An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Re-Introducing Two Cats When One of Them Has Been Away: Chloe and Kim

Dear Greyce,

Chloe (left) and Kim
I am having a problem with my litter mate, Chloe. Since I've been ill (and stayed at the vet clinic for 3 days), she doesn't want to have anything to do with me. I admit that when I returned home, I really smelled different - so much so that I needed a bath. 

Herself has done a good job of swapping our stuff (food bowls, water bowls, litter trays, toys) so we can re-incorporate a group smell. We swap location several times a day and we do see each other when passing from space to space. However should Chloe see me, she hisses if I come too close and growls which frightens me. Recently when Chloe started to hiss, Herself hisses back or talks to her and then Chloe is nicer to me. But basically, we felines stare at each other nervously. Chloe won't relax until I'm out of sight. You see, I don't tend to run away. I will watch, follow her and try to play.

We can only be in the same room if we are in our carrying crates - which we hate. Did I mentioned that we HATE cat crates (we have large, wire ones if you are interested). We meow LOUDLY when we are in them. Now Chloe gets a crate and I stay free and then we swap.

Let me tell you a bit about us in general.

We are almost two years old (spayed) and have been together forever. Until I went to the vet clinic, we were best friends. 

I am very gentle, playful and loving. I'm a good hunter and am always the first to try something new: the first to watch, to sniff, to greet you when you come to the door. I'm curious so I like to supervise household chores.

Chloe is playful and somewhat friendly. She loves to explore but hunting is not her strong point. She favours dark places and enjoys cuddles. She is not keen on guests or other animals, though she does tolerate the ones in our household. She loves to play with the rabbits who live with us. She will attack if she hears a loud noise.

We live in a house with three human adults (Herself and Herself's folks) along with three rabbits, two guinea pigs and two fish. We prefurr Herself. Next in line is Herself's Dad. Herself's Mom is not our cup of tea nor are we hers - though she will feed us from time to time. We are fine with the rabbits (as mentioned, Chloe likes to play with them) and ignore the guinea pigs. We do, admittedly, try to catch the fish.

Our usual daily routine is as follows.

We get breakfast when Herself wakes up, unless we are really starving when we will wake her up instead. We eat fish-flavoured wet food (when it is cool out) and dry food (when in it hot out) and we are a bit overweight.

In the morning we get cuddles and a bit of play for about 10 minutes. 

When Herself is at work and if we are hungry, Herself's folks feed us because they are home during the day. We tend to stay indoors, but if our mood and the weather cooperate we go out into the garden. We used to walk about on the leash but are now free to go by ourselves.

When Herself comes home, we get play and cuddle sessions for several hours.

We get dinner in the early evening. Sometimes if we are lucky, we manage to beg a bit of chicken from Herself's folks when they are eating (though Herself discourages this practice).

Usually we sleep either with Herself in her bedroom or somewhere else around the house (like Herself's Folk's bedroom). Of course, now, we don't sleep together because Chloe can't stand me.

We have a variety of toys including a Catit Play Circuit, toy mice with very long tails, sponge balls and pompons. In addition we have a low (two-level) cat tree with hammock in the family room and a much higher, multi-level cat tree in Herself's bedroom. We were used to harnesses and, as mentioned, have wire cat crates.

I would like Chloe to be friends with me again. How can I make this happen?



Dear Kim,

The experience you describe is not that unusual - unfortunately. The typical scenario is that one of two dear cat companions goes to the vet's for an extended period, comes home smelling funny and all hell breaks loose. The cat who was at the clinic (you, Kim, in this case) comes home expecting that all will be well. Of course it may take a few hours to fully relax in comfortable surroundings, but that's about it. However his or her companion (that's Chloe in this case) gets one look - or should I say, one sniff - and it's as if an intruder is invading. The bonds of a strong friendship suddenly shatter!

This reaction has something to do with the way we cats are made. As you know, we have a very good sense of smell and that is a very important part of our world. We need to incorporate any new smells into our territory in order to feel safe - otherwise it could be a sign of danger (like a predator or rival coming to take our food). While we have excellent peripheral vision (great for seeing movement especially at dusk and dawn when our natural predatory instincts come to the fore), our direct and close-up vision leaves more to be desired. And this means we react more to smell than to the sight of our furry friend. And once that association between strange smell and furry friend is made, it is more difficult to break.

