Written by Stephanie Meador
With two new baby gates deployed on each stairwell, and the cats living in separated spaces, I would occasionally take an afternoon to let Renee snoop around upstairs, and Binx and Sophie downstairs. I wanted to make sure Renee was also familiar with everything upstairs, and not have it be a shock once we let them fully integrate. Also, we don’t want any turf wars. There was a little problem with this plan though. That problem is that Sophie and Binx are spoiled, and my husband works downstairs from home. He was already wearing noise-canceling headphones for his meetings, but the non-stop complaints from these two were just too much. There’s only room for one whiner in this house, and I’m it. Needless to say, we’ve put this step on pause for now, and plan to try it again later, on a weekend, or evening, when it won’t interrupt work.
Sleep was still interrupted though, as per usual. Every morning at 6 am, “Feed us! We’re starving to death! Our food bowls are down to just crumbs and the colored pieces we don’t like the taste of!” Okay, that might be a rough translation, but I’m pretty sure that was the gist of it. I had a new morning routine now. Once Binx and Sophie were fed, I would carefully traverse the baby gates - gate in one hand, food in the other - to feed Renee downstairs. And all this before my first sip of coffee. On a good day, I wouldn’t spill the food on the stairs, stub my toe on a baby gate, or put a gash in the wall while trying to move the gate out of the way. Other days, however... let's just say some expletives were involved. I had contemplated putting a bag of Renee’s food downstairs, but I apparently like to do things the hard way. At this point, I was also still doing the group scent with the cat brush every few days, but not every single day as the book we were following had suggested. Yes, I’m a terrible person.
By now, doing hand-to-hand combat with the baby gate was becoming a real headache for my husband and myself. I had strongly suggested we just throw more money at the problem and get another one of the more expensive ones. But we stuck with what we had, and as it turns out, having one of each – one cheap flimsy one and one solid sturdy one - was actually a good thing. I’ll get to that soon.
As the days passed, we knew we had to progress in introducing the cats. No matter how calm it was in the house, those damn baby gates had to go, and soon. (The cheap one would make a lovely addition to a bonfire.) We decided to “put on our big girl panties” as the saying goes, and face the next step head-on. We took the cheap, bungee-bound baby gate that blocked in Renee, and moved it around the corner by our front door, so it was now at the bottom of the upper set of stairs, which held in Binx and Sophie. If that’s too confusing without a visual, let me put it this way. The cats could now see each other but were still divided by 7 stairs. Renee could now turn the corner and look up the steps at Binx and Sophie, but could just as easily go back downstairs if she felt scared. To begin with, we had a blanket on one of the gates, so they would only see each other when we wanted, like when we fed or played with them. The idea being you have them doing something they associate with good feelings (food, nip, toys, etc.) and lift the barrier for a few seconds to let them see each other, thus creating positive associations. Then you hastily put the barrier back in place (especially if there is any negative reaction), and repeat this for however long you or your spouse will tolerate it. Seems easy, right?
We started with mealtime. Convincing the cats that they were now going to eat somewhere else in the house took a few days for them to come to terms with. Not only that but getting them all to be at their food bowls at the same time was a challenge as well. By the time we got Renee lured up to the food, Sophie was already done, and going elsewhere. And having the two of us getting impatient and hovering over them was not helping the mix. Once again, we realized the game plan just wasn’t quite working for us, so we tweaked it again. We found that Renee was a lot more excited by the sound of the treats being shaken than by her real food. Sophie was best lured with catnip, and Binx...well Binx just wanted to eat, so the food worked just fine. As my frustration levels had obviously been picked up on by the cats during that time, we also decided to remove myself (not too far away though), and the blanket barrier from the mix, and let them get used to seeing each other on their own time when they were comfortable with it. I’m not sure if the author of the book that we were going by would have approved of this change, but it did work in our case. (I should note here that at first, we did try to leave the blanket over the gate, but the cats knew someone was on the other side, and quickly pawed it down so they could see.)
Over the next several days Binx and Renee would spend more time at the gates looking and cooing at each other. Thankfully we saw no signs of aggression or fear. Had we seen that behavior, we would have taken different actions. But Renee and Binx were curious, and Sophie didn’t seem to give a hoot. To have a cat such as Renee - with her history of aggression towards other cats – sit and make happy noises to another cat nearby, was really remarkable. (I recall visiting my dad's place after he’d had Renee for a while, and how she went nuts when a neighbors cat walked by outside the window.) So we kept the gates in their current places for a couple of days, and then one day after everyone seemed comfortable, we moved Renee’s gate up one step. We continued to put their canned food at the gates so they’d be able to see each other while eating. A couple of mornings I did find the flimsier baby gate (on Renee’s side) knocked down on the stairs. Thank goodness the second one was more sturdy! Of course, Renee had the look of absolute innocence on her face, and I’m sure she would fervently deny any escape attempts.
Two days later, we moved Renee’s gate up another step and continued to go up one or two steps every day or so, depending on the observable comfort level of the cats. This was when the cheap baby gate actually came in handy; shocker, I know! You could just squeeze it to release tension from the bungees, and move it up or down as you wanted. Maneuvering it around the handrail was a bit tricky, but it was still better than having to dismount and re-mount a sturdier style gate.
When Renee’s gate was finally just one step away from Binx and Sophie’s, that’s when we really got a sense of how they were getting along. Renee and Binx would still make happy cooing sounds at each other and gently paw through the gate as if trying to “boop” each other. They would both play through the gate with each other, and with the wand toy as I passed it over the gates back and forth. Sophie was still a bit standoffish, but I would catch her checking things out while no one else was around. With their behavior still being good, we finally took down the cheap baby gate – which I’m still waiting anxiously to demolish - and left only the sturdy wall-mounted one up between the cats.
I can’t say that this has been a complete success story all around, or that the cats all magically got along from the get-go. That wouldn’t be realistic. By the time there was only one gate, we did catch Sophie a couple of times hissing at Renee while sitting back a bit from the gate. But still, there were no fights, neither of them got puffed up, or growled, or anything like that. Just a little warning hiss, which for Sophie is as normal as breathing. We know how she is and totally expected this behavior.
All in all, things were progressing nicely. We knew when we needed to adjust the plan we were trying to follow, to fit our specific situation, and it seemed to be working well overall. We were sure to closely monitor the behavior of the cats to try and make sure we weren’t making things worse or moving too quickly. Simply observing their behavior and body language helped us tremendously in gauging how comfortable they were and when we felt we should progress. So far, so good!