Introducing A New Cat to the Household

By Dr. Amy Plankenhorn

June is National Adopt a Shelter Cat month, and thanks to a seasonal increase in the birth of litters of kittens, it is also the height of what we often call “kitten season.” It’s a great time to think about adopting a new cat into your family.  Adopting a new cat seems like a simple proposition, but there are some things to think about and prepare before bringing a new cat into your home.

Whether you are adopting your first cat or adding another one to your established cat family, it is important to have realistic expectations of how the new addition will work in your household.  Here are some important considerations:

  1. Do you have the space for resources for a new cat?  See our other article this month about important cat resources.
  2. Can you provide a safe and cat-friendly environment?
  3. Are you prepared for a cat’s normal, but sometimes undesirable, behaviors (scratching, climbing, knocking things down)?
  4. Are you prepared for a long-term relationship?  Cats can live into their mid- to upper teens.
  5. Can you afford to care for a new cat?  This means annual veterinary visits, flea and parasite prevention, litter, good quality food, and play resources.
  6. Will your existing cat accept the addition of another cat into the home?  And if not, can you accommodate two cats who don’t get along?

Once you’ve decided to bring a cat into the household, the next question is whether to adopt an adult cat or a kitten.  We realize that some of us don’t achieve a new cat, we have one thrust upon us, but if you are in a position to choose your new cat, it helps to understand the social structure of cats.  While cats in the wild are solitary hunters, they do form social groups.  Usually these groups are siblings or mother/kittens, but some unrelated cats can be accepted into the group.  They do the same thing in a domestic household; cats within a social group will sleep together, groom each other, eat together, and play together (affiliative behaviors).

If you are considering adopting more than one cat at one time, it is ideal to adopt an existing social group.  Kittens tend to form or enter social groups more easily than adult cats, so unless two adult cats have already lived together, it is best not to adopt two adult cats at the same time.  If you’re adding a new cat to an existing social group in your home, a kitten or adolescent cat can integrate more easily.  On the other hand, if you are bringing a single cat into a household with older people or young children, it is better to adopt an adult cat, who may be less destructive and more tolerant.

So you’ve gone to the adoption center or the adoption event and you’ve chosen your next cat.  Now what?  How do you help your new cat integrate into your home?  Whether you have cats or dogs in the home or not, let your new cat adapt to the new environment slowly.  Cats communicate through smell, sound, sight and touch, and need a chance to take in all of these stimuli and process them.  Confine the new cat to one or two rooms in the house with essential resources available, and see how he responds.  If he responds with confidence and curiosity, enlarge the area.

If you have other cats in the home, the introduction process should be slower.  Start with confining the new cat into his own space and resources, and allow all of the cats to adjust to the new sounds and smells.  A pheromone diffuser or spray like Feliway can help reduce stress on both sides of the door.  Give attention to all of the cats if they want it, and observe how the new and existing cats are responding.  If the cats are responding with curiosity, give positive reinforcement.  Feed the cats on either side of the door, play with them near the door, and reward calm behavior with petting or treats.  This process may take a day or a few weeks, depending on how the cats respond.

As the cats show more relaxed and calm behavior about each other, start letting them have controlled visual access and see how they do.  Gradually increase access until the cats have the potential for full contact.  If at any point in the process the cats show threatening or fear behaviors (freezing, running, fidgeting, or fighting), back off and slow the process down.

There are some cases in which cats just do not get along with each other, and never accept each other.  If this is the case, each cat or social group will need separate litter, food and water resources, as well as a place to sleep and hide.  Often people feel guilty keeping cats separated when they don’t get along, but in most cases the cats prefer it that way.  It is more stressful for a cat to have to enter the other group’s territory to be able to eat, drink or eliminate than it is for the cat to live a separate life.  The owners have the hardest task, because they have to “time share” their attention and valued resources like lap time or sleeping on the bed.

With this information in mind, now is a great time to add a new feline friend to your family!  For more information, please join Tristan Rehner at our next Pet Behavior help session on Tuesday, June 17 in the Animal Hospital of North Asheville education room, as she discusses Introducing Your New Cat to Your Resident Pets.  We hope to see you there!