Couple this with the fact that we cats are by nature solitary creatures and as adolescent felines we tend to go our own way. Our kind come together in feral cat colonies or in households because there are abundant resources (food, water, safe sleeping areas, etc.) and so, in many cases, they are able to get along without needing to be competitive. But should something happen to break that bond, there is no genetic imperative urging us felines to repair it. And so we revert to our usual sense of hospitality at the sign of intrusion - to do everything we can to get that intruder out of our face and our home.

If we were dogs the situation would be different. If something happens to one dog that disturbs the harmony of even a two-dog pack, they will work it out in the interests of keeping the group intact.

In your household, this is exacerbated by Chloe's natural purrsonality which doesn't take well to other cats (or to other beings not related to the household) and is somewhat skittish. In fact her hisses at you are indications of fear rather than of aggression. She doesn't recognize you and is afraid. The hiss is a warning to back off and that if you don't, she will feel compelled to attack. You, on the other hand, are wondering what the fuss is all about.

Have no fear, Kim, there are things that can be done to help restore household harmony. But they need to be done NOW and consistently. No fooling around with trying this out for a few days and suddenly deciding to take a day off. Otherwise you will be back to square one. And the less consistent you are and the more tardy you are, the less your chances of restoring household peace.

Let's start by looking at what you have done and how it works for you.

1. You stay separated from each other for the most part. This is excellent because it gives each of you a sense of safety and security. I want you to stay separated (except for periods under supervision which I will describe) until the two of you are completely back an even keel. S-l-o-w-l-y we will work on the two of you being able to be in the same space at the same time. But for now, that will only be for short periods and only when both of you can be directly supervised by a human.

2. You switch spaces periodically (at least daily) and that, too, is excellent because it allows each of you to fully incorporate your full territory as shared - rather then reinforcing the establishment of separate kingdoms. Both of you can sniff what the other has left and mark it over by rubbing it with your cheeks. This is excellent (and for that reason, I don't think there is a need to continue switching you food dishes, water bowls and litter boxes - because both of you have access to those areas at different times.)

3. There is, however, a problem when the switch occurs - for if Chloe sees you when the transfer happens, she is far from amused. I want to work on that (as I will describe, below).

4. You have a bit of supervised time together to see how you can get used to each other. You haven't told me how long the session is. And I don't have a clear idea of what causes the session to end - discomfort? aggression? your purrson thinking that enough is enough? Mainly you stare at each other and frankly this is not a good sign and requires an immediate remedy. This is the area we need to work on, a lot. Again I will give you the details below.

5. You have tried crates (at least crating one of you). While it is a great idea, it needs some further refinement for success.

6. You have an abundance of solitary play toys and a bit of play and lots of cuddles from Herself. Yet you, Kim, just told me by e-mail that you are starting to pull your hind fur (a possible sign of stress). There is room for improvement here. Again, see below.

My Plan for You

1. Continue maintaining separate spaces in which to live (that is, spend most of your time). You must be in separate spaces when you cannot be DIRECTLY supervised by a responsible purrson. ("Directly" means that the purrson is in the room with you and carefully watching.) This arrangement must continue for some time. Check in from time and time and we can figure out when you are ready to be together all the time.

2. Continue time-sharing the whole territory, that is, switching spaces daily. Note that the number of times a day that the switch occurs is not as important as the fact of switching daily. Tell Herself not to stress out about how often in a day she can do the switch. Sometimes we cats tell our purrsons that we want to switch (by meowing or scratching at a door) and that is a good a signal as any - as long as there is a purrson who can respond to your request. Otherwise, switching at a consistent time of the day (say, every late afternoon) will help you establish it as part of your routine and give you a sense of security.

From the house plans you sent me, I understand that there is no door (or other barrier) at the stairs that connect the two floors of your home.

Would it be possible to erect a barrier of some sort? In cases such as yours, some people have made a door out of small-hole lattice or mesh to separate the areas; it allows for visual contact (eventually, though the lower bit is covered by cardboard at first) but not physical contact. (Barriers that are less than full height can sometimes be scaled by cats, so are not recommended unless both of you have difficulty climbing - in which case a tall baby gate might suffice.)

The only reason for asking that you think about this is that it would allow each of you access to a fair-sized area: one of you could have the bedrooms and bathroom upstairs while the other has the family room, kitchen and conservatory. Now if it is not possible that is fine. It is just a thought.

