Cats, despite what you may have been told, are not solitary creatures and many of them benefit from having feline companions. That said, cats are also territorial so the introduction process requires some finesse and patience. If you just toss the cats together with a “they’ll work it out themselves” mentality, you will put a tremendous amount of stress on both cats as well as risk physical injury to them. An incorrect or hurried introduction can set the cats up to become bitter enemies. On the other hand, the correct introduction can open the door to a lifelong feline friendship.
The proper new cat introduction technique must address the emotional and physical needs of both cats. From the resident’s cat’s perspective, there’s an intruder in his territory. From the newcomer’s point of view, she has just been dropped on hostile turf. Both cats need to feel secure. They both need to feel secure. If they feel as if there’s no safe place for them, that’s when they’ll revert to survival mode and you’ll see panic, fighting and perhaps spraying. If, however, they feel they can remain in their comfort zones while checking out the situation, you can usually keep a lid on the panic button.
Set Up a Sanctuary Room
Set up a room to be used as a sanctuary for the newcomer. This gives her time to get somewhat familiar with her new surroundings in a more secure way. It’s stressful enough for a cat to move to an unfamiliar environment so before you attempt to introduce her to your resident cat, let her get her bearings in a controlled way.
The sanctuary room can be any room that you can close off. It should contain a litter box, food/water, a few cozy hiding places, a scratching post, and toys. If you use a carrier to bring the cat into the house, leave the carrier in the room with its door open so the cat can stay in there if she chooses before venturing out into the rest of the room. If the newcomer kitty is timid or fearful, being able to stay in the carrier that contains her own familiar scent may provide much needed comfort in the beginning.
For a fearful cat, set up some paper bag tunnels as safe ways for her to get to resources. That way, she can get to the litter box or food without feeling too exposed. Put other hiding places around the room for her as well, such as upside-down boxes with entrance holes cut in them. This may help her feel as if she doesn’t have to remain hidden under the bed or in the closet.
I Know You’re in There!
Even though your resident cat won’t be able to see the newcomer kitty, he’s going to be aware of the fact that she’s on the other side of the door. This is normal but by having the newcomer in the sanctuary, you’re letting your resident cat know that only a portion of his territory has been invaded and not the entire home.
One Sense at a Time
The way I tell my clients to do new cat introductions is to take it “one sense at a time.” First the cats may hear each other (if one or both are vocal), then they’re going to smell each other (in a controlled way via my behavior modification method) and then they’ll see each other (again, in a controlled way). Finally, they may touch each other (we definitely want this to be a controlled and positive way). As for tasting? Well, that’s optional if one cat eventually licks another. Hopefully, the tasting aspect won’t involve any biting though.
The Sock Exchange
This is the method I came up with many, many years ago and has been very successful with new cat introductions. It’s very simple and it starts with a pair of clean socks.
Place a clean sock on your hand and gently rub the newcomer along the face to collect some facial pheromones. Pheromones are scent chemicals that are released from a cat’s scent glands. The pheromones around the cat’s face (along the sides of the mouth, on the chin, cheeks and on forehead) are basically “friendly” pheromones. Cats facially rub on objects in locations where they feel comfortable. So by using the sock, we’re going to create a simulated cat that contains lots of friendly pheromones.
Place the scented sock in your resident cat’s area. This will give him a chance to do his own initial investigation of the new cat’s scent. If you have a pheromone spray (available at your local pet product store), give a quick spritz on the bottom part of the sock (not near where you rubbed the new cat’s real pheromones). A pheromone spray (such as the product Feliway) contains a synthetic version of feline pheromones and any cat who smells those pheromones will view them as his own. Using the pheromone spray is optional but my belief is that it can’t hurt so why not increase your odds of success.
Let your cat do his own investigation. I use clicker training with cat introductions and I click and reward any positive move the resident cat makes toward the sock. I click and reward for merely walking toward the sock. I click for anything I would like to see the cat do again and I ignore any negative behavior. For example, if kitty sniffs the sock I click and reward. If he walks by the sock without giving it a second look I click and reward.
