When you have two cats (or more) who aren’t getting along and all your attempts at behavior modification have been unsuccessful, it may be time to do a reintroduction. If the aggression between your cats is severe or if they can’t even be within sight of each other without an immediate brawl taking place, then a reintroduction is your best bet.
What is a Cat Reintroduction?
With a reintroduction you’re basically going to be separating the cats and introducing them in the same way you would if they had never met. The reintroduction gives each cat time to get back to normal and not be so stressed so you can start to help them gradually get comfortable with each other again.
Attempting to keep a lid on serious intercat aggression when the cats are constantly in each other’s sight can be very counterproductive because both cats remain at such a high level of reactivity. There’s also a good chance that one or both of the cats could get injured (perhaps severely). The reintroduction method gives you more control to avoid potential injury. It also allows you to keep the interaction between the cats at a level that doesn’t spark extreme reactions.
How Long Does a Cat Reintroduction Take?
This will be determined by how serious the aggression has been, how much time you can dedicate to doing the behavior modification, and how receptive the cats are. In other words, I wish I could give you a set timeline but you have to go at the cats’ pace. Every situation is unique.
The Cat Reintroduction Method
The first step is to separate the cats by creating a sanctuary room for one of them. If your house is set up in such a way that you can divide it up so each cat has her own territory, then that will do as well. If you’re setting up a sanctuary room, you just need a separate room that can be closed off. The room needs to be equipped with all the necessities such as food, water, litter box, scratching post, toys and some cozy napping places.
If you’re wondering which cat to put in the sanctuary room and which cat to let have the run of the rest of the house, here’s how I typically make the decision. If one cat is clearly displaying ongoing offensive aggression then that’s the cat I usually put in the sanctuary room. That way, the cat who is being so overt in her aggressive display isn’t able to think that she ran the other cat off and is the mighty victor. However, if the cat who is the “victim” is too stressed or nervous about having the run the house then putting him in the sanctuary room may give him more security. You have to make the decision based on the dynamics between the cats and also the individual personalities. The most important aspect of this is that the cats get separated.
During the Time the Cats are Separated
The separation is mainly to allow the cats to relax again and also to prevent further injury or aggressive displays. It’s important though that this time of separation not be viewed as a prison sentence. Play with each cat, spend time with the cat in the sanctuary room and make this experience as enjoyable as possible.
Feline Behavior Modification Through Mealtime
Just as with a new cat introduction, the main purpose of the reintroduction is to give the cats a reason to like each other. That means it’s the behavior modification you do when the cats are once again exposed to each other that makes the difference. You can’t just separate the cats for an extended period of time and then open the door expecting them to have forgotten that they have been arch enemies for the last four years. They’ll need to see that good things happen when they’re in the presence of each other, and later, within sight of each other. If you do this gradually enough and allow each cat to stay within their comfort zones, your chances of keeping their aggression from boiling over again will be greatly increased. During the exposure time you’ll use a very valuable behavior modification tool: food. Remember the old adage that said the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach? Well, that really applies when you’re talking about cats! Food can help accelerate the acceptance process.
Feed the cats by placing food bowls on either side of the closed sanctuary door. How far from the door itself will be determined based on how reactive the cats appear. In subsequent sessions you’ll gradually move the bowls closer.
If one cat eats faster than the other use a dish with some obstacles in it (such as a brake bowl used for dogs who eat too quickly). If you’re feeding wet food you can also push the food against the bottom and sides of the bowl so the cat has to work a bit harder to get it.
Cat Scent Swapping
Scent is a very important communication tool between cats. With your cats separated, it’ll be important to make sure their scents stay distributed around the house. You want the scents to stay fresh so doing a room swap will help there. The cat who had the run of the house has been freely distributing her scent around but we have to make sure the cat who is in the sanctuary can have that opportunity as well. Periodically do a scent swap by letting the cat in the sanctuary room out into the house to distribute his scent. Before doing this, place the other cat in a separate room temporarily. Then, you can move that cat into the sanctuary so she can distribute her scent there. Basically, what you’re doing is a room swap.
During the scent swap, keep a casual eye on each cat (don’t hover or else you risk making them nervous) so you can distract a cat with an interactive toy should tension start to rise. You don’t want the scent swap experience to create anxiety; the point of the exercise is to remind each cat that the other kitty is still around. Facial pheromones are considered the friendly ones because cats typically cheek-rub on objects in an environment where they feel comfortable or familiar.
You may not have to do the scent swap phase for very long at all. It will depend on how reactive your cats are and how serious the aggression between them has been in the past.
