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Introducing a Cat to a New Home

*Ref: Cat Behavior Dept., SFSPCA

Open up your cat carrier and let the cat decide whether he/she wants to explore or to remain inside the carrier. Many times a cat will remain inside the carrier for hours. Give the cats time to adjust to their new territory. Come back to the room to visit often, but let cats set the pace of the visits. Don’t force your attention on the cats—when they want attention, they will ask for it.

When the cat is more comfortable in the room (it may take a day, a week, or more) open the door and let it explore the rest of the house at its own pace. Cats usually begin investigating at night, making short explorations interspersed with rapid retreats to their safe haven. It is rare for a cat to explore a new territory without hesitation. If a cat is allowed to adapt to a new environment at its own speed, everything will work out in good time.

The length of time needed to establish new territory will depend on temperament, past experiences, and whether there are other cats or dogs already present in the new home. If no other cats or dogs are present in the household, the adjustment period usually takes one to two weeks, but it can take several months.

Multi-Cat Household

Before introducing your foster cat/kitten to your own cat(s) or kitten(s), consider the risks mentioned previously. If your foster cat has Upper Respiratory Infection (URI), the rescue recommends that you separate your foster cat from your own cat(s) until it is no longer contagious.

When a new cat is being introduced into a new home where there is already a resident cat or cats, it is especially important to give the new cat a safe haven. Provide a new cat with its own room in which to adjust, as previously described, before introducing it to the resident cat(s). This allows both the newcomer and the resident cat(s) time to get used to one another’s scents before their first face-to-face interaction.

The best way to let cats meet is to crack the door to the room a few inches and let them sniff each other through this space. Also, if there is space between the bottom of the door and the floor they can sniff each other. Observe the cats while doing this for about a half hour. If any of the cats gives a very intense hiss or growl, or tries to swat at the other cat, close the door and repeat this process until the visits become calm. A little hissing and batting at each other is usually expected. In the meantime, you can help the cats become used to each other by playing with interactive toys while the door is cracked, feeding the cats treats on either side of the door, and switching the cats’ bedding so they can get used to each other’s scent.

If the sniff visits are going well, it’s time to start supervised interactions. Open the door and let the new cat come out and explore. Let the new cat come out of its room at its own pace. Forcing the new cat to come into a new territory will just make the cat tenser and prolong its insecurity. Let the cats enter each others’ territory for about a half hour. Then separate the cats and repeat this process a few times each day. If a cat seems overly stressed about
the other cat(s), you can distract the cat with toys or food treats, then immediately separate the cats at the end of the play or treat session. This time apart allows them to be able to process the information they gained while they were together. It also allows them both to regain their sense of territory and confidence, which encourages a favorable interaction at their next meeting. Continue this process daily; lengthening the amount of time they are together a little each session. Do not allow your foster cat and your resident cat(s) to spend time together when you are not home until you are absolutely positive they will get along.

Never punish a cat for aggressive behavior towards another cat.
Most people do this thinking they will teach the cat that the aggressive behavior is inappropriate, but only end up making the cat more stressed and upset, prolonging the cat-to-cat aggression. The best way to react is either to stay silent and calmly separate the cats, or to speak softly to the cats.

The key to introducing cats to each other is patience. What we most often perceive as fighting is actually their way of working out their territory. This is an essential part of how cats learn to live together in a multi-cat household, and they must go through it. Our intervention prolongs this process. So for the most part, let them do what they will and stay out of it. Your anxiety about their interactions can feed their agitation, so try to be calm and encouraging, letting them know that they are acting appropriately.

The only times your intervention may be necessary is if their exchanges with each other draw blood or if one is continually chasing/dominating the other one. The best way to intervene is to squirt them with a spray bottle containing water. Ideally you should just squirt the one who is instigating the aggression (and again only if the cat is drawing blood or is constantly chasing the other cat, not for hissing or batting at the other cat). If a spray bottle isn’t handy, a loud noise, such as clapping hands also works well.

You never want to get in the middle of a cat fight.
Cats in the heat of battle can redirect their aggression toward you, and cat bites to humans can be serious. The average amount of time it takes for cats to establish the rules of territory with each other are two weeks to two months, although it can take longer.

Seek medical assistance immediately if you are bitten by an animal.