Welcoming a new cat into your home can be a wonderful experience — it also has the potential to stir up some drama.
On today’s show, certified feline trainer and behavior consultant, Dr. Marci Koski, from Feline Behavior Solutions, is back and talking about how to add another cat to your family in a way that makes your new cat and your established cat feel safe and comfortable.
We go over things to consider on behalf of your existing cat before choosing your new kitty, Marci’s preferred method for introductions step by step, how to ease into it, and what to do if things aren’t going as well as you hoped.
Marci says, as a cat behavior consultant, about 75% of her clients come to her because of cats not getting along with each other. She says, “There’s overlap with house soiling issues because the cats aren’t getting along, that can amplify stress and territorial issues and then that brings on other problems.”
Why might there be so much infighting between cats in the house?
More often than not, Marci says, “That’s usually because they brought home a new cat and didn’t think too much about the personalities of their existing cats. And then also, they didn’t do an introduction properly. So they just kind of put the cats together or let them sniff each other and then that was it. And then maybe things are ok for a day or two and then not ok at all.”
Matching Play Styles and Temperament
Marci says it's very important to think about your current cat's needs and personality before bringing home another kitty. She says what often happens, is over time in a multi-cat household, a cat will die, and the owners will, understandably, be looking to bring another cat home to cheer everyone up.
But, a lot of times people will bring a kitten into their senior cat household, and that can lead to a lot of problems.
"Let's face it," Koski says, "kittens are adorable little monsters. They want to play, they want to play, they want to play. And that's really all they care about.
Meanwhile, you have this 10, 11, 12 year-old cat who is not quite as into playing or may have just lost a close friend. And a lot of times it isn't a good match."
Marci recommends that you try to stay within a similar age range when you go to adopt, but if you do want to go the kitten route, she suggests getting two of them so they have each other to play with and can entertain each other while giving older cats their space.
You want energy levels to be pretty evenly matched. You don't want a big mismatch in the amount of energy the cats need. Temperament and personality you'd also want pretty evenly matched.
"I love, love, love when people adopt adult and older cats because their personalities are set, you know what you're getting. Whereas a kitten is a ticking time bomb," Marci laughs, "you never know what you're gonna get and when it's going to go off."
(Don't worry, she loves kittens too, and thinks they are the cutest thing ever, perhaps with the exception of baby goats — which I luckily get my fill of each week at the goat rescue I volunteer at, but I digress...).
How to Set Up Kitty Basecamp
Marci suggests that before bringing a cat home, you should set up a safe room to make them feel more comfortable and give them a place to retreat.
Some people use their bedrooms for this “kitty basecamp” if no other animals have access. You can also use a guest room or if you don’t have the space a bathroom can even make do.
That being said, Marci really doesn’t prefer bathrooms. “It’s not necessarily because of the size, but most bathrooms are created with hard surfaces that are easy to clean, and those surfaces have a hard time retaining scent,” she says.
“So when a cat walks into a place, it wants to be surrounded by its own scent. And so it’s important to put out blankets and bedding and scratching posts, and a litter box, because all of those things absorb the cat’s scent and help that cat feel at home. So you can put all of those types of things in a bathroom and that really helps.
And if you bring home a more shy cat or skittish cat, having them in a smaller area at first can really be helpful because that helps them know their surroundings, they can explore it and understand that they’re safe in that area. And then gradually you open up various parts of your house to explore.”
In fact, even if you live in a studio apartment, having multiple cats is doable. “It’s doable as long as you have ample resources. The cool thing about cats is that they don’t think in terms of square footage, like we do, which is a very two-dimensional plane of existence,” Marci laughs, “Cats think in three dimensions, so they are looking at shelves and tables and cat trees and things that they can use to get up high, and that really increases the amount of usable space in their environment.
“Some cats are going to be way more outgoing than others; some cats are going to be really shy. So with the shyer or more fearful cats, let them take their time.” Marci says it’s not unusual for a cat to hide underneath a bed for a few days before feeling comfortable enough exploring their new home. She pleads, “Please don’t give up on that cat.”
If you think about it and can put yourself in a cat’s shoes, many of them are coming from a shelter, which isn’t the most stable or calming environment. It may take some time to build trust and a sense of security.
