Congratulations, you’ve decided to adopt a cat! Here are some tips to ease your new cat’s transition to living in your home.
Preparation: Supplies for a new cat
First, prepare to welcome your 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
Recognizing signs of stress in a cat
Your new cat will likely be stressed initially. 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 may 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 may hide and may not eat or need to use the litter box as often as normal. If you allow him to hide and emerge on his own when he’s ready, you’re setting the stage for a wonderful relationship with your cat. You’re showing him that he’s in control in the new environment, which boosts his confidence level and increases the bond between you and your cat. Regarding use of the litter box, cats can find the box on their own and, at first, will likely use it while you’re asleep.
When your cat is ready to interact with you, make sure that all interactions are positive. Playing with him with a wand toy and giving treats and yummy food are great ways to interact with a new cat.
Your cat’s environment
Many cats are fearful when introduced to their new home; being moved from a small enclosure in a shelter to an apartment or house is a big change. Your home also has different smells and noises than the shelter and the home where your cat lived before. 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 (see below), and that you regularly spend time in this room with her, so that she is not alone.
You’ll also want to provide her with multiple hiding places. A cardboard box with holes cut in both sides (so she can go in and out each side) and a blanket placed in the bottom makes a good hiding place. Give her both low and high hiding places. When she is in a hiding place, do not disturb her, so she can have privacy if desired.
In addition, put a scratching post or cat tree in her room. You can add her scent to the scratching post by gently stroking her cheeks with a towel and then rubbing the scratching post with the towel. This will transfer her scent onto the scratching post, which increases the likelihood that she will use it.
Let your cat adjust to the room, and to you. Do not force her to stay near you if you wish to pet her. Instead, coax her to you by playing with her using an interactive toy or staying near her food bowl while she is eating. Once she realizes that this stranger (you) provides all good things, she will start to trust you.
After three days, or when your cat is comfortably walking around and living in this room, expand her access to the entire house. For some cats, it may take several weeks before they are comfortable in their room and can be given access to the whole house.
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) once you have brought him home. If possible, buy the same type of food that the shelter used. If he is not eating, try mixing a little bit of a tastier food, such as canned cat food or baby food, into his meal.
After two days, or once he is eating regularly, slowly change him over to the food that you would like to feed him (if different from what he got at the shelter). On the first and second days, feed him 25% of your diet and 75% of the shelter’s diet, mixed together. On the third and fourth days, give him 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 him 100% of your preferred diet. Changing your cat’s diet too rapidly can cause upset to his system (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 his food and a great way to enrich his life. Do not start using a food-dispensing toy until your cat has completely settled into your home, after about two to three weeks.
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.
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 house-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.
There are many different kinds of toys that cats like to play with, so buy or make several different types of toys for your new cat and try them out. Play with the toys with your cat; do not put them out and expect her to play with them on her 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 she is not interested in toys during the first few days, give her 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.
Indoors vs. outdoors
One of the big decisions that people with cats must make is whether to allow their cat to go outside. There are many risks outdoors that can shorten your cat’s life span. He could be hit by a car, poisoned, attacked by a dog 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 can teach your cat to walk with a harness and leash, and then you can take him 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 the Internet for “cat enclosures” or “catios” to find out what other people have done. At C & D Pet Products, you can buy a prefab cattery. If building a cattery is too ambitious a project for you, check out the many alternatives offered by Kittywalk Systems. Another popular way to give your cat the freedom of the outdoors is with Cat Fence-In, a product that makes it impossible for cats to climb over regular backyard fencing.
The key to successful integration of your new cat into your home is giving her time and space to adjust on her 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 given above 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.