Adding a new cat to your household can lead to behavior problems with the new and resident cat if you rush the process. Cats need time to acclimate to each other and learn to tolerate, and hopefully grow to enjoy, each other's company. Success lies in laying the foundation for their relationship before you bring the new cat home and taking your time to work at their comfort level.
Before You Start Introducing Cats
Cats are sensitive to change, especially when that change involves meeting new cats. With a little bit of knowledge about cat behavior, there are a few ways that you can make introductions go smoother.
Cats interact with the world and learn about their environment through their highly developed sense of smell. Providing your cat with items that smell like the other cat before they meet can be a way of "introducing" them without the stress of a face-to-face meeting. Use scent by placing a towel in the bed of each cat or rubbing it against them so it picks up their scent, then place that towel in the other cat's bedding. You can do this with toys as well.
Cats become very stressed when meeting strange cats so providing them with lots of mental and physical enrichment can help to ease their anxiety. This type of enrichment depends on your cat and his or her personality. It can be more window perches to view birds and squirrels, different types of cat toys, a new deluxe scratching post, or breakfast or dinner in foraging toys. Clicker training them to do different behaviors and tricks is also an excellent mental enrichment activity.
Use Vertical Space
Make sure there's plenty of options for all the cats to access that are vertical as cats enjoy climbing and being higher up can feel safer if they're nervous. Having a variety of cat trees and shelves for the cats can give them more places to go to separate when they don't want to interact and this reduces the chance of fighting.
Use Positive Reinforcement
You always want to work with reinforcing the behavior that you want and directing the cats away from behavior you don't. You can positively reinforce the cats using whatever each one really enjoys, which can be a brushing, kitty treats, playing with a toy or "happy talk" and cuddling." Never use any type of harsh punishment such as yelling if the cats start to hiss at each other or spray bottles as this can make the problem worse. If the cats are already stressed at meeting each other, throwing in punishment will convince them that their negative feelings about the other cat are justified.
Go at Your Cats' Pace
Be prepared for your introduction process to take quite some time. This could be a few days, a few weeks or potentially more. Never rush the process and go at the pace at which all of the cats involved are comfortable. Too much too soon can be counterproductive and increase stress levels which can lead to fighting.
Read Body Language
Learn all that you can about cat body language so you can stop sessions from becoming too much for the cats. If you learn about the signs of stress you can see when one or more cats is feeling anxious, threatened or aggressive and remove them from the situation before those behaviors escalate.
How to Introduce Cats Step by Step
Follow each step below and do not move on to the next step until your cats are calm and relaxed for each part of the process. Always remember to move at the pace of your cats, which means all of them must be relaxed before you proceed.
1. Keep Separated
You will need to keep the cats physically separated in the beginning. You can accomplish this by keeping the cats in separate rooms behind a closed door. You will want to rotate the cats into this room, so that the new cat gets some time to roam around the larger house area while the resident cat or cats is restricted, and then switch. Make sure the cats have everything they need in their locations, such as litter box, food and water bowls, a comfortable bed, toys, scratching post and anything else they enjoy. You may also want to purchase a door draft stopper and have it on hand in case the cats start to harass each other under the doors.
2. Let Them Meet Via Scent
By now you should have started exchanging the towels with the cats. Each cat should have the other's scent on a towel or blanket that you place near their bedding. Says Katenna Jones, Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, "I recommend putting the scented items near the bedding, not on it so the cat doesn't feel threatened or displaced by scent of the other cat."
3. Eat at the Door
To start with actually introducing the cats, you want to have them sense each other through the slight opening at the bottom of a door. To do this, "choose a special meal they get every day and really love, such as canned food or special treats."
- Put the draft stopper up by the door while the cats are eating.
- You want to gradually move the bowls from their current location toward the door separating them until their food dishes are right on each side of the door. Let them approach their dinner on their own time and let them eat as slowly as they like.
- Move the bowls a few inches to a foot until the cats are eating normally for several meals in a row, before moving the bowls again. Jones advises that, "Some cats may take a couple of hours, others may take months to get the bowl to the door."
- Repeat these feedings at scheduled times so the cats develop pattern. Jones has cat owners do this, "As many times per day as possible, for example you can break breakfast into three small breakfasts, and so on."
