UPDATED: May 2022 – This post was originally written in 2019. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of helping many families introduce or reintroduce their cats. I’ve also continued my education on the topic of cat social behavior. This post has been updated to reflect some changes in my thinking on the topic.
Although generally thought of as solitary animals, cats can certainly enjoy the company of other cats. The key is having appropriate expectations and creating the right first impression.
Considerations for New Roommates
You may not have a choice about the cats you are trying to introduce, but if you do, a few couple factors make the pairing more likely to be successful:
- Sex: It used to be believed that opposite sex pairings were more likely to be successful but studies into the topic have found that sex isn’t necessarily an important factor.
- Energy: This IS the important thing. Energy level is often linked to age, though not always. Finding a new cat with a similar energy to your resident cat is the most essential factor in setting up a good match. This means that your senior cat (probably) does not want a kitten to play with.
- History: Previous history around other cats may also play into how easily the cats accept one another. One or more cats with a negative history with other cats will likely make the pairing more challenging. If your cat has only grown up with one other cat (like a litter mate), this will not necessarily translate into accepting an unfamiliar cat.
If the cats you are trying to introduce have some red flags (mismatched energy, negative history), don’t despair. The introduction process can still work; you may just need to go slower and be prepared to manage the cats’ interactions for longer. It may also be useful to speak to a behavior consultant to ensure the process goes smoothly.
Separation to Promote Togetherness
When you first bring a new cat into the home, set up a safe space for that cat to stay in at first. You want the new cat to transition into their new home slowly and be able to adjust to the space before being introduced to other animals in the home.
While the cats are in this separation phase:
Every cat will be different in how quickly they adjust to their new home. Do not move on to any further steps until all the cats are showing calm, relaxed behavior. Though somewhat dependent on the cat’s personality, this generally means eating well, using the litter box consistently, playing and interacting with you, and moving around the space with their tail up.
Making New Friends
Once everyone is relaxed in the home and has gotten use to one another’s scents, you’re ready to start the introduction.
A good first impression is everything. Do this by creating a simple equation:
Other Cat = Good Things
Food is usually the easiest and most powerful tool for creating good feelings. Choose some extra special food or treats that the cats love for just this exercise.
- Secure a baby gate in the doorway of the safe space. Cover the baby gate with a towel so the cats can’t see each other, then open the door.
- Remove the sheet for a moment or two until the cats see each other and toss each one a treat, then replace the sheet. Don’t encourage or lure the cats closer; just toss the treats to where they are comfortable. This may be easier to do if there is a 2nd person, but can be done alone.
- Repeat this activity 3-5 times in a row, a couple times a day. If both cats are calm and eating the treats, you can leave the sheet off and gradually increase the amount of time that they see each other between treats. Build up to 5-10 minutes of calm with a few treats mixed in.
- If you can separate the cats securely (a glass door, screen door, or secure, tall gate that can’t be jumped), it can be helpful to continue to increase the time that the cats can see each other but not be in physical contact, as long as they are calm.
2022 Update – I no longer recommend feeding cats closer and closer together. Many cats prefer to eat away from other cats, even those they like, and feeding close together can create unnecessary tension. It can also trick us into thinking the cats are more comfortable than they are, because they are forced together to eat. Stick to tossed treats or special food when they see each other at a distance.
During this process, the cats should look relaxed and be more interested in you and treats than in staring at each other. If they seem tense, are growling or hissing, or can’t be distracted from one another, you’ll have to change something. Move them further apart, cover the baby gate again, or do shorter sessions.
Play Together, Stay Together
In the next phase you’re still making the “other cat = good things” connection through shared playtime. Have two toys (one in each hand or ask someone else to assist you), so the cats don’t have to share.
Before beginning this step, both cats should be able to complete the previous step without becoming fixated, rushing toward one another, or running away.
- Play with the cats while you stand next to the gate so the cats are near each other, but still separated.
- Keep the play sessions short (a couple minutes) and reward the cats with a treat. If things are going well, gradually increase the amount of time you play with them.
- If the cats are relaxed, you can remove the gate and continue to play using two toys.
The more play sessions you have, the more positive experiences the cats have together, the faster they associate each other with good things.
You can also incorporate other fun activities, such as food puzzles or enrichment activities. Provide multiple options and leave space between them, so the cats don’t have to share unless they want to. The goal is for them to share space and have a positive experience while giving them something other than each other to think about. Never try to force them to interact.
When the cats are able to take treats, play, and do other activities together without problems, you should be safe to give them supervised time together without a barrier or distraction. Be alert for signs of tension (staring is a big one) and distract or redirect the cats by pulling out a toy or treats.
Gradually extend the amount of time that you allow the cats to be in the same area under supervision. It may take some time (think months, not weeks) to get to the point where the cats can be unsupervised, but it’s well-worth going slow with the introduction. Keep up the play routine, continue to offer treats when the cats are relaxed together, and make sure there are enough resources (litter boxes, water, food, toys) for everyone so they aren’t forced to share.
Happily Ever After?
Building a relationship between two cats can take time and energy, but having a peaceful household is worth the work. The consequences of a bad introduction can set you back a long way so don’t rush things.
Here are some signs that things are going well:
With a little work, you can have a happy and peaceful multi-cat household!
If you are struggling to create peace between your cats, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.