Is This Normal? Expectations for a New Cat

You are so excited to bring home your new cat. You’ve been looking for just the right companion for a while and today is the day! But your new cat immediately hides under the sofa and won’t come out. What gives? Did you just make a huge mistake?

Who Are Your Calling Feral?

Working at a large animal shelter meant seeing hundreds of animals leave with happy families every month. These matches were all made with hope for a new life-long companion. But the reality is that every match isn’t forever. A small number of those pets quickly returned back through the shelter doors to continue their wait for the right family.

One day I found a familiar face peeking out of a kennel at me. “Gabby” had been adopted two days ago but it hadn’t worked out. Since I knew her, I picked her up for a cuddle. She draped herself over my arms, purring. While I held her, I pulled out her paperwork to see why she was returned.

Why are you returning this cat?             FERAL           

I couldn’t help it; I laughed. Gabby looked up at me curiously. Still laughing, I asked “are you feral?” and she rubbed her face on my shoulder. Obviously this wasn’t actually a feral cat, which is an unowned cat living without human contact (or with limited contact through feeding). Feral cats are generally fearful of humans or willing to be near humans but uncomfortable with touch or handling.

What had happened to make this family excitedly adopt Gabby on one day and then return her as “feral” two days later? Reading further I learned that Gabby had avoided her new family and hid. When they reached under the bed to try to touch her, she hissed and swatted at them. Obviously this was what scared the family. Instead of laughing, I needed to make sure Gabby’s next family felt prepared for her behavior.

Now we knew Gabby, like many cats, was fearful when she found herself in a brand new home. She needed a family that would give her space when she hid. And that’s what she found, just a few more days later. Gabby’s new family was prepared for a slow transition and, with a little guidance, they came through smoothly. After just a few days, Gabby revealed her confident self again. Happy ending achieved!

What Is “Normal”?

A cat moving into a new home is going to be stressed. That should be your default expectation. Even a cat that has handled change before, a cat that seems super confident, or a cat that appears to be right at home immediately is under some level of stress. This means that the first few days (or weeks) may not be a sign of what the future holds.

If your new cat is eating, drinking, and using the litter box then you can consider the following list as “normal” behaviors for a cat in a new place:

  • Hiding
  • Sensitivity to handling or low tolerance for petting
  • Hyperawareness and meowing
  • Being very attached to people OR very disinterested
Shy cat hiding in tree

Easing the Transition

Give it Time

I’m putting this first because so often this is the thing that is needed most. Just like Gabby, many cats just need time and space for a few days. You’ve probably been thinking about bringing home a new cat but your new cat had no idea that they were going to be boxed up and moved to a new place with new people, new sights, new smells, etc. Patience is one of the kindest gifts you can give them.

One of my very favorite (primarily dog) trainers is Patricia McConnell. She proposes a “rule of 3” for how a new pet adjusts to a home:

  • 3 Days to get over the shock
  • 3 Weeks to settle into their personality in your home
  • 3 Months to fully understand the house rules and become a member of the family

Every cat and every family is different so your time frames may be different. But this can be helpful when you start worrying about how your new cat is fitting in.

Of course, settling into a personality is different from changing completely. If your new cat is fighting with a resident cat within the first week, don’t assume everything will get better by the third week. Time is best paired with proactive steps to create peaceful relationships and good habits.

Set Up a Cat-friendly Home

Help your new cat settle into your home by setting it up to be as cat friendly as possible. Vertical space is one of the most overlooked but most important additions to your home. Cats that can get up off the ground will feel more secure. Comfortable hiding places give your cat a place to tuck themselves away from the action.

As humans, we understand that our living environment affects our happiness. We decorate our homes and take favorite pillows along on vacation. If we’re able, we seek out safe neighborhoods and secure, warm homes. Our cats may have slightly different priorities but they still need to feel secure and comfortable. You can find more on the page about home setup.

Play Together

Orange cat playing with toy

I sound like a broken record on this blog but interactive play is one of this most useful tools for bonding with your new cat and providing for their needs. Regular play will calm an energetic cat and build confidence in a shyer cat. It also gives you and your cat a safe activity to do together. If your cat isn’t ready for lots of petting yet, play will help them trust you. 

Even young kids can move a toy around the room for a cat, thus giving the cat a reason to like the kids and the kids a way to have fun with their new cat.

Enjoy Your Cat For Who They Are

No doubt that you had an image in your mind when you adopted your new cat. Maybe you pictured relaxing after work with a book and a cat curled up on your lap. Instead you come home to everything knocked off your shelves and a cat who won’t stop pouncing on your feet and trying to eat your hair. Not the calm lap kitty you imagine!

One of the most satisfying parts of bringing home a new pet is learning who they really are. You may be surprised but, with time, you’ll probably love your cat more for their quirks and unexpected moments. These are the things that let you say affectionately “oh my crazy cat, he just loves to groom my hair for me!”

Interactive play and time will reveal your cat’s true personality and let you bond with them for who they are.

Should You Keep Trying?

This post is meant to give you confidence to carry on. It is completely normal to have some doubts about what you got yourself into when you adopted your new pet. Knowing that some challenges are common can relieve some of that worry and fear.

However the reality is that some cats and homes are not the right matches for each other. Be honest with yourself about how this cat is going to fit into your home. For example, a shy cat may be able to share a home with loud, energetic, young children. But adults need to be involved in managing the situation. And there needs to be space for the cat to get away from the action.

Things to consider include having space to provide for the cat’s needs, time to play and interact with them, and energy to do whatever management or training is necessary. The upside is that there are generally lots of creative solutions for life with cats. With enough vertical space even a small space can be cat friendly. Food puzzles work a cat’s mind and body while you work. A few tweaks to the home can solve many problems without lengthy training protocols.

There are no hard and fast rules about what it takes for a cat can live happily in a given home. It’s not fair for either you or the cat to be miserable because of a mismatch in personalities and needs.

All I hope is that you will give your new cat time to show you who they are and give yourself time to appreciate it.

If your cat is struggling to settle into your home or has another behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.