The reason I use the sock is that it gives the cat time to get to know the other cat’s scent in a safe and controlled way. The cat doing the sniffing can safely approach and I can do behavior modification without worry that one or both kitties will get injured.
Take the mate to that sock and rub the resident cat to collect the facial pheromones and place that sock in the newcomer’s sanctuary room.
You can do the sock exchange as often as needed.
Spreading the New Cat’s Scent
Now it’s time for the newcomer to start investigating her new territory and spreading her scent around the environment. This has to be done safely so your resident cat will need to be placed in a separate room. Then open the door to the sanctuary room and let the newcomer check things out. As she walks around she’ll be distributing her scent around the house.
Give the Cats a Reason to Like Each Other
The key to a successful new cat introduction is to give the cats a reason to like each other. You can’t just separate them for an extended period of time and then open the door expecting them to magically form a bond. They will need to see that good things happen when they are within sight of each other. The best way to do this is with food and treats.
Feed the cats within sight of each other. Open the sanctuary room door and give each cat a small amount of food. Feed the cats within sight of each other but far enough apart so they don’t feel threatened. Do short sessions where you’re offering a tiny amount of food and then close the sanctuary room door. It’s better to do several short sessions a day that end on a positive note rather than attempting one long session where someone’s tolerance is tested and a fight breaks out.
Gates and Screen Doors
If you can’t open the sanctuary room door without one cat charging another then you can put up two or three baby gates across the entrance or install a temporary screen door (with secure pet screening). This will allow the cats to see each other without being able to charge. When the short feeding session is over, close the actual sanctuary room door again.
Keep doing sessions where the cats see each other while eating or getting treats. Gradually increase the exposure time.
Continue the Clicker Training
As you gradually increase the time the cats are exposed to each other, use clicker training and click and reward for any positive move. I tell my clients to click for any absence of an unwanted behavior. For example, if one cat breaks a stare or walks by the other cat without hissing or swatting – that deserves a reward.
Use interactive playtime as a way to help the cats have more positive experiences with each other. Do parallel play by having a fishing pole-type toy in each hand or enlist the help of another family member. This way, each cat will have their own toy. You don’t want the cats competing for one toy or risk having a cat feeling intimidated by another cat. When you use two toys they get to enjoy the game while seeing the other cat in their peripheral vision.
The Cats’ Environment
Set up the environment to encourage security, fun and plenty of territory for everyone. Use cat trees, perches and hideaways to create low, medium and high levels. If you increase the elevated territory in the environment you will greatly increase the cats’ perception of the amount of territory they feel they have. Vertical territory also helps a cat feel safe because he knows he can’t get ambushed from behind and he has more visual ability to survey the environment. Some cats also use vertical territory as way to display status and it can often avert an actual physical confrontation.
Increase environmental enrichment to give the cats ways to divert their attention, release energy and have fun!
Have more than one litter box and more than one scratching post in the environment. This will give the cats more choice and often helps when it comes to a peaceful co-existence.
I always advise clients to go at the pace of the most stressed-out of the cats. If one cat is ready and willing to make friends but the other cat isn’t, you have to go at the pace of the unhappy kitty. New cat introductions take time but it’s worth it to increase the odds of helping these two cats develop a good relationship.
Need More Information?
For more tips and specific step-by-step behavior modifications techniques for new cat introductions, refer to the book Cat vs. Cat. This first-of-its-kind book was written specifically to address the challenges of multicat households. If you’re having a cat behavior problem and would like to schedule a consultation with cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, CCBC, contact our office.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is the star of Psycho Kitty airing on Discovery UK. She is author of seven best-selling books on cat behavior including Think Like a Cat: how to raise a well-adjusted cat – not a sour puss. Think Like a Cat has become known as the cat bible. Pam is considered a pioneer in the field of cat behavior consulting. In addition to her television series and public speaking engagements, Pam owns Cat Behavior Associates, a private veterinarian-referred behavior company in Nashville, TN. Cat Behavior Associates offers private cat behavior appointments on a limited basis. Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant.