I recently discovered your blog with great relief, as I am having difficulties adjusting to a multi-cat household. I am a 14-year-old orange female (an anomaly!) who may be part Maine Coon. I am very loyal, not much of a jumper, and like to sleep pressed against my humans. I prefer to be in whichever room of a house has people, even if it's a party. I am also very vocal and friendly and like to charm people who claim not to like cats. I prove them wrong every time!
I have been an only cat for most of the last ten years. Herself took me in when I was five and my previous purrson had become disabled. Until that point I'd lived with other cats, dogs, babies, you name it. Once Herself adopted me, I had one two-year interlude with a horrible beast of a cat who reduced me to a howling, screeching wreck who was leaving blood in the litterbox. It took me six months to get the nerve to whip him good and we did fine after that. I will still so glad when he left though. I had Herself all to myself which, in my view, is ideal. However . . .
For the past two months we have been in a much larger apartment with another woman and her two cats – M and D, both of whom are females and only a few years old (compared to my authoritative status of 14 years).
M didn’t give me any problems. We hissed at each other but she mainly hangs out by my door (which is closed to give me safety) hoping I'll come out and play.
D used to be a street cat and she is VERY UNHAPPY I am here. The first time we met, I startled her and we just hissed at each other. She backed down. The second time, more hissing, this time joined by M. That too was okay. I hung out under the kitchen table and they waited a few feet away. (M got bored and wandered off.)
Then last week, the third time, I couldn't even be in the space for one minute before we had a blowout! The other cats were very curious about me and closed in. I freaked out and tried to edge towards the stairs, so I could run up to the bedroom. They saw my weakness and chased me, screaming, to the top where we were a big screeching ball of fighting cat until Herself sprayed us with a water gun.
I stay in Herself's bedroom, where it's safe. I have a litter box and food and water. Sometimes Herself lets me into the main apartment when the other cats are locked up. I was getting pretty comfortable until that last fight. Ever since then, I am loath to come out of the room.
Just in case you need to know: Our apartment is two levels. The bedrooms are upstairs. Downstairs is a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen. The only doors are on the bedrooms and bathroom.
Sometimes I really want to come out of the bedroom, I get into a good mood and feel I can conquer the world! But as soon as I remember there are other cats out there, I slink under the bed and won't come out.
I'm typing this from the couch downstairs while the other two are asleep upstairs with their woman. Herself coaxes me down here sometimes and each time is a little easier; however I am very anxious still. And the other woman keeps trying to pet me and entice me with treats, so I just hiss and growl at her. If she's around, those beastly cats will follow!
Please help us figure out how we can all be in the space. The other woman has let me out when her cats are locked up, but I just go hide under her dresser for hours and hours until she has to pry me out with a broom handle. I hate her even though Herself says she is kind!
And, please - I'm 14. Do I really need this at my age? Can I handle it? I think we're back to basics here.
Thank you so very much.
Reader's Note: When this entry was first published, Flounder used some other names by which to identify her associates. With her consent, I have changed them so that they can more easily identify themselves - should they read this entry.
My heart breaks when I hear stories like yours. It’s obvious that the humans involved, well-meaning though they may be, don’t really understand how to assist proper introductions in a feline court. And those hooligans with whom you are to integrate are too young to get it either.
Before we go further, make sure that other woman backs off. Right now you are too anxious and frightened to get to know her well. And even if she is a good purrson, you are not able to trust her. Your hisses and growls are warnings to her to keep her distance. She needs to respect them.
As for your hiding under her dresser: Either she has to close her bedroom door so you cannot go in there (for hiding under her dresser seems to distress her) or she needs to ignore you when your purrson is out of the apartment – for now. You will get used to her in time. By the way, where are those other cats when this happens? I assume they are secured. In the bathroom? In your purrson’s bedroom? Inquiring minds needs to know.
You are right. You are back to basics. You need to ensure that the humans involved give their heads a good shake and get with the program. Start by smacking Herself with your paw when she is next at her computer, and direct her to this page. Make sure she reads and fully understands what I have written first, before proceeding any further. This is very important because in the history you have provided, it is obvious that she doesn’t fully grasp the serious nature of cat introductions (if it took bloody litter and a fight the last time you dealt with integration). Creepy bum bum stinky poo poo to that I say. I want no such things on my watch!
Basic Cat Etiquette
As you know, in feline society there are basic rules to be observed for the good of all. We cats are, by nature, solitary creatures who can only live with others of our kind when the circumstances are right: an abundance of resources (food, water, secure shelter), adequate space (which varies with each combination of cats), and proper introductions. When we are in confined spaces (and any apartment or house constitutes a confined space), then the onus is on the humans involved to be understanding and creative in supplying these needs. Without them, there is not a hope in a mouse hole of success.
Unlike humans, cats in blended families do not go up to each other and say, ‘Hi, how are you? I’m sure we’re going to get along very well and become one happy family.” Okay once when the moon was made of blue cheese that may have happened, but not in my lifetimes.
Rules for Introductions - From the Cat Kingdom
For introductions to go well, all cats (and thus their humans who have been known to provoke fights by their ignorance) must observe all of the following rules:
Rule 1. Safety First. Provide everyone with a secure, safe space to which they can retreat. Everyone deserves a place to chill without fear of being bullied or attacked.
Rule 2. They Get Precedence. When cats from two different families come together, the resident cat(s) gets the run of the place (minus the newcomer’s safe room) and the newcomer gets a secure, safe space to begin the process of adaptation. This space serves as her ‘home base’ and retreat. It is sacrosanct to her at this point.
Rule 3. Newcomer Safety. The newcomer will determine when she feels safe enough to begin exploring the rest of the domain. Until then, she should remain behind closed doors with plenty of resources and lots of human attention. The installation of a Feliway diffuser will do much to alleviate her anxiety (search my blog and you will find the entry that goes into the reasons why). I’d love to suggest a diffuser for each floor, as well, but that can be expensive.
Rule 4. You Set the Pace. Usually all defer to the wishes of the eldest cat but in your case, you are the newcomer and there are two resident cats. Under these circumstances, I suggest that Rule #2 applies BUT that the integration proceeds at the pace of the cat who adapts to it the most slowly. And from what you have described, I think that is you. So you call the shots about when to proceed to the next step – which means you go to each step only when you are fully confident to do so. At the first sign of discomfort (from you or the others), the sessions related to whatever step you are on should be terminated and you need to return to your safe room. In some cases this will be within a few minutes but with time, it will become longer and longer.
Rule 5. Explore When You Are Ready. When you are feeling confident, the other cats should be secured away, to allow you to roam through the rest of the apartment. This serves two important functions: a) it allows you to get oriented to your entire territory, and b) it allows you to leave scent (through pheromonal marking) and to smell the scent of the others. This is the way we get a sense of who belongs to the territory. It is a lot of work and will take time to complete fully.
Rule 6. Leave Mutual Calling Cards. As you know, scent marking is the time-honoured method by which we cats get to know one another at first. And for cats who live together, establishing a group scent if very important. Given your situation, only when you have demonstrated full confidence (many times) in exploring the rest of the place should this step next be taken: Those other cats should be allowed into your room to sniff and mark your stuff, while you are allowed to roam in the apartment. There should be NO opportunity for you to meet face to face! And this means making sure that doors are secure and that there is good supervision. Such opportunities needn’t last long. Start with 3 minutes a day and work up from there. Again if you find this bothersome, slow the process down. Don’t let them in your room for a few days, and then start again.
Rule 7.Make Sure the Humans Know Cat Talk. Before you move on to the next step, you will have to host another education session with those humans with whom you live. This will be on basic cat communication. Both must learn the signs of aggression, well. Unless you are in a full blown howl or rolling about in a cat fight, many humans miss the signs that something is going awry. Yet we cats provide all kinds of subtle signs with our ear position, tails, body posture and the like that lets everyone know where we stand. Make sure they truly get this! They MUST know the signs so they can intervene BEFORE things escalate. Leaving it until things get out of control is asking for trouble – and asking for permanent problems. So NOT a good idea!
Check out my entry, The Pungent Scents of Comfort, Urine Marking #4 (make sure it IS #4) and scroll down to Body Language. There are diagrams and descriptions of what to look for. For example, continued staring is highly aggressive.
Click on the following links for further information.
Okay behaviors while you adapt to each other: hissing
Watch out for:
Staring contests/Prolonged direct stares
Piloerection (fur on end)
7. Choose Responsible Humans to Supervise the Process. Now they will be full of themselves for learning cat talk, but the truth is that there is more. They have to learn the rules of basic supervision. For purrsonal introductions, all cats needs to be safe.
a) all cats must be supervised during purrson introductions by responsible humans (one per cat). In your case since there are two humans, I think that you should start with purrsonal introductions between just one resident (and associated human) and yourself (with Herself) at a time. Start with M.
b) The humans involved must know the signs of impending feline aggression and intervene before it escalates. (More on this later.)
c) All cats must be safe at all times which means that they have to be kept at a distance from each other when they can do no harm – through the use of carrying crate(s) or leashes and harnesses – each under the control of a responsible purrson and kept at a distance from each other.
