Introducing cats can be a tricky situation. Different people will find different steps to be the “key” to harmony. But floating around the internet are a few suggestions that I really dislike.
Many well-meaning cat lovers and owners are eager to share their stories and advice. Unfortunately these people may not fully understand the behavior they are seeing. Their problems may have gotten better for some unrelated reason or even in spite of what they did!
Here are some of my least favorite cat introduction recommendations. At best, they aren’t effective; at worst, they can actually make things worse.
Bad Advice: Put One Cat in a Carrier and Let the Other Check Them Out
Introducing two cats for the first time can be scary. You may worry about fights or injuries. Or you might want to quickly see what the cats’ first reaction is. Confining one cat in a carrier or dog crate can seem like a good solution and is certainly one that shows up around the internet.
Unfortunately this setup can create a very bad first impression. The confined cat has no control over the interaction and cannot move away or escape. Cats are more likely to accept something unfamiliar when they have some control of the situation (they can move closer, move away, get up high to observe, etc). When confined, a cat may resort to aggression out of fear. When the cat on the outside of the carrier sees this, they may respond similarly or at least be much more wary in the future.
On top of that, this advice is sometimes given as the very first thing you should do when you bring home a new cat. Some people advise giving the cats a quick peek and sniff right away. The cat in the carrier is likely especially stressed at that time because they have just come from some other place (maybe somewhere stressful like a shelter), been put in a carrier (often a challenging process!), and had a car ride. They are probably pretty freaked out! Don’t make a strange cat be the first thing they see after all that.
Better Advice: Use a Safe Zone and Do a Proper Introduction
Give your new cat their own safe area to decompress before meeting your other cat(s). This post details helping your new cat adjust to their new home. After they’ve had a chance to settle in, start the introduction slowly while giving both cats lots of control over how much they want to interact.
Bad Advice: Rub Both Cats with the Same Towel or Brush
The idea behind this advice is to familiarize the cats with each other’s scent. While this is definitely an important concept, the execution needs to be handled correctly. When you rub one cat with a towel and then rub the second cat, that second cat has no control over how they experience the scent. They can’t move away or investigate the smell at their own pace.
This would be like getting sprayed with a potential date’s cologne before meeting them. Regardless of whether you wanted to smell like that or like the smell, you are now stuck with it. You could end up liking the person LESS because they smell like that unwanted smell! For some cats, the smell triggers a fearful response (stranger danger!) that cannot be escaped. Now the other cat’s smell is more closely linked with stress than it was to start.
Also, if your cat doesn’t love the experience of being brushed or rubbed, you are actually creating a negative association with the smell of the other cat. Again, the unfamiliar cat’s scent becomes more stressful than it was initially.
Better Advice: Offer a Scented Towel and Treats
Place towels or blankets in each cat’s area and let them sleep and rub on them for a day or two. Then swap the towels between the spaces. Don’t rub the cats or force them to sniff them. Simply place the towels in areas where the cats can check them out but also easily move away. Sprinkle some yummy treats around and on the towel so that when your cat does check it out they can connect the scent to good things.
Bad Advice: Punish Aggression
If you’ve moved on to letting the cats spend time together but are seeing aggression between them, please don’t pull out the squirt bottle (or shake can or “pet corrector”). This advice comes out of the very human feeling that we have to make sure our pets don’t “get away with” being aggressive. Grabbing the squirt bottle feels like doing something productive and certainly seems to help – for that one moment the aggression stops. The problem is that punishment doesn’t address the cause of the aggression or help the cats form a different, more positive relationship.
Aggression between cats is generally due to one of two causes: fear or misdirected play. If one cat is fearful and using aggression to warn the other to back off, punishment will only increase this fear and aggression. On the other hand, if one cat is causing problems because they are trying to play, punishment doesn’t provide an outlet for this and the cat is likely to keep trying.
Better Advice: Address the Cause of Aggression through Positive Reinforcement
If one cat is fearful, they need a reason to trust and like the other cat. You can do this by supervising the cats to make sure one isn’t pushing the other past their comfort level. And then reward everybody for being together. Make each time the cats share space into a safe and fun party and you can change your fearful cat’s feelings.
If you have a curious or playful cat who can’t take a hint, your focus will be on providing them with lots of appropriate outlets. Think interactive play and environmental enrichment. Food puzzles are a great tool for burning energy and also creating positive experiences for the cats to share.
Bad Advice: Let Them Work it Out
If you’ve tried some steps toward a proper introduction but have gotten stuck you may get advice that the cats just need to work things out for themselves. But sitting back and hoping that two cats will work out their issues “naturally” is risking a lot. Two cats can seriously injure each other for one thing. But, much more likely, if the cats don’t immediately get along, you’re going to end up with frequent small fights for a very long time. While some cats quickly accept each other, it’s more common that cats take an extended time to build a relationship. It’s easy for that relationship to get derailed by one bad moment.
It isn’t natural for cats to get to know each other in small spaces like our homes. We force them into smaller territories and more frequent contact than they might choose for themselves. Because of this, we need to be more thoughtful about introductions. Just like among people, negative experiences between cats have a lasting effect. A single fight can outweigh many positive interactions. It’s far easier if those problems are minimized.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that other problems can spring from cat conflict. Litter box issues and human-directed aggression as well as health issues, such as UTIs, can all stem from the stress.
Better Advice: Slow Down and Back Up
When introducing new cats, follow a procedure that gives the cats many short interactions and focuses on creating positive associations. If you’ve been trying but have hit a wall or are starting to have problems, slow down and go back a step or two in the process to really work on the foundation of the relationship. You may benefit from working with a professional cat behavior expert.
With any cat introductions the emphasis should be on choice and positive experiences. Always give your cats options for NOT interacting. Avoiding conflict is one of the keys for any kitty relationship. The other key is giving the cats a reason to like each other. Use food, treats, play, and attention to build positive feelings and let everyone know when they are on the right path.
If you have a solid introduction plan but are still having issues, review this post on troubleshooting behavior problems for more tips.
It can be a slow process at times but oh so worth it!
If you are struggling to create harmony in your multi-cat home, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.