by Frania Shelley-Grielen.
All rights reserved.

What is the best way to make your new cat feel at home? A rescue group in the New York City area reached out to me, 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. Avoid the bathroom, these rooms are the least welcoming in our homes for a cat. If you do not have a separate room, concentrate on a corner of a room where you can set up cat furniture, litter box (placed in the farthest spot from food and cat furniture), etc. Your cat's natural instinct will be to hide first and get the lay of the land from a "safe" perspective. Which is why a cat in a new home or seeking refuge, prefers under the bed or behind a sofa. Offer an alternative, a cat basket or a cardboard box turned on the side with some fleece makes a safe haven. Keep the separate room set up for the first week. After a week, leave the door to this room ajar, so kitty can return from exploring to his now known space.

A new place will probably mean a loss of appetite. Most cats will not openly eat or drink or even use a litter box for the first day or two, preferring to do this under cover of night. 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 throw away any leftovers and 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 exploration 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.