When You are Ready for Face to Face Introductions
The Carrying Crate Option: Keeping one or both of you in cat crates while in the same room.
Here is how it works:
If you have it on hand, spray your carrier with one or two spritzes of Feliway a few minutes before you get in so the scent can do its work but not overwhelm you. Have your folks do that breathing relaxation.
Enter into your crate and ensure it is secured. You are brought into the room (any room other than your safe room which should never be used for introductions) in a carrier and put at a great distance from the other cat – start across the room from each other - and put your crate at ground level (if you prefurr the floor or above ground on a stable surface like a table, if you prefurr that). The point is that with at least one of you in a crate you cats won’t be able to get at each other.
Maybe you will engage in a staring contest. If so, ask your folks to use their wiles to distract you. If that doesn’t work, have them turn the carrier sideways so you cannot directly face the other cat.
If you don’t settle down or show signs of great stress, the session is ended. Ditto re-the other cat.
If you are fine, have a look at each other but can be distracted from a prolonged starting contest, or show no evidence of aggression, the session continues. Until 5 minutes is up. End of session. (In other words, the session ends at the first sign that one of you is distressed, or at this time limit – whichever comes first).
For every session that goes well, decrease the distance between your carrier and the other cat by 6 inches. Yes, it is a slow process but it works.
At some point, the other will become confident enough to approach the carrier. Again, watch for signs of distress of either party and act accordingly.
Who Gets Crated?
The idea is to get you both used to each other’s presence in a way that you both feel safe. I suggest that we start with you being crated because you are the newcomer and much less confident. Later on, the other cat can do crate time and let you have the run of the room.
I also suggest you start with one resident cat only. But later on, both residents can be involved together as well. A lot of this will depend on your folk’s fortitude. They may prefurr to have the cat who makes the least fuss, crated.
IF they really, really can’t stand crating you or you put up such a fuss that you stress yourself out, then I guess the other gets crated instead. (This is different from making your distaste known for the first few minutes and then settling down.)
If this crating needs to go one for some time, some people buy (or borrow) a LARGE size dog crate so you can have a litter box in the back and a bit more room. There might even be room for a small, low stool on which to perch. And a water dish would be helpful.
The Leash and Harness Option
On leash and harness, two of you can both be in the same room. Each of you will be with your purrson but some distance away from each other. The distance selected needs to meet two criteria: a) far enough away that neither of you reacts to the presence of each other (that is, that neither of you stares at the other, dilates your pupils or shows other signs of anxiety, aggression or distress; and b) far enough away that neither of you can physically contact the other. If you are unsure how far that is, start with about 15 feet apart and adjust as needed.
Never been on leash and harness?
Then you will need to read my entry Harnessing Facts. It takes patience but many cats get used to it.
Used to leash and harness?
Then here is what you do: Before you put on your leash and harness, make sure Herself relaxes by taking ten deep, slow breaths. No, I’m not suggesting she starts yoga. But we cats can sense when folks are uptight and that makes us uptight as well. If they are relaxed, it helps us relax as well.
And over the course of repeated sessions (and as long as both are okay with it), you decrease the distance between you two cats at the rate of 6 inches per session. Six inches! Yes, trust me on this. You don’t want to get ahead of yourself and this is a big distance for us felines.
When you have had enough successful sessions that you are approaching swiping distance, decrease the space between you even more slowly. Your purrsons much watch each of you carefully for signs of distress. And to relax they must take deep breaths.
Consider a bell for the most aggressive cat, so everyone can keep an ear out. Forewarned is forearmed! Or should I say, forepawed?
At whatever distance you are, you can be occupied by any or all of the following:
a) Your purrson can pet you or talk with you, or do whatever it is that helps you remain calm.
b) Play an interactive game with your purrson: fishing pole, mouse, whatever. Don’t involve that other purrson (who is supervising that other cat) or that other cat. Just get used to the idea that playtime can occur when that other cat is in the room.
c) Have a snack or a meal together. Have your humans put a dish of food down in front of each of you (at your respective distances). Eating together is a bonding experience. If you usually free feed, your folks might have to withhold part of your daily ration for this.