Note also that it will be a while (read months not weeks) before it will be safe for you and Chloe to share space unsupervised. Please do NOT tempt fate!

3. Consider a different method of switching spaces.  If Chloe still gets upset when she see you, Kim, when you are switching spaces, ask Herself to try a different tack. For example, say she is planning on moving you from upstairs to downstairs and you are currently in Herself's room upstairs: Have her move you to either the Bathroom or the Folk's Room (both upstairs) and close the door. Then bring Chloe to Herself's Room and close the door. Then take you downstairs. Then open up whatever upstairs space for Chloe is desired. That way, neither of you get to see the other when spaces are switched. Yes this is more work for Herself  BUT it lessens the stress on you two felines.

4. Have daily supervised time together. I am not clear about how often and for how long you get to be in one another's presence. And from our various e-mails it is not clear whether or not one of you (Kim) continues to stay in the wire crate when this occurs. So bear with me as I go through various items.

First and foremost, being in each other's presence should only happen for short periods of time. You want it to be short and sweet so you both get the idea that this is a positive experience. The usual course is to start with a few minutes (one or more times daily). S-l-o-w-l-y work up to 20 minutes or more by increasing the length of a session by 30 to 60 seconds, each time. If you have several such sessions in a day, do NOT increase by more than 2 minutes total in a day; otherwise you could have a setback where one of you becomes overwhelmed.

Should that happen, end the session immediately and make sure there is a good break (of at least several hours) before trying again; AND shorten the next period together by a few minutes and start working up again.  In other words, you go at the pace of the cat who is having the most discomfort (sounds like Chloe but could be either of you).

So let's go over the details of how to do this.

Keeping A Safe Distance: When you are together, it is best to start out (and you are starting out) in such a way that you cannot get close to one another physically. This will keep each of you safe and help build confidence for both of you. In other words, you start out at what is considered a 'safe' distance from each other (a distance at which neither of you reacts negatively to the presence of the other).

You need to be confined or tethered so that neither of you can get close enough to the other to cause discomfort or possible harm. Since you used to have harnesses, would it be possible to have each of you on leash and harness for these sessions? If Herself could recruit another purrson to help, this could be quite easily done. One person would hold the leash for one cat. And both of you cats could be kept at a distance by controlling the leashes. Use a large room if at all possible, and start by being the greatest distance from each other than is possible - while making sure both of you are in the room, of course. 

If it is not possible to enlist the help of another human, then Herself is on her own. I would suggest then, that she harness and tether the cat who is most likely to approach the other. I believe that is you, Kim. At least this way she can encourage you to stay (relatively) in one place and give Chloe lots of space.

Now, if the harness and leash thing is not going to work, you can resort to those wire crates. But again I suggest that only one of you be crated (as you have said) and the sessions be kept very short because your tolerance for confinement is limited. There is no point in keeping you in the crate past the time you can handle it. In fact, it is much better to reduce the time you are confined in the crate to at least a minute BELOW your tolerance limit; that way, the experience remains a positive one.

It seems to me that right now, you may be in a position that both of you are not confined and not tethered when you are meeting and Herself is serving as referee. I'm not confident in this approach at this time. But if Herself finds those methods too onerous AND believes she can keep you apart (without leash or crate) then she is in a better position to judge (because she is on the scene). However do urge her to follow the rest of the instructions below.

Keeping the Sessions Positive: I recommend the use of play and/or treats when you are together - even though you are quite a distance apart. You need to have positive associations with being together.

Play: How about some toys that engage you? I know you have mice and balls. How about having Herself throw one your balls or mice in a direction AWAY from your feline companion, so you can chase it? (Skilled humans can throw 2 toys - one for each cat so you both can go madly off in directions away from one another.

I strongly recommend a fishing pole type toy because it can be set in motion, catch you attention and sharpen your hunting skills. It is in excellent work out and fabulous distraction tool. Consult my entry, Three Black Cats Who Don't Get Along (posted on August 14, 2012) and scroll down to the last third of the entry which deals all about how to play with humans properly and the kinds of toys to use.
for information on the range of such toys (and examples) as well as how best to play with them (with your purrson).

How about introducing a cardboard carton in which, for example, Chloe can sit/hide when things get a bit much?

