How To Introduce A New Cat To A Multi-Cat Household

At one time I was on my way to becoming a “crazy cat lady.”

Except that I wasn’t a lady, and my cats were not cooperating with the process.

Sally was the sweetest, most patient, loving cat I've ever known.
Sally was the sweetest, most patient, loving cat I’ve ever known.

I had several cats, all named after favorite fishing baits: Sally, for “Snagless Sally;” Jig, for the classic fishing jig; Buzzy for “buzzbait.” It seems that there were others, too, but that was more than two decades ago, and I can’t recall the others clearly.

What I do remember, though, is that Sally was already established in our house when someone dumped a little black and white kitten on the front porch of the clinic. We took him in, tested him for Feline Leukemia Virus and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, kept him isolated at the clinic for three weeks, then took him home for gradual introduction to Sally.

Now, Sally was about the most easygoing cat you could ever hope for, so introducing her to Jig was a breeze. It’s a good thing, too, because if there was ever a feline version of a “pesky little brother,” Jig was it! He was an absolute bundle of energy and it seemed he could never slow down. When Buzzy came along, she, too was easy to introduce to the family. Sally accepted her immediately, and she was too laid-back for Jig’s annoying, pesky ways to bother her.

In fact, Buzzy was the epitome of “beauty with no brains.” Buzzy loved to sit in a lap and purr loudly enough to vibrate the screws out of a couch. She wasn’t however, what you’d call real smart. She was a mostly-grey tortoiseshell color with long, gorgeous hair. Amazingly, she didn’t get mats in her hair. She had two main problems: one, she couldn’t figure out the litterbox thing, and, two, when she did use the box, it had to be pristine. If anyone else had used it before, she would go find a carpet or rug to urinate on. Given the obnoxious smell of cat urine, that trait isn’t endearing.

Soon we figured out that Buzzy needed to be in a one-cat household, and we were fortunate to quickly find someone who was in the “market” for an adult cat, and took her in, giving her a loving home.

Not long after that some friends-of-a-friend lost a kitty to old age and were devastated. We decided to give them our Jig, despite his immense entertainment value, and they loved him at least as much as we did.

Transitioning a new cat into a household is rarely this easy. Adult cats often don’t accept new household members. They are (usually) more likely to accept a kitten or young cat than another adult, but that’s not a rule.

My mother always said, “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back.” You can use a cat’s natural curiosity to your advantage by creating some mystery. If you are separating a new cat from the existing ones for three weeks, you don’t want them to be able to share air, lest they also share diseases. However, after the incubation period is up you can allow both cats to investigate each other indirectly by letting them sniff under a door. That way, they won’t be able to reach or hurt each other, but they can begin the earliest stages of getting acquainted. Let that go on for a week or even two, depending on whether their indirect interaction is friendly or tense.

Short, supervised episodes of direct interaction can also be allowed at this time as long as there are no spats, or the spats are minimally aggressive. There will almost always be an effort to establish dominance. Total surrender by either party is rare.

If these meetings progress to be more congenial you may make them more frequent, but still supervised. If they continue to be contentious, allow more separation time with the mystery factor fueling curiosity.

Some cats never come to friendship, but a mutual understanding and respect of each other’s “space” may be as good as it gets. As long as they don’t try to hurt one another, that’s ok, although the stress of a “bad relationship” may take its toll in poor health, leading to diseases such as chronic upper respiratory infection, gastrointestinal problems, diabetes or other ailments, including cancer. The degree of effect on each cat’s health will be proportional to the degree of animosity.

Introducing a new pet to a household where pets are already present is sometimes easy, sometimes difficult, sometimes impossible. Still, the steps we’ve covered this week will aid you in making it the healthiest process it can be.

See you Monday, Dr. Randolph.

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