Social Dining Feline Style
Now it’s time to open the sanctuary room door a bit when feeding the cats. Have the cats eat within sight of each other but far enough apart so nobody feels threatened. Keep these feeding sessions brief by offering a small amount of food. It’ll be more productive to do brief sessions that ends on a positive note rather than attempting a lengthy training session where you risk pushing one or both cats’ tolerance limits. If one cat routinely attempts to charge the other, use a door stop to prevent the door from fully opening. You can also place a hook-and-eye closure on the door temporarily.
Wide Open Door
Move to this phase when you feel the cats are comfortable with the previous one. Don’t rush the reintroduction process. If you’re in doubt about whether it’s time to move on, stay at the current stage a bit longer. There’s no time schedule here. What matters most is that you want the end result to be that the cats return to a friendly (or at least neutral) relationship.
If the thought of the fully opened sanctuary room door is scaring you because you’re afraid one cat is going to charge, try an interim step of stacking two or three baby gates across the entrance. Another option is to install a temporary screen door (with secure pet screening). The cats will be able to see each other but won’t be able to engage in a physical fight. If you choose the interim step, make sure you close the actual sanctuary room door again when the feeding session is done. You can even use just one baby gate during the feeding sessions as long as you’re standing by the door in case the worst happens. Even though the cats could easily jump the baby gate if you’re using just one, it may serve as enough of a comfort zone to relax the cats so they’ll be at ease enough to eat.
As you progress with the feeding sessions, gradually increase the exposure time and start to let them wander around more.
Clicker Training the Cat
As you increase the time the cats are exposed to each other, use clicker training and click and reward for any positive move, however small it may be. 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. If you choose not to clicker train, offer a food treat or verbal praise for any positive sign. Clicker training is a very powerful training tool though and one I would urge you to try. You may be familiar with clicker training for dogs but it works just as well with cats since they’re so food motivated.
Use Playtime During Cat Reintroductions
Use interactive playtime as a way to help the cats associate positive experiences with being together. Do parallel play by having a fishing pole-type toy in each hand or, if you can, enlist the assistance of another family member. The cats shouldn’t compete for one toy to avoid the risk of having a cat feeling intimidated by the other. When you use two toys they get to enjoy the game while seeing the other cat in their peripheral vision.
Tweak the Cats’ Environment
This is the time to take a second look at how your environment has been set up to see if there’s anything you can do to improve enrichment and a sense of security. The more interior territory you can create, the easier it’ll be for each cat to find enough personal space. With an indoor environment cats have to overlap some of their personal territory so the more you can assist them with this, the better. Use cat trees, perches and hideaways to create low, medium and high levels. If you increase the elevated territory in the environment you’ll greatly increase the cats’ perception of the amount of territory they have. Vertical territory also helps a cat’s sense of safety and security because he knows it’ll be more difficult for an opponent to ambush him from behind. The vertical territory also increases a cat’s visual advantage in order to see if an opponent is approaching. The ability to scope out the territory is a big plus from a cat’s perspective. 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! Set up food-dispensing toys, puzzle toys and other opportunities for solo playtime. A bird feeder outside the window or some cat shelves for climbing and playing may divert attention and ease tension. Increased enrichment will give the cats something to focus on other than each other.
If the previous set-up in the environment included having your cats share one litter box and one scratching post, you should increase those numbers. During the time the cats were separated you already had to increase the number of resources so keep that up once the cats are together again. The less the cats have to share and/or complete, the less likely they’ll fight. Provide multiple litter boxes in various locations around the house so a cat doesn’t have to cross the path of the other cat. The same goes for scratching posts and any other valued resources.
When it comes to meals, provide separate bowls for the cats. This will help lessen the chance of competition and bullying. In some cases, depending on your specific situation, you may find that the best way to create a peaceful co-existence during mealtime is to feed the cats in separate locations.
Remember the Importance of Choice When it Comes to Cats
A cat who doesn’t feel she has a choice is the cat who feels threatened. The cat who feels backed in a corner is the one who will lash out or display unwanted behavior. As you go through the reintroduction process, keep in mind how important choice is to a cat so you can tweak and adjust your process to provide that crucial necessity.
Need More Information?
For more tips and specific step-by-step behavior modifications techniques for cat reintroductions, refer to the book Cat vs. Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennett. This first-of-its-kind book was written specifically to address the challenges of multicat households.
Due to Pam’s scheduling demands, we’re sorry but she is unable to respond to questions or remarks posted in the comment section. If you have a question about cat behavior, you can find many answers in the articles Pam writes for the website as well as in her best-selling books.