- If you notice one or both cats showing stressful body language like growling, hissing or ears back, move the bowls further back away from the door until they are calm.
- You can try making the food extra enticing with some cut up boiled chicken or some wet cat food and repeat the feeding, but this time at the larger distance.
- Slowly work over the course of the next few days to moving the bowls closer to the door again as long as everyone is calm.
- If the cats have been eating on their respective sides without any issues, back the bowls up several feet and then remove the draft stopper. Then repeat the steps above.
4. Allow the Cats to See Each Other
If the cats seem generally calm and relaxed after a few days of eating on either side of the baby gate, you can now try to let them see each other while eating their meals.
- Put a tall baby gate or stack two or three gates in the door that was previously separating them so that the cats can see other but still not touch. You want to make sure the gate is high enough that they can't jump over.
- Follow the steps for feeding them their meals and move the bowls back to the starting point. Gradually work on moving the bowls closer and closer until they are eating on respective sides of the gate without incident.
- During times when they are not eating and you are not working with them, keep the door closed.
- In addition to feeding them their meals this way, you can also have small sessions where they see each other without meals. This works best if you have two people with one person each sitting with a cat. Each person will give some extra delicious treats to the cats while they see each other or they can play with the cat with a wand toy or brush them. Whatever it is, the activity with the cat should be something that specific cat enjoys.
- If you're by yourself, sit against the baby gate so you can easily reach both cats to hand or toss them treats or handle a fishing wand toy.
- The idea is to pair something the cats love with seeing this new strange cat.
- Continue doing this in small increments of time of no more than 5 to 10 minutes a few times a day.
- If the cats are doing well, then you can do this for longer increments of time and you can move about the house. You still want to be supervising so you can run in and shut the door if need be, but you do not need to sit there with the cats. The idea is to get them used to each other without your presence.
- Gradually increase the amount of time that you are not supervising closely and close the door only when you're away or asleep. If all is going well and there are no incidents, remove the baby gate during meal times and put it back when they are done eating.
5. Finally The Cats Meet!
If everything has gone well and the cats appear generally relaxed, it's time to move forward. Note that it's not abnormal to see some signs of displeasure, such as hissing or backing away, but if the cats overall seem to tolerate each other, you can proceed. However if you do see hissing or backing away, this means you are going too fast! Go back one step and repeat that step until everyone seems fine and then proceed to the next.
- Repeat the steps above in Section Four but remove the baby gates. Allow them to come up to each other and keep a keen eye out for their body language and signs of stress.
- Continue providing them with treats and talk to them both in a happy but calm tone of voice.
- Do these sessions for no more than 10 minutes for a few times a day for a few days.
- If these sessions are going well, then try to extend the amount of time until the cats can be fine exploring the house on their own while tolerating each other's presence.
6. Don't Leave Unsupervised
Even if the cats do great in step six, you should not leave them alone unsupervised in the beginning until you're fully confident the cats will be fine. However you don't have to separate them with a closed door. Instead use the tall or stacked baby gates so they can still have the benefit of seeing each other but they won't be able to get into a scuffle if they have a disagreement.
Special Considerations for Cat Introductions
Some cat introductions may be more difficult than others. For example, age difference might be a problem but personality can matter even more. Jones notes that, "A rambunctious and playful senior cat would do better with a rambunctious and playful kitten than a lazy cat of the same age." If the new cat isn't a good fit for the resident cat or cat's personality, that can lead to stress and conflict. You may also have problems if you have an unaltered male or female. Unfixed cats can spray when meeting new cats because they feel threatened by another animal entering their territory.
Handling Expectations With Cat Introductions
While it would be much easier for cats to get along right away, humans need to understand the stress that meeting a new cat can induce in a resident cat. Jones says it's common for cat introductions to lead to, "fear, stress, anxiety that worsens other issues like litter box avoidance, and fights that cause injury or are non-stop." This is why it's essential to take the time to follow the steps for introductions that minimize stress, even if it does seem like a long process. If you're having trouble, Jones recommends seeking help from a behavior professional who can work with you through the process. Your cats will thank you for it!