“Whether you are bringing home a new cat to a house with no other pets, or if you have a dog, a baby, 12-year-old kids, rabbits, whatever you have in your house,” Koski says, “it’s really important to understand that a cat you bring home — and this is kind of dependent on personality type as well — but moving can be very stressful for kitties. Some cats take weeks to adjust to new surroundings regardless of not interacting with other cats.”
In general animals don’t like change, and by the time your new cat makes it to your home, they’ve had their world turned upside down at least a couple of times.
If you have a cat that’s hiding, Marci suggests setting out very intentional hiding spots for them to take advantage of. You can block off access to the space under your bed, either with boxes, or cushions, (or luggage if you’re anything like me).
Put out cat cubbies, cardboard boxes (why not make them a cat condo out of cardboard boxes while you’re at it), you can even do something as simple as draping a blanket over a chair to create a little hideaway hut for your kitty.
Marci loves a particular cat tunnel toy that is made out of a paper bag-like material called, The Hide & Sneak.
She likes it because it can absorb scent, it's fun for cats to play in, and it's a cheap but surprisingly durable cat toy that provides great enrichment.
Creating these intentional hiding spots is especially important for more of the shy "scaredy" cats, so they can feel safe and you can still know where they are and monitor how they are doing.
If you've got a cat hiding under a bed, Marci says, "Don't go in there and try to pull them out because that's going to be scary for them and create a negative association with you. But do make sure they're eating and drinking and using the litter box."
Thankfully, these situations are not the norm and usually a cat can be let out of basecamp in a few days to explore and they're fine.
How to Do Proper Cat Introductions
When you bring your cat home for the first time, you want to take them directly to their basecamp. Move your resident cat's belongings away from the area so they have access to the things that make them happy while the new cat is able to establish their smells and feel confident in their new world.
If at all possible, don't allow your resident cat into this space until you know the two cats are getting along. It's all about having everyone feel safe and secure in this new family dynamic.
As for the introductions, you'll be going at the pace of the shyest cat, or the one who is most reactive, and there is no need to rush. Just be mindful, be observant, and understand your cats' body language while looking out for any signs of stress.
Cat Introductions Step 1: Introducing Smells
Scent is extremely important for cats to know who's friends and family and who's not. This applies to introductions to dogs, babies, and even baby goats). To get a cat used to someone else's smells you want to use counter-conditioning and systematic desensitization.
Counter-conditioning is when you pair a good thing that a cat likes, with something that the cat doesn't like or might be scared of. The goal is to build a more positive association to the scary thing.
Systematic desensitization just increases the duration or level of exposure to a scary or bad thing in short intervals. Sort of like building up a tolerance to something. It's very important to move slowly enough along the exposure gradient that the cat still feels comfortable and keeps your kitty below threshold.
When you pair the two together, each step of the way you are giving your cat more positive things as they are being exposed for longer periods of time to the things they have been hesitant about.
So moving along the exposure gradient, scent will likely be the first point of exposure for the two cats. Marci likes to use scent swapping as the first way to introduce cats. Scent swapping is when you take the blanket or bedding of one cat and place it in the other cat's area. Leaving treats with the scent helps create a positive association, so the cat things, "When this smell is around, good things happen."
You can also take two clean socks, put them on your hands, and rub each of the cats' cheek and forehead areas with them. These areas are where the friendliest pheromones are on a cat's body and it also carries their unique scent. When each sock has one of the cat's smells on it, you swap the socks for the cats to smell each other.
Marci likes to give this step in the process at least a few days. She says, "Even if the cat doesn't have a problem with the scent of the other cat, what I like to do is make sure they're building a positive association. So instead of just being neutral, like, eh whatever, I like to build it up a little more so it's positive."
It doesn't have to be treats to build up the positive association either. Treats are good because they're easy and they're effective, but they only work if a cat likes treats and a lot of cats aren't food motivated.
If your cat isn't food motivated, you can use things like play time and praise. Figure out your cat's "love language" or "positive association language" and roll with that.
