Written by Dr. Marci Koski, Certified Feline Behavior & Training Professional
For feline aficionados, there is little more exciting than bringing home a new kitty. However, we’re also usually nervous about how our existing cats will react to the new housemate: will the new addition be considered a non-threatening playmate, or an interloper whom your cats will designate as a “mortal enemy who must be destroyed”? Like people, cats have different personalities and sometimes they have to learn how to get along (or at least tolerate each other) if they are going to live together long-term. Honestly, there are some cats who are never going to be best buddies, but cats are pretty good at arranging agreements with each other in terms of sharing space and resources…if you set them up for success. And the first step on that path to success is the introduction between the new cat and the existing cat.
So how, exactly, do you introduce two kitties to each other without setting off World War III? At every step along the way, be patient – that’s THE most important thing. Move at the speed of the kitties – sometimes introductions take a couple of hours, sometimes it can take a few weeks or even a couple months. It’s better not to rush things – the more patience you have, the less stressed your cats will be (both in response to you, and the other cat). Keep this in mind as we go through the following steps for a smooth introduction. Let’s do this!
1) Set up a Safe Room for the New Cat. The first thing you’ll want to do is provide your new cat with a place in which she will feel safe and comfortable. You can use a spare bedroom, or if you don’t have one, the bathroom – any room with a door or that can be blocked off will work. Clean the room well, and try to keep your existing cat from spreading her scent in the room prior to the new cat arriving – this will be the new cat’s home for a little while, and we don’t want her to be intimidated by another cat’s scent! In the safe room, you’ll want to have food, water, two litter boxes, toys, a comfortable place to sleep (a cat bed, or soft blankets are fine, too), a perch (cat tree or maybe a dresser from where she can look out a window), and a place where your new cat can hide (either a box, or a bed to crawl under, etc.). You may also want to install a pheromone diffuser in the room, such as Feliway. When you bring your new cat home, bring her to this room with NO interaction with your existing cat; place a towel underneath the door to prevent new and existing cats from seeing and smelling each other prematurely. Then, spend some time playing with your new kitty. Make sure she settles into her room and knows where everything is. Don’t forget to play with your existing cats, too (separately, at this point)!
2) The Nose Knows! Did you know that cats rely on their sense of smell more than any other sense? They are able to detect things about their environment – and the cats that inhabit it – from just a whiff of scent that humans are nowhere near capable of detecting. We’ll be taking advantage of the cats’ keen sense of smell to desensitize the cats to each other using scent introductions before they see or interact with each other directly.
The first thing you’ll want to do is exchange scents (or do a “scent swap”). To do this, take a clean sock and rub it gently on your new cat’s face and cheeks, where the “friendly” pheromones are. Take a different sock and do the same with your existing cat. Present the socks with the other cat’s scent on it to the opposite cat – in the case of the new cat, let her smell the sock with the existing cat’s scent, and leave the sock in her room with some treats (to create a positive association). Do the same with the existing cat. Watch what your cats do – is there any reaction? If not, that’s great! If there’s a negative reaction (hissing, fear or nervousness, for example), you’ll want to repeat this process until the sock is just a sock.
The next thing is to create a group scent, which is a co-mingling of scents from all of the cats in the household, to let the existing cats know that the new cat is part of their group and can be accepted (this process is generally called “allorubbing”, when scents are transmitted from cats rubbing up against each other; we’re just going to do that part for them). Use a soft brush to gently brush the new cat’s cheeks, face, head and neck, then shoulders. If the new cat is not used to being brushed, go slowly and gently. Then present the brush with your new cat’s scent on it to the existing cat and watch how she reacts – let her sniff the brush. If she reacts negatively, leave the brush with her along with some treats so that she can get used to it. If she seems ok with the scented brush, brush your existing cat’s face, cheeks, head and shoulders with the brush; but don’t force the brush on her! If she resists brushing, leave the brush with her to get used to. If you are able to brush your existing kitty, the brush now has both of your cat’s scents on it. Take the brush back to your new cat and let her check it out. If she lets you, brush her to incorporate your existing cat’s scent onto your new cat. Get the picture? You’ll want to do this every day until both cats are fine (i.e., indifferent) to the scent-loaded brush, and then continue doing this until the cats are physically integrating with each other.
3) Gradual exposure + positive associations = kitty confidence. Once your kitties are familiar with each others’ scents, you’re going to start expanding your new cat’s world. First, let the new cat explore the rest of the house while the existing cat(s) explores the safe room so that they are still separated from each other. Let the cats explore each others’ spaces at least once a day until they both appear comfortable and confident in their environments. Make sure to play with the cats in their new environments to let them know there’s nothing to fear.
When your kitties are feeling good about being in each others’ spaces alone, you’ll finally visually introduce them to each other. To do this, start feeding them on opposite sides of a door or barrier to create a positive association with each other (food + other cat = good). You’ll want to take food away for about three hours prior to doing this so that both cats will be hungry. Place food bowls at least three feet from the closed door, on either side, so that each cat can eat simultaneously. Our goal is to gradually move the bowls closer to each other, with the door in between. If the cats continue to eat and don’t seem upset when the bowls are close together (no hesitation, hissing, growling, etc.), you can graduate to using a gate with a blanket over it (which uncovers varying heights off the floor) between the food bowls, or open the door wider and wider so that the cats can see each other while eating. If growling or hissing happens, back off – close the door or lower the blanket or separate the food bowls. This is a signal that you’ve moved forward too fast – and that’s ok. There’s always another meal time to try again! Try to stop the exposure before agitation occurs – end the exposure on a positive note. Progress will be made, even if it happens slowly.
Once they can eat while in visual contact with each other without making a fuss, you’ll want to get to a point where the cats can be in the same room together without growling, hissing, “puffing up”, or getting agitated. The best way to do this is to distract them with playtime – catnip mice, wand toys, affection…whatever it takes to keep them distracted from the other cat (it might take two people to keep the cats distracted, one for each cat). Supervise the cats when they are together until there’s no need to create this distraction – if the cats can hang out together in the same room without getting upset, you’ve come a long way! Congratulations!
4) Stuff happens. It’s OK. It is likely that there will be some growling, hissing, and perhaps even a kerfuffle or two. But don’t freak out! You may have moved forward too fast – take a step back, and try again the next day. This is a process that can take a while. Don’t give up! Maintain the group scent; use positive associations with treats, food, and playtime; and try to always end on a positive note – before any agitation starts. Baby steps. Kitten steps. Cat introductions are not always easy, but you will get there! And if you have any problems or questions, you can always contact me for advice. That’s what I’m here for! Best of luck to you – enjoy your new furry family member in peace and good health.
About Our Guest Blogger
Dr. Marci Koski is passionate about animal welfare and is a certified Feline Behavior and Training Professional. She helps cats and their people overcome behavior issues through her business, Feline Behavior Solutions . She is a volunteer on the executive board of Furry Friends, a no-kill cat rescue organization in Vancouver, WA. As a volunteer, she socializes the cats, cleans the halfway house, wrangles cats for zombie movies, and leads the social media team. Marci’s mission is to keep cats in homes and prevent pets from being surrendered to animal shelters or abandoned due to treatable behavior issues. Marci is married to a very patient, wonderful husband, and lives with five unbelievably cute cats and two small fish.