Helping your cat to cope with change

Cats are creatures of habit. They hate changes to their world! If you’ve ever moved house with a cat or brought another animal home to live in your cat’s domain, you’ll know just how much they resent the interference. (And by the way, you did know that your house is actually your cat’s house, didn’t you?)

But sometimes change is unavoidable. While dogs seem to find new situations and new environments lots of fun, cats react in a very different way – they tend to become stressed very quickly and can actually suffer health problems as a result. Anything you can do to minimize the impact and ease them through the transition will be much appreciated by your feline friends.

Here are some of the situations you may encounter with your cat and some suggestions which may help you both to come through unscathed.

Moving House

Cats are very reliant on their sense of smell for many things including obtaining information about their environment. A cat’s own house will have many of their own smells about the place which helps to make them feel secure. Cats also intentionally add their own scent (called pheromones) by rubbing against their favourite spots and objects. Obviously, a new home has no familiar smells present but very many other new smells – for a cat, this is quite bewildering. When cats panic they tend to run for cover and if they can’t find cover, their fallback plan is to escape. This is when they tend to get injured or lost.

To help your cat feel more like they’re at home, try setting up one room with as many familiar objects as you can – ideally furniture that the cat has slept on before, or towels that the cat has used as bedding in the past (which are unwashed, and still retain the cat’s scent). Place the cat’s usual food and water bowls in the room too and make a litter tray available. Once the cat is settled in the room, go in and spend a little time with it. Don’t let your cat out until they appear calm and are showing interest in sniffing at the door. When you’re ready to let the cat out of this room, make sure ALL the windows in the house are closed, and that there is at least 1 (and preferably 2) closed doors between the cat and the outside world.

Some cats will take a few hours to settle in, but some will take a few weeks.

Discovering the great outdoors

Times have changed – more and more cats are spending their lives indoors now. As long as you’ve provided them with a retreat of their own, a view of the world, things to play with and something to scratch at, cats are more than content to live an indoor life. In terms of health management this makes sense too – indoor cats aren’t at risk of fight wounds from strays; won’t be at risk of contracting FIV; aren’t going to be skittled on the roads and won’t have to run the gauntlet of the neighbourhood dogs. If you insist on letting your cat out to see the world – take it slowly. First follow the steps to get the cat acclimatized to the new house, and keep them indoors for at least a week. Once the cat is settled indoors, you can take the cat outside in a cage or basket for a short time each day so that they can look around and get an idea of the sights and movement of various objects in the yard. After a few days, move on to short harness explorations of the garden. Many cats freeze on the end of a harness, but at least the opportunity to move is there if they wish to take it. Once the cat appears relaxed in their surroundings, you can take the harness off and let them explore freely. Do this just before dinner time so their stomach keeps them close to home.

Introducing another cat

Unlike dogs, cats are not terribly social “pack” animals. So introducing a “friend” can be very challenging. To start with, the simplest method involves sitting the “old” cat on your lap, patting it and stroking it until it is relaxed and settled. Then have someone carry the new cat into the room and walk by within a few metres. If there’s no major reaction, gradually bring the new cat closer, then finally put it down on the ground to wander. There may be hissing and spitting for a while but it’s usually not too bad. If all seems well, all you need to do is keep an eye on the cats for a while to make sure the relationship is allowed to develop without too much friction. Keep the cats separate at feeding times for the first weeks until all of the challenging has settled.

Regardless of our best attempts, sometimes this method just won’t work and a more involved process is needed. Start by acclimatizing the new cat to their own room as discussed in the “Moving house” section. You can help get the cats used to each other’s smell by gently wrapping one in a towel, then using the same towel to wrap the other one. The mingling of smells allows them to eventually see the other one as not so strange. Leave the kitten in their new room AWAY from the “old” cat, until the kitten is settled and the “old” cat starts to show interest in the kitten’s room – we want them at the curious stage, not the furious stage, before we allow any mixing. Once this is happening – open the door and STAY OUT OF THE WAY. There will be hissing and spitting, but they will work out a balance of tolerance or ignorance. If you interfere at this point, the process will just be prolonged. Of course, if one cat seems to be particularly under threat for any length of time, separate them again and start over. The same process can be used for older cats, but be prepared for the acceptance period to take a little longer. Some cats will never be friends, but most can come to an arrangement where they tolerate sharing their house.

Introducing a dog

This is often not as hard as introducing a new cat. The key to this situation is making sure you have control of the dog for the first few encounters, and making sure the cat has somewhere to go if the situation becomes “hairy”. Bring the dog into the room on a lead so that you have immediate physical control if necessary – if the hunting instinct takes over and Rover lunges for the cat, pull the lead while using a command such as “leave”, then tell the dog to sit and stay. Reward the dog if it does the right thing. If the cat seems interested in investigating the dog, continue to enforce quiet behaviour on the lead (and reward the dog) until the cat is comfortable. If the cat becomes too distressed by the dog’s presence or behaviour it’s most likely to either leave the room (in a hurry) or climb to a high place and look down with disdain. Once the cat realises the dog is allowed to be in the house and yard, then it usually takes control of any further meetings and often any run-ins will be resolved with a swipe to the dog’s nose. Most dogs learn this lesson quickly.