Two cats in house

You’ve navigated your way through the dating ritual, and now it’s time to move in together. But what if you and your partner are feeling the love, but your respective cats aren’t?

Dr. Ilana Reisner, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, admits that introducing a new cat into an existing cat household, or merging unfamiliar cats into a completely new house can be fraught with adversity. At the Western Veterinary Conference, she shared some tips on how to make the transition easier.

Signs of Trouble in Paradise

A little bit of squabbling among unfamiliar cats, in the form of growling, hissing or darting away is not unusual, according to Dr. Reisner. But there’s a whole range of behaviors that may indicate something more serious is afoot.

An assertive cat, for example, may aggressively attack another, seemingly without cause or warning, often inflicting injury. At the other end of the spectrum, a previously social cat may seek isolation by camping out under the bed or in the basement.

Cats may also express their dissatisfaction in more subtle ways: by staring or stalking another cat, or blocking his access to food, litterboxes and favorite resting places. The stress can lead cats to mark or have “accidents” outside the litterbox.

Introduce Cats Gradually

Before merging any cats, especially indoor-only with outdoor cats, check with your veterinarian to make sure all cats are healthy and vaccinations are current. In some cases, your veterinarian may recommend that cats be isolated for a few weeks before exposing them to each other.

Once your veterinarian gives the thumbs up, Dr. Reisner recommends placing the new cat(s) in a room with their own food, water and litterboxes. Keep the door closed, but allow the unfamiliar cats to sniff and bat at each other under the door. Swap food bowls and litterboxes every few days to further expose the cats to the others’ scents.

After a week of separation, place the resident cats in another room, close the door and then allow the new cat(s) to explore the house and sniff the surroundings.

The next step is to bring the cats into the same room, but distract and reward them with the most enticing cat-safe food you can find. Place the more confident cat in a large carrier at some distance from the other cat(s). The carrier allows the cats to be exposed to each other visually without the danger of them physically attacking each other. The more confident cat may be more likely to be aggressive with the others, so the carrier limits his or her movements. Be sure to allow all cats to indulge in the food.

If your cats don’t like to be confined, simply separate the cats at opposite ends of the room while they’re occupied with their food. Repeat this on a daily basis, gradually increasing their exposure from five to 10 minutes to an hour.

After about a week, or once cats appear to ignore each other, they can be allowed to mingle a bit. There may still be a little hissing and growling, but eventually the tension should subside. If aggression between cats persists, consult your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist.

A Few More Words of Advice

To promote a peaceful household, Dr. Reisner offers some additional counsel:

1. You can never have too many litterboxes. As a rule of thumb, there should be one litterbox for each cat, plus one more. Since new cats may be unsure of litterbox locations, and others may block their access, the more boxes you have, the better.

2. Add food and water stations, and climbing areas. Make sure cats have easy access to food and water, as well as places to climb and observe other cats.

3. Provide escape routes. Offer a safe haven where each cat can make a getaway from the others. Make sure the location includes food, water, a litterbox and cat toys.

4. Supervise all cat interactions. Until you’re confident that cats are comfortable with each other, never leave them together when you’re away from home. Ask your veterinarian about pheromone diffusers and sprays that can help some cats feel safe and calm. If tension mounts, be prepared to distract cats and redirect their attention elsewhere.

5. Pair a treat with a distinct sound. Find a treat that each cat really goes for. Working with each cat in a separate room, make a sound using a bell or clicker, or just a kissing noise, followed immediately with the treat. Once the cat is conditioned to look at you when he or she hears the sound, you can use the sound to distract cats when an altercation seems imminent.

6. Approach aggressive cats with caution. If a fight ensues, do not attempt to separate cats with your hands, because the aggression could be redirected at you. Instead, place a large piece of cardboard, pillows or a blanket between the cats and gently separate them.

Following these tips will help ease the introduction of cats into a household. While it won't happen overnight—it can take weeks for some cats to adjust to each other—with a little patience, all your cats may eventually live in harmony under one roof.