Ask Elizabeth: December 2011

Q. Dear Elizabeth: I have a five-year-old indoor cat, Baby, with whom I’ve shared my home ever since she was born.  I’ve never had any other companion animals, so it’s been just Baby and me for all that time. Here’s my problem: I recently became engaged and at some point in the near future will be moving into my fiance’s home. He has two cats — both females. One is just about Baby’s age and the other is probably about seven years old. Neither one of them is very friendly. Naturally, I’m concerned about moving Baby into this new environment. I’m afraid that the animals will fight and hurt each other. I’ll appreciate any advice on how I can best address this dilemma.

A. I do have some advice about how to make the transition, but my suggestions depend on the layout of your fiance’s home. I’ll assume that it is not a one-room studio that you and Baby will be moving into but, rather, a house or apartment with at least one spare room — an extra bedroomor a study. In any case, it should be larger than a bathroom. For our purposes here, we’ll refer to it as “Baby’s room.” Keep in mind that this project isn’t going to be completed overnight; it’s likely to take several days at least — perhaps a few weeks — before Baby and your fiance’s cats can be trusted to live together in peace and harmony.      

Prepare Baby’s room ahead of time. It should contain her food bowl, litter box, a comfortable chair or cushion for her to relax in, and a few of her favorite toys. On day one, transport Baby in her carrier to her new abode, enter her room, close the door behind you and open the carrier. Allow Baby to come out of the carrier in her own time. Don’t force the issue, and don’t be surprised if she spends minutes to hours inside the carrier at first. The other cats are likely to hang around outside the room, sniffing, vocalizing, perhaps scratching at the closed door. But Baby will be safe as she gets used to her new environment. It’s a good idea to leave the carrier open in case she wants to use it as her safety zone.

After a few days, Baby should be showing signs of being acclimated — eating, drinking, visiting her litter box, and so forth. It’s time for her to be familiarized with the other rooms in the home. So at this point, pull a switch: Confine your fiance’s cats inside Baby’s room, and take Baby — in her carrier — into another room, and let her out. She may be timid at first, but soon she’ll emerge and start exploring her new surroundings, looking and sniffing around, picking up the other cats’ odors. This might intimidate her, so as she wanders around, Baby is also apt to scout out some areas in which she can take refuge in case she runs into trouble. Vertical spaces — the top of a bookcase, for instance, or a tall “cat tree” — can be a big help because they bolster a cat’s confidence by allowing a view of the world from a safe vantage point. (Meanwhile, your fiance’s cats, still confined to Baby’s room, will start to learn what her smell is like.) Let her roam around like this for a half-hour to an hour, but no longer than that because the two cats in Baby’s room might become anxious and start spraying. After repeating this exercise daily for three or four days, it’s time for the grand face-to-face introduction to take place.
Ideally, your fiance’s cats should be introduced to Baby in a situation that allows them to see one another but prevents them from inflicting any injury. A tall baby gate is best for this purpose, but if none is available, let the cats examine one another through the screen on Baby’s closed carrier for a brief period. This will allow them to have a good look at each other — and a good smell — without risk of inflicting bodily harm (to each other or to you!).  They may hiss, spit and vocalize, but this is to be expected. It is their way of working out “roommate issues.” After you repeat this process for a few days, there’s a good chance that your fiance’s cats will calm down and accept Baby, and vice-versa. Then, you can try letting Baby into the house with the other cats present, but only for short periods of time, and only under very close supervision to see how they get along.  There may be some hissing and growling, but try to prevent any fighting.  Repeat this several times. Only then can you safely conclude that Baby’s introduction to her housemates has been successfully and safely accomplished, at which time you’re ready to set her free in her new home with her new feline house mates. Love, Elizabeth