by Rachel Geller, Ed.D., Certified Cat Behaviorist
Before you bring your new cat home, choose a small room in your home where your cat can have her own safe, secure space. You always want to start your new cat off in her own room because too much new territory too soon will be overwhelming to your cat. Make sure there are no hiding places in the sanctuary room. If there is a bed, bureau or other furniture in the room that a cat could hide under, put luggage, boxes or storage containers underneath. You don’t want your new cat to spend her days hiding from you. However, provide accessible hiding places like a cat tunnel, cat cube or even a box on its side. Make sure there are no hidey holes in the walls.
Make sure there is food and water on one side, and a scratching post and litter box on the other side. The scratching post should be at least 3 feet tall, and rope or sisal-wrapped. Provide your new cat with interactive activity toys in her room; interactive toys such as puzzle feeders are really important for solo play when you are not in the room with her so that she is busy. A cat who has opportunities to work in order to accomplish a task or solve a puzzle is a cat who will not be focusing on her own fear and anxiety. Most cats have fear, anxiety and stress when they are moved to a strange place. For the DIYers, a ball or crumpled up piece of paper in a tissue box is a low-cost option to keep a cat interested
When you bring home your new cat, go directly to the room you have set up as the sanctuary room. Close the door gently behind you and place the carrier on the floor. Open the carrier door, but don't force the cat out. Don’t reach in and pull her out. Let the cat come out at her own pace. You can take the door off the carrier, or tie the door back with a pipe cleaner or baggie tie. This way, your new cat still has the safety and security of her carrier for as long as she needs it.
The separation period for your new cat shouldn’t be seen as a jail sentence. Please don't be sad about keeping your new cat in a separate room. Cats prefer a small space when it comes to new territory, and you can - and should - go in to her sanctuary room as much as you want. Remember that this is to let your cat calm down and feel a sense of security in her new home.
Spray a synthetic pheromone product in the sanctuary room and also on the door frames. Cats deposit their own pheromones on objects as a signal that this is a friendly, feel-good place. Synthetic pheromones will trick the cat into thinking she has already designated her sanctuary room as her own territory.
You want to keep your cat in the sanctuary room until she seems comfortable and unafraid. Depending on your cat, this could be several days to a couple of weeks. Let your cat set the pace. If she is hiding, then she is not ready to come out to the rest of the house yet. If she is greeting you at the door when you come in, following you when you leave or even trying to get out of the room, those are signs that she is getting ready to explore the territory on the other side of the door. Let your new cat learn to feel confident in her new territory first, and this will also help her to bond with you.
When you do think your cat is ready to see the rest of the home, do it in incremental stages. Don't force your new cat to try to establish her territory in your entire house all at once. This will be way too scary and overwhelming for her. Before you open the door to the sanctuary room, close the doors to some of your other rooms. You can shut bedroom doors, and if you have more than one floor, you can use a tall baby gate or garden lattice so that you can have your new cat start off with one level of the home first.
Calmly open the sanctuary room door. Allow your cat to come out at her own speed. Some cats are brave while others are shy. Some cats are excited to see and smell everything where others want to take it one step at a time. Just like people, each cat enters into a new situation at her own rate. Let your new cat determine how far she will want to go. As the cat comes out into the main part of the home, use an enticing fishing pole type of toy to distract her if she becomes nervous. Keep the "out of the sanctuary room" sessions short at the beginning. It is better to do several short sessions a day and let her out gradually to get to know her new environment.
During these roaming sessions, set up more than one litter box in a couple of areas you have chosen as the permanent locations. This way, your cat can get to know the other areas where the litter boxes will be located while still having the security of her litter box in the sanctuary room.
I always recommend keeping the sanctuary set up for a while even after it appears that your new cat has settled into her new home. This provides a sense of security, knowing that she has her safe space if she needs it. By presenting your home to your cat gradually, you can decrease her fear, anxiety and stress.
Rachel S. Geller, Ed.D.
Cat Behaviorist, Pet Chaplain®, Humane Education Specialist, Fear Free Shelter Certificate
Shelter Cat Behaviorist: Here Today Adopted Tomorrow Animal Sanctuary & Baypath Humane Society
Cat Behavior Specialist: Cat Guardian Academy, Bark Buildings & PuppyKittyNYC
Visit my website: https://drrachelcatbehavior.com/