Updated: Apr 5
Can you guess the #1 mistake pet parents make when introducing cats to each other? Lots of people think that you can just put two kitties together, and they’ll work things out amongst themselves. While this can work out in some cases, a good outcome is not guaranteed. In reality, this option leaves your kitties vulnerable to the emotional, behavioral, and physical dangers of an improper introduction.
So, how should you add a new cat to your family? Cat behavior experts, like Jessica Bartlett at Cat Lovers’ Academy, have made it their mission to solve problems like this. Let’s talk about the do’s and don’ts when introducing cats.
The Perils of Improperly Introducing Cats
I was scrolling TikTok the other day, and I saw a really heartwarming story. After losing one of her cats, owner Charlie Hernan decided to adopt a kitten to keep her resident cat company. When Charlie’s resident cat met the kitten, he was pretty upset. He hissed at the kitten constantly, but after a month’s worth of persistence, the kitten managed to get the resident cat to warm up. Now, they’re besties!
Have you spotted the problem? I was so happy to see that Charlie’s cats were able to overcome their differences – and Charlie surely didn’t intend to cause any stress to her kitties. However, in a survey conducted by Levine et al, cat parents reported that fighting often happened when a new cat arrived, and half of the cats who fought were introduced by simply putting them together.
In CatWise, Pam Johnson-Bennett also notes that “just because the cat parents [who introduce their cats by putting them together] don’t see any overt aggression, that doesn’t mean that these cats aren’t living under constantly stressful conditions.” This is especially important to remember in cases, like Charlie’s, where the cats seemingly work it out; the new kitten still went through a month of stress before he was finally accepted by the resident cat.
Jessica’s Five Phases for Introducing Cats
If you’re struggling to introduce your cats, Jessica Bartlett’s got you covered. She’s developed a five-step formula, which can be tailored to the unique personalities of your kitties. Be sure to reference Jessica’s Cat Introductions handout as you follow these steps with your kitties!
Phase 1: Preparing
If you’re thinking of getting a new cat, the first question you should ask yourself is: “Do I have the space, time, and resources to meet the physical and emotional needs of two (or more) cats?” If the answer is “yes,” read on!
Tools You’ll Need When Introducing Cats to Each Other
First, you’ll need to make sure your home has enough space to facilitate a proper introduction. Your home should have enough rooms for you to set up these three spaces:
Safe room “A,” for the new kitty
Safe room “B,” for the resident cat
A neutral space for both cats to share
Both the safe rooms and the neutral space should be equipped with these items:
Extra litter boxes
“Scent soakers” to absorb the new cat’s scent
Ex: scratching posts, cat trees, beds, blankets, etc.
A gate that can be covered and uncovered. Here’s what we recommend!
In addition to all of these physical tools, you should also be sure that you have LOTS of patience at your disposal. Cat introductions may seem tedious, but taking it slow and steady will pay off in the long run.
Phase 2: Smell Me
Both cats should become very familiar with each other’s scents before they’ve even laid eyes on each other. Throughout this process, you should also be giving both cats lots of attention and enrichment.
At the start of this phase, you can start to test the waters of scent swapping. Pam Johnson-Bennet has developed a great method for this. In what she has dubbed “the sock exchange,” Pam advises pet parents to gently rub on the sides of the new cat’s mouth using a sock-covered hand.
Put the sock in the resident cat’s territory, and allow them to inspect it at their own pace. Cats release “friendly” pheromones from the sides of their mouths, and the resident cat will be able to smell them on the sock. Do the same thing with the resident cat, rubbing a clean sock on the sides of their mouth and placing the sock in the new kitty’s room.
Sharing the Neutral Space
Once you’ve been swapping scents for a week or two and the pair are comfortable in their safe rooms, give them the chance to explore and co-mingle their scents by sharing the neutral space. One at a time, allow each cat to spend some time in the neutral space. This will allow the new cat to get more familiar with the rest of the home, and the resident cat will get a chance to stretch their legs outside of the safe room. Additionally, the cats can begin to become more familiar with each others’ scents as they take turns using the same litter boxes, eating out of the same bowls, playing with the same toys, and resting in the same beds. Tailor this process to each cat’s individual needs, repeating the process as many times as it takes for both cats to seem relaxed in the neutral space.
Phase 3: See Me
Once phase 2 is complete, it’s time for the kitties to get a peek at each other. Set up a gate (or two) in the doorway of one of the safe rooms and open the door.
At consistent times each day, feed the cats on either side of the see-through gate. At the start, Jessica recommends having the gate completely covered with a visual barrier, like a towel or blanket, so the cats can’t see each other. She also has her clients start with the cats’ bowls about 5 feet away from the covered gate. Each day, slowly move the bowls closer until they are about a foot from the covered gate on each side, then reset back to 5 feet away and lift the visual barrier an inch up. Repeat this same process, gradually granting more visual access until the visual barrier is completely removed. Check out this video to see how two of Jessica’s clients, Mint and Udon, engaged in a feeding ritual during this phase.
Mint and Udon also played games on either side of their see-through gate to help them get acclimated to each other. Their parents helped them to get comfortable with each other by using high-value treats and enriching toys to play “together” on either side of their barrier gate.
Phase 4: No Barrier Sessions
Once both cats are comfortable with phase 3, it’s time to remove the barrier! Jackson Galaxy, another cat behavior expert, suggests blocking “unders” – like underneath couches and beds – and “outs,” like doorways. He also recommends that you have “sight blockers,” like a piece of cardboard, handy. This ensures that, if a fight were to break out, you’ll be able to keep it contained, separate the cats, and guide them away from each other.
Activities and Duration
Have a partner help by bringing one cat into the neutral room, engaging them in a high-value activity. While this is happening, bring the other cat into the room and immediately engage them in a high-value activity of their own. The idea is to keep the cats engrossed in play, enrichment, or clicker training while they get used to each other’s presence. For an example of how this works, check out Mint and Udon’s no barrier session.
It’s best to keep these sessions short and sweet to avoid potential conflicts, gradually increase their duration over time, and always end on a positive note.
Simultaneously, Jessica has found it helpful to give the cats opportunities to explore each others’ territories. We do this by site swapping, where the resident and new cat swap safe rooms and are allowed to explore each others’ space. To do this, move the resident cat into the new cat’s room, close the door, and allow the new cat to explore both the resident cat’s room and the neutral space. Then do the same in reverse, allowing the resident cat to explore both the new cat’s room and the neutral space.
Phase 5: Co-Existing and Being Friends
Once the cats have consistent success with phase 4, it’s time to move onto the final phase: being best friends (or at least tolerant housemates) forever!
Ensuring Lasting Peace
In the interest of maintaining camaraderie, Pam Johnson-Bennet suggests optimizing your living space. Cat trees, perches, hiding spots, and plenty of litter boxes can be used to increase your cats’ perception of their amount of territory, thereby avoiding power struggles and conflicts over space.
“But I Have Problems That a Blog Can’t Solve…”
Maybe you’re dealing with a super tough case of Stubborn Roommate Syndrome, or maybe you’re struggling with other behavior challenges. Whatever the issue, Cat Lovers’ Academy is here to help. Jessica Bartlett is a cat behavior expert with over 14 years in the biz, and she’s made it her mission to use her expertise to keep cats in homes and out of shelters. Check out the Cat Lovers’ Academy website to learn more about Jessica, take a look at her awesome online resources, and schedule your first consultation!