Cat Introductions Step 2: Visual Introductions
Marci says, "This is where things get fun. This can be a little complicated depending on your setup, but you want to use food to get the cats in the same area so they can potentially see each other across a barrier."
First you want the cats to get used to eating on opposite sides of a door, about two feet away from the door on either side. It's important not just for this introduction period but also when moving forward, to keep your cats' food away from each other so there's less potential of creating a resource guarding issue in the future.
When they're fine eating in those locations, as the cats are eating, open the door an inch for a short amount of time to start, and let the cats see each other, then calmly close the door.
This is when it's really important to start paying attention to body language. You want the cats to both be calm and keep going about their business eating.
You don't want to start creating any tension, stress, or fear in either cat. If you start to see ears flattening, tails getting puffy, hissing or growling, these are big signs of a problem brewing. If they start exhibiting these signs, close the door right away and hopefully they will go back to eating.
If your cats don't continue eating, move the bowls back even further from each other. If they don't go back to eating after that, put a high value treat in their bowls so they do eat.
If you free feed your cats, make sure to pick up their food bowls at least three hours before doing this part of the introductions so they will be more inclined to be hungry and focused on their food.
As time goes on, you want to keep feeding and opening the door for longer and longer periods of time, but remembering to pay close attention to body language and stress thresholds.
Baby gates can be an incredible tool for cat introductions because they are much easier to control and you can drape something over it to block lines of vision, while also having optimal control over "pulling back the curtains" without worrying about a cat taking the opportunity to run through an open door. And as someone with no babies but a lot of baby gates, I can tell you they come in handy way beyond this particular use.
"Pro tip," Marci says, "Don't get the wooden baby gates that you have to step over. Those have grids on them that cats can climb up really easily. What I recommend are those metal gates with just the vertical bars and a step through door."
And lest you think she isn't prepared for the question about cats being able to jump over one baby gate, "Get a second baby gate and put it on top of the first baby gate. The key here, is the flip the top baby gate upside down so that you can open the step through gate on both of them without a bar in the middle."
Marci cautions that whatever you do, regardless of the step you're at in the introductions, don't just "see what happens" because that rarely ends well. To set your cats up for the best chances of success, don't rush things or move to the next step too early.
"Always have a plan in place. Always have a plan for how long that session is going to be, what you're going to do to make it positive, and how you're going to end it."
Cat Introductions Step 3: Supervised Interactive Sessions
Once you get to the point where the cats can eat a full meal in front of each other, with no cover over the baby gate, it's time to move on to step. These sessions will be very short at first and will simply be the two cats hanging out in the same room together. If possible, it's easiest to supervise and have control when there are at least the same number of people as there are cats.
When you prepare for an interactive session you again want to decide first how you are going to make this positive, how long it's going to be, and how you will end things.
Marci recommends that you have a sight blocker on hand for just in case. It can be something like a pillow or a big piece of cardboard or a box top to a storage container. Something you can put up between the cats not just for when they get in close proximity to each other, but also if you start to notice any direct staring happening, which is the first step in the prey sequence and you don't want one cat to treat the other like their prey.
While you're supervising them in the same room you'll want to have two activities planned for each of the cats — this can be the same activity or something different depending on their preferences.
Marci generally recommends that you start off with calmer activities, because some toys or things like catnip may overly excite one of your cats, which can cause stress for the other one. She is a huge fan of food puzzles for these types of interactions.
As things continue going well, you can start to increase the length of these types of physical interactions. She reminds us to always have a cut off time for when the session will end — even if the session is going well, it's best not to push things too quickly until they aren't going well.
When to Stop Introductions
Throughout this introduction process, if you do start to notice agitation, aggression, or stress, that's when it's time to end the introduction and as much as possible, end things on a positive note. Then pause and wait until later in the day or the next day to begin introductions again.
Fortunately cats don't hold grudges. They live in the moment and don't do things like seek revenge, so if you mess up the first introduction, or even a reintroduction, all hope is not lost.
If a mistake happens just take a step back and start from there. There will be good days and bad days in introductions, but generally speaking, you want progress to increase day by day. Introductions aren't just a one and done, there is an entire "getting to know you" process and the timing of everything is unique to the cats involved.