a treat and cover the baby gate again. This sounds like a two-person job to me, so you may want to enlist a friend to help with this activity. The cats get a brief glance at each other and get rewarded for it, so the other cat becomes associated with the positive experience. This positive reinforcement won’t work if you don’t choose a treat that each cat adores (yes, it may be different for each cat). Repeat this activity five to 10 times in a row, several times per day. If your cats aren’t responding negatively (hissing or growling), you can gradually increase the length of time they get to see the other cat. When this is going well, you’re ready for the next step.

Feed the cats on opposite sides of the baby gate. Feed them smaller meals, several times per day so they’ll have multiple opportunities to come together at the gate. Start by putting their food bowls at a distance and then gradually move the bowls closer to the gate. Supervise your cats during meal time, so you can intervene if something goes wrong. Your goal is to have each cat associate the other one with positive experiences (food and treats).

Play with the cats with the gate between them. If feeding time is going well, get two toys for the cats. A pet fishing rod with a three-foot string and feathers works well. Have one toy in each hand (or ask a friend to help) and stand near the baby gate so the cats can be close to each other but separated. Keep your play sessions short and stop them before you see any negative interactions between the cats. Reward them with a favorite treat. If your cats are getting along well and enjoying playing, gradually increase the play time. If you don’t see any hissing, hard staring or other hostile behavior, it may be time for playtime without the barrier. If one or both cats are lying down, purring, casually looking at the other cat or rubbing up against the gate, you can move on to the next step.

Supervise the cats interacting without the gate. If your cats are eating and playing near each other peacefully, you’re ready to let them interact without the barrier, under close supervision. Remove the baby gate and let your cats interact while you stand by. Have a hand-held barrier such as a piece of cardboard ready in case you need to separate the cats quickly. If either cats stares at or stalks the other one, distract both cats with the fishing rod toy or their favorite treats. Be prepared to step in if you see any aggression. If a fight is imminent, use the cardboard to separate the cats instead of reaching down with your hands. Safety first! Keep playtime short initially, and end the session with a treat. Gradually increase the amount of time the cats interact, supervising them at all times. It may take weeks, or even months, until you feel comfortable leaving the cats together unattended.

If one cat hides more often than usual, urinates outside the litter box, or grooms herself to the point of hair loss, she’s unhappy or stressed. Go back to positive reinforcement with the baby gate separating the cats. You may need to consult a board-certified animal behaviorist for assistance.

Yes, this process may seem painfully slow and cumbersome. However, by introducing your cats slowly and cautiously, you’re fostering a harmonious relationship between your cats. Your patience will likely result in lower stress for yourself, your cats and the rest of your household.

Photo courtesy of Little Robot
Photo courtesy of Lifestyle Pet Care