Proceed slowly when introducing new cat

12/15/96

Dear Dr. Spiegel,

We have a four year old female spayed black house cat. One year ago, I befriended a wild male alley cat. I had him fixed and he turns out to be a good friend.

Problem: The female does not like him. When she sees him, she hisses and strikes at him, but he wants to play. When outdoors, he likes to chase her. The female doesn't lay her ears back or puff up her tail like she wants to fight.

Anything I can do to make them be friends?

Thank you,

B.S., Middletown


Dear B.S.,

This is a time of year when new cats and kittens will be added to many households across the country.

The range of relationships that can develop when new individuals are introduced to a household can run the full range of the spectrum from best friends... sharing and doing everything together..., to all out war as in "I'm gonna kill you if it's the last thing I do."

Cats are territorial creatures [and some are clearly more driven by this motivational factor than others]. Some are content sharing a small space. Others want to possess and dominate everything in their midst.

Some cats are naturally more sociable than others. While some cats are particularly playful, others just want a warm, comfortable place to nap and view the outside world. Matching personality traits and individual animals' needs/wants are factors that should be considered when deciding whether or not one of those "Free to Good Home" kittens or "Friendly, Lovable Cat Needs Home" cats can live in peace and comfort in your already occupied by cat(s) household.

Existing territorial problems in a multicat household can often be remedied; but it requires an essential understanding of a multiplicity of factors which contribute to and underscore the current problems in any given situation. So unfortunately, I do not, at this point, have sufficient information on which to make sound treatment recommendations for your present problems, B.S.

However, your letter does provide an ideal opportunity to get others help in properly introducing new cats/kittens to a household with any other cats.

Imagine that you are your cat (or one of your cats). You are comfortable and familiar with your environment. You know when and where you'll be fed. You know where your litter box is, and you know which windows have the best view and where to find warm/sunny spots through the course of the day. All of a sudden, there is a stranger in your home. This new cat doesn't know anyone yet and doesn't know the house rules. Cats can often respond to the stress of new living arrangements by fighting, hiding, or eliminating inappropriately. In this new fearful situation, the newcomer (usually), or sometimes one of the resident cats, is likely to growl or hiss at one of the other cats. This cat will likely growl back and the posturing can easily escalate into a full-blown cat fight. This is not the way to start a friendly and lasting relationship.

Taking preventative measures can go a long way to maximize the likelihood of your resident cats accepting a new family member, while giving the newcomer time to acclimate to its new surroundings.

First choose the right cat. Look for a cat that is confident, friendly, and not too aggressive around other cats. If you go to a shelter, watch to see how the cats interact with each other. Kittens can be much less threatening to an older cat; however, many older, settled cats may not like the over exuberance of a growing kitten. If the cat you get is six months or older, have it neutered before bringing it into your home. Also have it tested for FeLV and FIV by your vet, and have it vaccinated for rabies and common cat diseases.

Introducing cats should be done in a gradual systematic fashion in which pleasurable experiences (food/attention/play) are associated with the other cat(s).

If possible have two rooms that can be used for temporary quarters for the new cat. Put a litter box, food and water (not too close to the box), and a comfortable bed in the room for the new cat, and keep the door closed. When you bring the cat home, put other cats away ahead of time so that you can take the cat to its room without encountering the other cat(s). Close the door securely and go visit your other cats. They will smell the new cat on you. Give them treats at this time.

Each day alternate which room the newcomer is in. This will give your resident cats a chance to smell the new cat and rub their own scent on objects. Allowing this behavior helps prevent more dramatic displays of territorial behavior.

Twice daily feed the cats on opposite sides of the door to the new cats room, and twice daily play with the cats on opposite sides of the door.

So far, you've given the cats a chance to become desensitized to the smells and sounds of the other cat. When they all seem particularly relaxed with this process, begin to expose them to the sight of each other by securing the door open 1/2 inch, then 1 inch, then 1 and 1/2 inch, etc. with a hook and eye. Continue with regular play and feeding exposures through the door. When you are ready to let the newcomer out, be there to watch for any hissing/growling. If this occurs, put the newcomer back in its room and proceed more slowly.

This gradual introduction process can take a few days to several weeks depending on the cats involved. While this may seem slow and tedious, it is time well spent to insure a harmonious household for years to come.