Slow Introductions in a Multi-Species Household: Bringing Home a New Cat

By: Abbey Johnson and Chelsea Murray, Special Thanks to Christy Robertson for the media contributions

Thinking about bringing a new kitten or cat into your home can be so exciting! You likely have dreams of your new addition and your current animals hitting it off immediately, then successfully integrating it into your family dynamic and routine quickly. While this sometimes can be the case, it’s very important not to leave this possibility up to chance as there are also lots of possibilities that things could start off on the wrong foot, too. To make sure that you DO get that happy, healthy dynamic you’re dreaming of, we need to take several factors into consideration as well as prepare yourself and your current animals for successful integration.

Check-In On Your Expectations

Visualizing what you want your animals’ relationships to look like can be a great place to start off on the right foot when bringing a new cat home. But, before even thinking about your current animals, you first need to think about your own ability to manage a multi-species household. With adding a new cat into the mix, not only will the beginning integrations take a lot of time and effort, but the following years will too! Make sure that you’re willing to divide up your time and resources further to accommodate another animal long-term.

Once you’ve decided that you’re ready for the additional commitment, it’s also important to consider the current animals in your home and their suitability to accept a new member into the household. Through this entire process, your current established animals also need to be a priority, so make sure to consider whether accepting a new animal into the home would be too stressful or too disrupting to their daily routine for them to continue to have a good quality of life. For example, adult dogs with high prey drive outside who have not yet been socialized with indoor cats may not be a suitable home for a new kitten. And for our well-socialized dogs, adding in an adopted adult cat who has not been around dogs could be too overwhelming for the cat. While there are definitely means to help your new addition feel more comfortable and help your resident animals learn appropriate ways to live in the same home, sometimes these dynamics just end up not being the best fit and it may be better to hold off on bringing that new pet home for a while for your current pet’s sake.

Preparations for Bringing the New Cat Home

Once you’ve made a decision on a new cat and put consideration into the dynamic you realistically can expect in your new household, it’s time to get prepared! The best place to start for success is to invest in preparing a good management setup. This includes baby gates to separate different rooms/areas of the house (ones with cat doors), incorporating vertical spaces and safe boxes (for cats) to allow them to get away from the dog when needed, crates, playpens, a good tethering system, etc so that you have several means of keeping your new cat separate from the current animals, or connected to you when needed.

You should also be investing time into brushing up on training with your current animals as well to make sure that their life skills are sharp and ready to go when you need them, especially any skills related to impulse control, relaxation, and redirection tactics. Lastly, make sure that you’ve done your research (which it looks like you’re doing if you’re reading this). It’s important to be well versed in reading subtle body language cues of stress between all the animals in your home, as well as brushing up on learning the skills you will need to train and redirect your new cat or resident dogs to help them integrate more smoothly like positive interrupters, hand targets, and station/mat training. The more you prepare, the less stress you will feel down the road!

Bringing the New Cat Into the Home

It’s no secret that bringing home a new kitten is a challenge in itself, so adding in the dynamic of integrating them into your household with already-established animals can feel very intimidating. Luckily, you can keep stress levels down with your adult animals while helping the new addition integrate into the home gradually by using a concept called management. This will become your best friend throughout the early stages in general, but especially so when starting to build a positive relationship with your current animals. It can be defined as really any equipment or tactic that you use to prevent unwanted behavior from occurring. Preventing your new addition or resident animals from practicing what you don’t want (like resident dogs chasing your cats or your cat feeling scared and defensive and swatting at a dog) only makes showing them what you do want that much easier, since there won’t be a history of unwanted behavior to “unravel” first.

For the first few days (or weeks - depending on your dog), we want to allow almost complete separation to allow the dogs time to get used to the smell and sounds of the new cat and for the cat to decompress and find some comfort in their new home. Additions of pheromones like Feliway and Adaptil can help reduce signs of stress and aid in the integration. Work in short training sessions (3-5 minutes), where you can allow the resident dogs to see the new kitten. With a baby gate in between the dogs and cat and direct supervision, you can help the resident dogs relax and disengage. Reward your dogs for attention to you to help the dogs learn to look away from the kitten. You can also work on settle on a mat, to help the dogs learn how to relax in the proximity of the cat. If you have two household members, one can be playing with the cat during this time to help increase the distraction of the cat as the dog’s skills improve. In these early stages, it is also helpful for all animals to have plenty of “alternative” activities to do so that they don’t become too fixated on one another. This can include training and play with humans and enrichment items waiting and prepped to give as a more appropriate form of expending their energy. These items can be anything from a snuffle mat with their kibble hidden in it or stuffed enrichment items like Kongs or LickiMats. Give these items while your new addition is physically separated from the established animals by an x-pen while you supervise or a completely closed door. It may help the established animals to get a special treat at the same time as well so they learn good things happen in proximity! It’s important to continue giving your existing animals plenty of exercise, enrichment, and attention even while the newcomer is around.

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