Making your new cat feel at home (c) 2010- 2016 Frania Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved
A rescue group in the New York City area reached out recently for advice in integrating a new cat into a household. The group had placed a cat with a new owner and after several weeks the owner was concerned that the cat was not acclimating to the surroundings. According to the new owner:
"It has been a few weeks since I have had (name withheld) and although he comes out at night to eat and drink he simply will not come out and say hello. I have tried his favorite treats but he is very stubborn in his ways. I'm not sure if he will bond with me as he still acts like the first day I got him. He allows me to pet him and seems to love it very much but even that won't get him out from hiding. He has stayed in my bedroom since and will only come out while I am asleep (sometimes waking me up when using the litter box). He is eating, drinking, and using the litter box on a regular basis. I have been very patient but afraid he will not snap out of his shell. I hate to give him back but feel there is nothing I can do at this point. Please let me know if you have any advice."
When it comes to a new environment cats, like humans, need time to feel at home. Coming into a new place they have never been before, they enter a whole new, strange and foreign world with different smells, sights and sounds; one with different human and non human animals. They are also leaving behind familiar territory and relationships and this loss of what they knew and who they had bonded with before also has to be processed. Depending on the individual history and the personality of the cat the acclimation process may vary from hours, days, weeks or even months.
Know that the cat would like nothing more than to feel comfortable and at home immediately. If the cat were a human instead of a cat he might be able to do just that. He might be able to use human reasoning to know that he is in a good home with a friendly, respectful human who will not harm him, who will fill the food bowl and the water bowl and keep the litter box clean.
But the cat is not a human so he cannot know this until he experiences it. This cat can only trust his environment, what he sees, what he hears, what he smells and feels. And he can only trust the stability and safety of the environment with the passage of time. And what is sufficient time is determined in enough "cat time' (not human time) to feel safe and then comfortable and then truly at home.
If the cat has been around dangerous humans (ones who harmed or neglected him) the cat needs to take the time to make sure the absence of those dangerous humans is permanent and not temporary. If the cat could take your assurance that those humans do not live here surely the cat would. Why waste the energy on vigilance? But, in the wild and in the world of humans, watching and waiting is the only way the cat can know that this new world is a safe one.
But you as a human know these things that the cat does not know and with your help the process can be an expedited one. Here are some ways humans can make this time pass more quickly for themselves and their new cats:
-- Set up your new cat in a separate room if possible initially, such as your bedroom or an office. Your cat's natural instinct will be to hide first and get the lay of the land from a "safe" perspective. A cat basket or a cardboard box turned on the side with some fleece makes a safe haven. Do not be alarmed if your cat prefers under the bed or behind the sofa at first.
-- A new place will probably mean a loss of appetite. Most cats will not eat or drink or even use a litter box for the first day or two. This is natural, your cat is stressed and is simply operating on "safe mode" at the moment. Make the most enticing food available and make sure to offer a fresh portion at breakfast and dinner.
--Cats and dogs are crepuscular animals, which simply means they are naturally most active during twilight or dawn and dusk compared to humans who are diurnal meaning most active during daylight hours. Domesticated animals being familiar with us and dependent upon us for food and social interaction become accustomed to our diurnal routines. Because your cat has not yet gotten fully familiar with you it may only be active during what he perceives as the "safety" of night time hours when all is quiet. Give your cat the time to feel safe and he will pretty much adjust his schedule to yours (remember he is a cat and not a dog so some night time romping might still occur).
-- Make your presence a soft and welcome one. Speak in a gentle tone to your new cat even when you do not immediately see them. For instance, when you enter a room where the cat generally spends most of his time greet the cat by saying his name and a friendly sentence or two to help accustom him to your movements and voice. Your cat is very aware of your presence and announcing yourself and speaking to your cat (even when he is not in eyesight) is the first step towards having a conversation.
-- Spend time around the cat at cat level so that the cat can get used to you, your smell and your voice. Do this by reading out loud or talking softly on the phone while sitting on the floor next to the spot your cat has decided is safest (aka his hiding place), do this for at least a half hour every day.
-- Leave the radio tuned to a classical music station and do leave it on when you are not at home. Classical music is soothing and melodic and the announcers’ voices on these stations tend to be soothing and melodic as well. This is a positive association for your cat to form.
-- When it comes to petting take your cues from the cat. Do what is welcome and go slowly. You are getting to know each other after all. It is always best to initially confine caressing to the cats’ head area. Cats greet each other by sniffing nose to nose and then rubbing along each others muzzle areas. And stroking between a cat’s ears and the back of the head is usually welcomed.
-- Avoid direct eye contact; this is usually perceived as aggressive by most animals. Cats will signal friendly social overtures by blinking slowly at each other. Try it out on your cat and don’t be surprised if you get a blink back and see more of a relaxed body posture in your cat as well.
-- Offer playtime. For instance, dangling a feather at the end of a piece of string for your cat to pounce on (or to think about pouncing on once he gets to know you) allows you to interact with your cat and the quality time creates bonding for the both of you.
-- Make your home cat friendly. Now that you live with a new cat provide the necessary furnishings: A cat bed is mandatory as are several cardboard scratch boards, fur mice and balls to chase, a cat tower or a window seat. Cat shelves are a boon for cats as well as space-challenged NYC apartment dwellers.
-- If the cat is installed in one room, gradually move the food, water and litter into the other rooms. For instance, place the litter box and the food outside the door for several days and then along the hallway (in the direction of their permanent placement) for several days and then in their permanent positions.
Do take the time to allow your cat to settle in and be rewarded by the deeper human animal bond that will form.
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