While any of these three options is happening, ask your purrson to pay close attention to your body language. If you show signs of distress: dilated pupils, hissing, growls, fur standing up, whatever, then the interaction time is up and you need to be separated. (Yep, back to the separate room.) Make sure your purrson does NOT reward you (by fussing over you or trying to give you a treat); it’s not wise to reward distress or aggression, unless you want more of it. So train your people to monitor so you that they can intervene at the very beginning of your distress (or close to it), if need be. The sooner the better.
When your joint session goes well, each of you should receive a small treat. Again, if you are used to getting treats, your folks will have to reserve the treat stash for these sessions.
I have no idea how much time the two of you could tolerate each other together in this way. We are looking for a distress-free amount of time that the two of you can be in the same room, at the same time (while supervised and controlled). At first, that may only be a few minutes; but with patience it can build. Build up your time together in increments so that you can get to say, 30 minutes without needing intervention.
If this goes well and you are at around 30 minutes, then have your folks decrease the distance between the two of you. Again this goes in increments – six inch increments. Go at the pace that the most distressed cat can stand. And if that means you have to back up a bit after having made some progress, so be it.
When Will It Be Over?
With either method, the sign of complete success is when you can be close together and not show aggression and/or fear. In other words, when you are all comfortable with each other. At that point, I would suggest that the controls can come off.
However, you still need supervision. And when you cannot be supervised, you need to be kept separated – for about a month longer. We don’t want any unfortunate experiences to cause a setback.
In your case, there are three cats involved. Start with you and M. Once the two of you are relatively comfortable, switch to D. You can alternate as you progress through the steps BUT everyone must be mindful of your stress levels. You cannot deal with both cats at once, and probably would find it too troublesome to deal with both cats in one day – at least for the first several weeks.
Note that with crating, it is possible that both resident cats could be crated and you could roam around. And then switch (you crated and they not). It will depend on everyone’s reaction.
Troubleshooting Common Problems
Timing the Sessions
Start with short sessions.
Start with five minutes. Change the session length in small bits (a minute at a time) as I have directed – increasing or decreasing as needed. This might seem to take forever, but it WILL work.
I repeat: Your first session is 5 minutes. It ends either at that time limit or at the first sign of distress/aggression from which one of you cannot be distracted. Whichever comes first.
Ideally, stop the session before things get out of hand or when the time is up – whichever comes first. If any of you show signs of aggression and cannot be distracted, the session needs to end NOW!
If this session goes well, the next one can be increased by 1 minute to 6 minutes total. If the session was too much for one of you, the next session is decreased by 1 minute – to 4 minute total. So every good session means the next one gets a small time increase.
For every session that goes poorly, the next one gets a small time decrease of 1 or 2 minutes. And is kept at that level for at least two sessions BEFORE increasing it by 1 minute again. Got it?
Once you are past the 15 minute mark, you can start make 3 minute increases at a time. And once past 30 minutes, you can increase it by 5 minutes at a time.
How Many Sessions in a Day
Having an introduction session is hard work – on all of you. You need time to calm down between sessions. And your folks need time to work, pay bills and do laundry. So separate your sessions by at least an hour (preferably longer), so you all have time to relax in between.
Train Your Folks About Cat Body Language
I repeat: Check out my entry, The Pungent Scents of Comfort, Urine Marking #4 (make sure it IS #4) and scroll down to Body Language.
Click on the following links for further information.
Okay behaviors while you adapt to each other: hissing
Watch out for:
Staring contests/Prolonged direct stares
Piloerection (fur on end)
When and How to Intervene
Okay, so your folks have passed Cat Communication 101. Now what?
So they see that one of you is up to no good. Say one of you begins to get into the stalking position. They can try a firm ‘no’.
If that doesn’t stop the cat in her tracks, they can try throwing a favourite toy in a direction AWAY from that other cat to see if she will go after that. And if she does, then they could try a fishing pole type toy (or string) to engage her in interactive play (see entry, Only On My Terms, for information on suitable toys and games). If distraction works, then this will be a method of choice.
If distraction does NOT work, they should try a time out – removing the perpetrator bodily from the scene (without ANY attention, positive or negative) (e.g., behind a closed door or into a cat carrier) for five minutes. After ignoring her for five minutes, they can let her out (again with NO attention of any kind) and see what happens. If she start up again, they can either lengthen the time out or stop the session.
Interactive Play is Essential
You guys have been under a lot of stress. Make sure to have daily interactive play sessions with you folks so you can let off some steam. (Check my entries for toys and play ideas.)
Now Flounder, this is A LOT of information to digest. I suggest you just start step by step. Keep in touch with each step of progress. That way, we can review it together BEFORE you take the next step and make any adjustments or refinements that would help you along.
Best of luck to all of you,