Treats: A food treat can just be some of your regular kibble if you prefurr or it can be something special that you really like. In moderation, I would prefurr the use of a delicious food treat - something special that is only given out during these sessions together because that would encourage you to participate. It may mean cutting back a bit on your regular feeding, in order not to gave weight excessively because I know that at least one of you have weight issues. For that reason, treats are my second-level prefurrence (compared to play which is my first).

Studies have shown that cats who eat together are better able to be together. So that is why I suggest that a portion of your feed could be saved and used at this time. If both of you will eat in each others' presence it is a good sign. Note: I'm not suggesting that you have your complete evening meal together, yet. Instead try a small portion while being kept at a safe distance from each other. For example, being given one or two treats at a time (with an upper limit for the entire session). Try this option several times to see if it will work. It may only work for one of you, and that's fine too - especially at the start.

Knowing When to Intervene: I am concerned that the two of you engage in staring contests. These look harmless from a human point of view. In actual fact I call them 'the silent cat fight' because the humans around think that all is well but you two know that, in fact, you are exchanging all sorts of threats. No wonder you are both nervous!

Because it is so easy for humans to misread what we cats are saying, it is essential that Herself master cat signalling (cat talk). That way, she will know when one of you is up to no good, or has an level of aggression that is about to surface AND then she can nip it in the bud.

Have her consult any and all of the following:
Some books - 

Know Your Cat: An Owner’s Guide to Cat Behavior (by Bruce Fogel).
Understanding Cat Behavior (by Roger Tabor).
100 Ways to Better Understand Your Cat (by Roger Tabor).

Entries from Amy Shojai's blog -
This will help Herself understand what the two of you are saying to each other. Then she can intervene at appropriate times.

Appropriate Intervention: There are several ways to intervene.
a) Distraction through play. Just follow the advice I've given on play, above, by consulting that entry about Three Black Cats..

b) Distraction through food treats. Just follow the advice I've already given on treats.

If these two (above) methods are not working in a particular instance, then use one or more of the following:

c) Distraction through one, sharp "No".

If that doesn't work go to the next level below.

d) Distraction through a cat separator (as described in the "Three Black Cats" entry I mentioned above).
The separator is used to either break up staring - if other methods don't work - by putting a portable, temporary barrier you cannot see through between the two of you. It can also be used to keep the two of you apart, when one of you approaches the other and that other cat becomes uncomfortable. It is very inexpensive to make (even cardboard will do) and very easy to use.

e) Removing one of you from the scene without rough handling or sharp words or eye contact. Simply be removed in a matter-of-fact way and be done with it. Cool off in a separate room by yourself. Don't attempt another session for at least an hour or longer.

Note that I have not said to hiss back, to touch roughly (or even at all), to yell, to spray with water or any of the countless so-called disciplinary measures often used by humans on cats. I say this for two reasons: 1) We cats respond much better to positive rather than negative discipline. It's much easier to deliver and to learn from; and 2) The two of you (and likely Herself as well) are stressed as it is. Negative discipline will just increase anxiety levels, making it far more difficult to learn anything useful. I hope you get the message.

AFTER you have increased the time you can comfortably be in each other presence for about 20 minutes, start to decrease the distance. Start by moving about one foot closer. And then proceed in six-inch increments every day or so - as long as you both handle the decrease well. If not, go back a foot and have several more sessions before trying again.

5. Separate Play Sessions

You are all under a great deal of stress. The best way to mitigate this is through play sessions. You are at a stage where solitary play is no longer sufficient (if it ever was) to lower your arousal levels sufficiently. You MUST have interactive play. In the absence of a cat partner, your partner MUST be a human. Again, please refer to the entry I've already mentioned (Three Black Cats) and carefully read over and implement the section on play. To begin with, I'd like Herself to engage each of you separately (and that means when you are NOT in the same room together) for an interactive play session, every day for at least 10 to 15 minutes (or until you tire out). This is in addition to whatever interactive play takes place when the three of you are together.

And Now . . .

Okay, you now have your marching orders:

Get Herself to do that homework on cat signalling - pronto.

Amend your time together so that you are kept at a safe distance and have plenty of positive distraction to make it a pleasant experience. Keep it short! - and then lengthen as confidence builds.

Remain together only when you can be directly supervised. Continue to time-share space, with separate quarters for each - for now.

Start those daily, private, interactive play sessions with Herself.

Do keep in touch and tell me how things are going.

Purrs and whisker kisses,