The other day I received an email from a woman named Sally, requesting a consultation regarding a cat she is trying to introduce into her home. She writes:
Jack was really bad yesterday. The cats were together all day then he attacked me when I picked him up. He bit into me big time and would not let go, drawing blood.
Sally was understandably upset because Jack, who she recently adopted, had severely bitten her, breaking the skin. Although this was the first time Jack had bitten her, she now was afraid of the cat and considered returning him to the shelter. Before surrendering him to an uncertain future, Sally wanted to give him one more chance, so she contacted me for help.
There are many flavors of aggression, each with its own set of triggers. Sometimes I feel more like a detective in an Agatha Christie novel, sleuthing for facts, than a cat behaviorist solving a behavior problem. Before I could offer Sally a solution, I first had to play detective and investigate the causes of Jack’s aggression towards Sally. Only after I uncovered the facts would I be able to develop a viable plan that addressed the behavior triggers.
Jack is not bad, nor is he a mean cat. Considering the circumstances, his behavior is not surprising. In addition to cats not adjusting easily to change, they are territorial. Sally did not give the newcomer time to chill out in his new home, and she rushed introductions by encouraging him to socialize with the household cat the day after she brought him home. Jack, understandably agitated and stressed while he was with her other cat, bit Sally when she picked him up.
The good news is that the relationship can be salvaged. Sally can help Jack feel relaxed and secure by stepping back, giving Jack his own sanctuary room, and then gradually reintroducing him to her household cat. The room needs to be comfortable, equipped with food, water, bed, litter boxes, a window to look out of, and toys. This room is Jack’s safe room — his territory, where no other cats are allowed. After Jack is comfortable in his room, Sally can reintroduce him gradually to the resident kitty.
Additionally, Sally needs to be observant and mindful. If Jack or her other cat is agitated or appear stressed, she should not pet or pick them up.
There is no magic bullet. Introducing cats to each other in a stress-free fashion can take a long time and involves encouraging cats to change their perceptions of each other while separated. Activities are gradually introduced that will help them not view each other as enemies. Some cats take one month to integrate, others many months.
Stress-free introductions consist of four phases (and the cats are not allowed to mingle with each other during the first three phases). Here’s the plan I laid out for Sally:
Scent plays an important role. The first step to a stress-free introduction involves "pheromone exchanges," in which Sally gently pets Jacks cheek with a soft towel or cloth and then pets the other cat’s cheek with another clean towel. The resident cat’s pheromone-laced towel is placed in Jack’s room, near the door. Jack’s towel is put in the area where the other cat hangs out, but not near the food or litter boxes.
Cats have scent glands on their cheeks that produce "friendly pheromones." Scent exchanges help cats develop non-adversarial relationships with each other. These exchanges take place twice a day, each time with a clean towel. It is important Sally does not try to hurry the intros by petting the cats with the other’s towels. Doing so can cause stress, since the cats are not able to retreat from each other’s scent.
Sally can move to the next phase when both cats are comfortable around each other’s scent-laced towels.
Food doubles as a social lubricator. The goal of this phase is for Jack and the household kitty to eat their meals simultaneously, on each side of the closed door to Jack’s safe room. Initially, Sally positions the food dishes a distance away from the door. She then gradually moves the dishes closer to the shut door at each mealtime until the dishes are right on either side of the door. If one or both cats refuse to eat, Sally needs to back the dishes away and move them at a slower pace towards the door.
Play can help cement relationships. After both cats are comfortable with eating on either side of the door, Sally can encourage them to play with each other by slipping a ribbon-type toy under the door. Every cat is an individual — some enjoy playing, others are not as enthusiastic. If one or both of the cats are not thrilled about playing games, Sally proceeds to the last phase.
The door is open during meals. This is the nail-biting phase. Sally positions the feeding stations a distance away from the door before opening it. She places Jack’s bowl at the far end of his room and moves the resident cat’s dish about 10 feet away from the door. Exceptionally tasty food will help keep the cats focused on eating and not on each other.
Sally opens the door and stands next to it while the cats eat. As soon as they finish eating, she closes the door. Also, if either cat shows signs of stress or aggression, the door needs to be closed. If all goes well, Sally can gradually extend the time the door is open after meals — adding one second at each meal.
Although Sally reached out for help to stop Jack biting, understanding the reasons for the behavior and addressing them will help stop the aggression. Giving Jack time to adjust and introducing him gradually to the resident cat will decrease the stress and help create a peaceful, aggression-free household.
Have you ever introduced a new cat into your home? How did it go? Let us know in the comments!
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