Congratulations, you’ve decided to adopt a cat! This new cat checklist provides tips to help your new feline adjust to life in your home.
Preparation: Supplies for a new cat
First, prepare to welcome your new cat by making sure you have these items on hand:
- Food and water bowls
- Food (Stick with the food your cat is used to eating at first. Then, if necessary, gradually switch to the food of your choice.)
- Collar with ID tag
- Cat bed
- Cat toys (Wand toys are wonderful for bonding with your new cat.)
- Cat brush
- Cat litter box and litter (Again, stick with the type the cat is used to.)
- Tall, sturdy scratching post
Your cat's environment
Initially, confine your new cat to one room. Your bedroom or the living room often works well for this. Make sure that you provide your new cat with food, water, and a litter box — and that you regularly spend time in this room so the cat isn't alone.
You’ll also want to provide your cat with multiple hiding places. A cardboard box with holes cut in both sides (so the cat can go in and out each side) and a blanket placed in the bottom makes a good hiding place. Give your cat both low and high hiding places. When they're in a hiding place, do not disturb them so they can have privacy if desired.
In addition, put a scratching post or cat tree in the cat's room. You can add the cat's scent to the scratching post by gently stroking their cheeks with a towel and then rubbing the scratching post with the towel. This will transfer their scent onto the scratching post, which increases the likelihood that they will use it.
Let your cat adjust to the room and to you. Do not force them to stay near you if you wish to pet them. Instead, coax them to you by playing with them using an interactive toy or staying near their food bowl while they're eating. Once the cat realizes that this stranger (you) provides all good things, they will start to trust you.
After a few days, or when your cat is comfortably walking around and living in this room, expand their access to the entire house. For some cats, it can take several weeks before they are comfortable in their room and can be given access to the whole house.
Your new cat will likely be stressed at first. Signs of stress can include decreased appetite, decreased grooming, hiding, lack of interest in attention or affection, and sleeping in unusual locations. A stressed cat might be more quiet than usual, which can be difficult to notice. If you adopted your cat from a shelter, this is most likely your cat’s third “home” in a fairly short time period, and all that change is stressful.
Start by giving your cat space and time to recover from the stress of moving to a new environment. During the first few days (or sometimes weeks) in a new environment, a cat might hide and might not eat or need to use the litter box as often as normal. If you allow the cat to hide and emerge on their own when they're ready, you’re setting the stage for a wonderful relationship with your cat. You’re showing them that they're in control in the new environment, which boosts their confidence level and increases the bond between you and your cat.
When your cat is ready to interact with you, make sure that all interactions are positive. Playing with a wand toy and giving treats and yummy food are great ways to interact with a new cat.
Cats eat less when they are stressed and sometimes stop eating altogether. It is extremely important to make sure that your cat is eating regularly (and consuming adequate amounts). If possible, buy the same type of food that the shelter used. If the cat isn't eating, try mixing a little bit of a tastier food, such as canned cat food or baby food, into their meal.
After two days, or once the cat is eating regularly, slowly change them over to the food that you would like to feed them (if different from what they got at the shelter). On the first and second days, feed 25% of your diet and 75% of the shelter’s diet, mixed together. On the third and fourth days, give 50% of each. On the fifth and sixth days, switch to 75% of your diet and 25% of the shelter’s diet. On the seventh day, feed 100% of your preferred diet. Changing your cat’s diet too rapidly can cause gastrointestinal upset (decreased appetite, vomiting, and/or diarrhea). If this happens, call your veterinarian.
Decide whether you wish to feed your cat once daily, twice daily, or free choice (which means leaving dry food out at all times). Many cats who are fed free choice do not properly control their food intake and tend to be overweight, which predisposes them to health problems. (Side note: Wet food is generally more satisfying to cats than dry food.) For most cats, twice-daily feeding is ideal.
You can also put some of your cat’s daily ration into a food-dispensing toy, which is a fun way for your cat to “hunt” for food and a great way to enrich their life. Do not start using a food-dispensing toy until your cat has completely settled into your home after about two to three weeks.
Cat litter box training
Provide your cat with an uncovered, clean litter box. Covered litter boxes can trap odors inside the box, which is nice for you but not for your cat. Cats are often quite fastidious. They are sensitive to the smell of urine and feces as well as deodorizers, so it’s important to reduce the smell inside and around the litter box. Scoop out the litter box at least once a day, and empty it completely to clean it every two weeks. When you clean the litter box, use a mild soap, not a strong-smelling detergent or ammonia.
Regarding use of the litter box, cats can find the box on their own. At first, they will likely use it while you’re asleep — especially if they're shy or nervous.
The most common reason that cats are brought to shelters is litter box problems. Following the above recommendations can make the difference between a cat who is litter box trained and a cat who isn’t. Remember that if you do not like the smell of the litter box, your cat probably doesn’t either; keep it clean, and you’ll have a happy cat.
No new cat checklist would be complete without cat toys. There are many different kinds of cat toys, and cats can have their individual preferences. So buy or make several different types of toys for your new cat to try out. Play with the toys with your cat; do not put them out and expect the cat to play on their own. Interactive wand toys provide great enrichment for cats. You can bounce the toy on the end to simulate prey for your cat to “hunt.”
If your new cat isn't interested in toys during the first few days, give them some time and try different toys. One caution: Do not play with your cat with just your hands. Using your hands as a toy teaches the cat that it is OK to bite or scratch you.
One of the big decisions that people with cats make is whether to allow their cat to go outside. There are many risks outdoors that can shorten your cat’s life span. Cats outside can be hit by a car, poisoned, attacked by an animal, or infected with an incurable virus. However, many cats really enjoy being outdoors and miss the stimulation of the natural world if they are kept inside all the time.
There are several different ways that you can allow your cat to enjoy the outdoors without the risks. You can install perches on windowsills around the house so that your cat can sit at the window, watch what’s happening outdoors and enjoy the sunlight. With patience, you also can teach your cat to walk with a harness and leash and then take them outdoors for walks.
Another option is to build or buy an outdoor enclosure, often called a cattery or catio, for your cat. You can search online for “cat enclosures” or “catios” to find out what other people have done.
The key to successful integration of your new cat into your home is giving them time and space to adjust on their own terms, as well as being aware of the signs of stress and making sure that they remain minimal. And keep in mind that the recommendations on this new cat checklist work for most cats but not for every cat. If your cat is showing signs of stress and is not improving, please contact your veterinarian or a behaviorist.