Guide for bringing home a new cat

Space

Predictability is the thing that underpins a cat’s comfort in their space

Cats are prey animals, and so their first natural instinct is to hide when they’re in an unknown environment. When introducing a cat to you and your home, the goal is to overcome that hiding instinct and cultivate the cat’s confidence in their surroundings. Ultimately, they should be navigating your home (or whatever portion of your home they’re allowed into) comfortably and with a quick rebound when faced with new stimuli.

Some cats will take to a new environment so quickly that you don’t even notice that acclimation stage. They’ll be poking their heads into everything and exploring everywhere right away! With this kind of cat, you don’t really have to worry too much about introductions, unless there is a skeptical resident cat (or multiple resident cats) in the mix.

Assuming that your foster cat is not that type (and most aren’t), you’ll want to gradually introduce them to their new living space. The best way to start is with a crate, or with a very small room like a bathroom.

Why?

Because a cat who can hide, will hide. If they can’t predict what’s going to happen, they will create that predictability by hiding.

That doesn’t mean the cat hiding under your couch will never come out, though. It means that the cat hiding under your couch will take a lot longer to come out if they haven’t been worked up to it through a gradual introduction to the space. It’s faster and easier to start small, and expand out. I often find that two weeks in a small space with a routine sets nervous cats up to transition into the larger living space pretty well.

Something to keep in mind about the intro space is that you should have access to the cat. The cat needs to acclimate to the environment and to you. That means leveled cages, for example, aren’t the best choice because they generally have two small openings that you can only reach into up to your shoulder. Meanwhile, the cat can run to the bottom, or to the top, and effectively play keep-away. In contrast, a regular large dog crate or kitty playpen will keep the cat exposed enough to be reached. A good rule of thumb is that the cat should be able to see you coming, and you should be able to position yourself somewhere where you can see and reach the cat.

If your intro space meets these criteria, you’ll be able to make the best of the next few techniques.

Your Presence

When you start with a new cat in their nice small space, use passive space sharing. This means two things: proximity and invitation.

I’ve heard from fosters things like, “He’s hiding in the bedroom so I’ll just give him space and stay in the living room.” The problem there is that the cat is learning to be far away from you. Instead, you should try to get as close to the cat as possible. This is why a small space with few hiding places is good, and why you should ideally be able to reach the cat. Sit near the cat, talk softly, or mess around on your phone to achieve proximity.

So what is invitation? Invitation means offering interaction. Not forcing, just offering. Offering as many times as it takes for the cat to relax. A good, simple invitation is holding out your hand to the cat to sniff. If the cat is nervous, they might not go for it; that’s fine. Pull your hand back, or drop it to the floor if that’s a comfortable position, wait, and then try again. Keep your movements small and steady and keep your voice low. Use a single fingertip if that’s what they need to feel confident enough to chance a sniff.

Again, the key is predictability. Do the same thing each and every time, and they’ll learn to trust you.

Food

Please note: If you have a cat with health problems that may complicate this feeding method, please consult your foster coordinator prior to changing up their feeding routine.

How you engage a cat (or don’t) during feeding makes a huge difference in how fast they acclimate to their space and your presence (or your resident cat’s presence). Many times I’ve worked with fosters who are concerned about not leaving a bowl of kibble for the cat to pick at all day. There are fears that if you don’t leave food out, the new, scared foster cat might never eat and will starve. In my experience, no healthy cat will let themselves starve.

Otherwise, try to trust in the process, and don’t worry too much if the cat holds out on eating or will only pick at food, even for up to a week!

The problem with the bowl-of-kibble-all-day method is that it is exceedingly low-engagement. You fill the bowl, the cat waits for you to leave, the cat eats whenever it feels like it throughout the day, and you refill the bowl apropos of nothing much other than it being empty. That cat may take an exceedingly long time to start seeking out your presence, because they don’t closely associate you with the food. They get hungry and eat without you being around, so why would they?

Instead, scheduled meals are best. That means giving enough food for the cat to eat in a single sitting, not over multiple sittings. I personally feed twice a day using this method, and I find it works extremely reliably. I’ve had fosters who catch on to the schedule within one or two feedings, and I’ve had fosters who resist for up to a week before they start showing signs of anticipation when food time is coming. Either way, I just keep offering food at the same times, each day.

When the feeding schedule takes, cats will often anticipate their food and follow you around, appear excited and vocalize. This excitement will both allow you to bond with them more closely and allow resident cats to bond with the newbie in a neutral environment (if they’re all hungry, they’re paying attention to you, not each other!)

Play

Play is a great way to get a cat used to a new space, and to get resident cats used to new cats. However, really scared cats will not likely want to play. If you try to engage them in play and they’re not going for it or showing signs of wanting to hide more, roll back to passive sharing of space and feeding to do the majority of the acclimatization.

That being said, try a variety of toys before deciding the cat doesn’t want to play. Wand toys with lures, string toys, small squishy toys, rolly balls, toys that have bells and make noise, paper balls, lasers — there are many toys and not every cat goes for all kinds. Many cats have favorites.

If you can get the cat to engage with a toy, find a good spot in the space and make it a daily ritual (or repeat as often as possible). Predictability is key to a cat becoming comfortable with you and their environment. It also works really well as a social lubricant for resident and foster cats. Since the cats will be focused on the toy, they’re not focused on each other, and they’re not worrying about each other.

Summary

  • Keep the cat in a small space that doesn’t offer a lot of hiding places, and where you can reach the cat reliably
  • Spend quiet time in the cat’s presence, and offer your hand to them (not forcing pets, just offering) repeatedly during each session, each day
  • Feed the cat on a regular schedule, with no food being available between feeding sessions.
  • Play with the cat once you find a toy they like and they’re relaxed enough to engage with it. Go back to passive space sharing/invitation/feeding if needed
  • For acclimating resident cats to foster cats, take advantage of feeding and playtime to get them close to each other in a neutral way

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