Successfully Choose & Add A New Cat To Your Family
A How-To Guide by Beverly Morgan, Animal Behaviorist
This article is not an all-inclusive guide but will highlight common issues I see as a behaviorist. Many of the problem situations I run into can be avoided with a little knowledge and forward-thinking. Whether you’re adding an additional cat or if you are selecting your first cat, having a professional who is educated in cat behavior can be a huge help in avoiding problems that can occur with a bad match between cats and people. This is why I started an owner/pet match-making service in addition to helping pet guardians solve problem behaviors.
While the best and ideal practice of adoption or acquisition is to arrange an introduction between family members and the potential new cat, as
well as the other animals in your family, it’s not always possible due to circumstance, distance, or other limiting factors that may be involved in the adoption process. When a meet and greet with the potential new cat is not possible, the ‘to-be-adopters’ are limited to the description given to them by the shelter, adoption center, or breeder. I have concerns about relying on this because not everyone has the education to correctly interpret an animal’s behavior. Even those that have had animals all their lives, or have done a lot of work around animals, may not fully understand a cat’s behavior well enough to accurately describe the cat’s personality or predict how the cat may develop socially.
For example, let’s say that an animal is described by the shelter or breeder as being ‘friendly’ to a potential adopter. Friendly is a relatively broad term. Perhaps the person using the description ‘friendly’ is doing so because they see a cat that pushes other cats out of the way to get a person’s attention. This could actually be a bold alpha cat, and in this example, one person’s use of the word ‘friendly’ could be a disaster for someone looking for a calm, quiet, cuddler of a cat. Even if you ask specific questions regarding your new potential cat when it comes to his/her personality and demeanor, non-professionals can misinterpret animal behavior. This can set a cat up for failure and can lead to a cat not matching well in a new home, through no fault of his own.
When choosing a new cat, it’s important to know what type of cat will fit into your lifestyle and match your personality best, which is why choosing a cat based solely on emotions, or because ‘the cat chose you’, can sometimes be problematic. This is why having a behaviorist, like myself, assisting in the selection process can be extremely helpful in finding the perfect cat for you. A mismatched human-pet pair, for example, would be someone with a quiet, calm lifestyle with limited cat activities and sterile home environment, that brings home a very young and/or high energy cat, or a cat breed known to need high amounts of mental and physical stimulation. Now without the proper daily exercise and constant mental stimulation for the cat, he may become destructive in the type of environment I’ve mentioned above out of sheer boredom, and this is not good for the cat or the owner. So you can see why choosing a cat that best fits with your life and personality is so important because a mismatch between you and your new cat can really cause problems.
Another thing to remember is to prioritize understanding whether the cat is an alpha type personality or not. As an example of how this will impact your other cats and yourself, I offer the following example. In an animal shelter with an open-living style cat room where cats live together and move about freely in the room, I identified an alpha-type female. This female cat selected a high perch on a cat tree, and before she laid down on that perch, she sniffed it to check out who had been there. She then ‘marked’ the perch with her scent glands at the corners of her mouth and with the glands in her feet by walking all around it. She then proceeded to lie down on the perch in a way as if to say she was the queen and surveying her kingdom from a high watchtower. She was acting as an alpha-like
female would and the other cats in the room validated her high status by their subordinate behavior to her and the high perch she had chosen. The other cats did not use that high perch, even when I removed the alpha-like female and placed subordinate cats there, they would jump off of ‘her’ perch immediately.
After pointing out to the shelter staff how to identify a cat’s status through his behavior, they were then able to better understand how much meaning the actions of an alpha-like cat had on other cats around her and how it indicated her elevated status. I feel it’s important to teach potential adopters how to identify alpha-like behavior in a cat, as in my example, so that they can better choose the type of cat personality that would work best with them and any other pets they may have at home.
In my experience, one of the most common reasons people have for adding a new animal to their family is that they have a senior animal that may pass, leaving them ‘cat-less’. Whatever your motivation is in choosing to add a new cat to your home, it’s important to be aware of, and consider the effects a younger cat will have on the older resident cat. Most people assume once a cat stops growing, that the cat is an adult. It is surprising to most people that, until a cat is around 18 months to 2 years, they do not think or behave like an adult cat.
To give you a better understanding of how a cat ages, I offer the following guideline: Between the age of 3 and 6 years old a cat is in its prime, between 7 and 10 years old a cat is a mature adult, 10 and up is a senior cat, and above 15 years old is considered a ‘super’ senior. With this in mind, you can see how it may be difficult for a mature or senior cat to enjoy or appreciate the vibrant energy of a cat under the age of 2 or 3. Your adult or senior cat may not want to be the patient teacher to your new kitten like his mother would be in a colony where the mother, or matriarch, would model skills for the younger cats. As a new kitten’s neurology and instincts will demand, he will spend his waking hours learning from his environment and the role models around him. For this reason, it's very
important that you understand what your kitten needs from you so that you can become a good substitute for the parents/siblings that the kitten was adopted away from in order to aid in his development. Ideally, a kitten would not be removed from its parents or siblings until he is 5-6 months old, but unfortunately, that is not always the case.
When you bring a new younger cat home where a resident senior cat is already present, seniors know they are physically fading and vulnerable and feel that their status is being reduced by a younger, more fit, and upcoming cat. It is not uncommon to see a senior cat display acts of power and dominance and even keeping the new cat from food or the litter box, in order to send the message that they are not giving up their status without a fight. Less obvious status displays are seen by older cats through their ignoring and avoidance of the new younger cat and this may appear to be a lack of bonding or interest, but in fact, it is status. The older cat is saying to the new cat that it will not be acknowledged at all as a way to keep the younger cat lower in status. You must ensure that any adult/senior cats have a way to retreat from a younger, more active, and frisky cat, as it is always best to work within nature, not against it as must as possible.
Once your new cat comes home, regardless of his age, new owners should not allow the new cat to have full run of the house or apartment straight away. It is always good, even with new adult animals, that you keep their world small and expand it as you see progress and skills being mastered, such as using the litter box in that room consistently. To introduce new cats to one another safely, depending on age, you can give them both exposure to one another slowly. Ideally, this would be done with a see-through barrier such as a glass door.
There are different reactions cats will have in the new-to-your-home phase. Cats that naturally want to escape and avoid what they don’t like simply try to disappear and hide from the other cat or people. Another reaction is found in attention-seeking cats that will do things to get the attention of the other cat or people. Be sure to give both the new and resident cats equal attention so problems are less likely to arise. If a cat is a food-motivated cat, be watchful that the food-motivated cat is not keeping other cats from eating or sometimes using the litterbox.
Regarding your living situation, if your cat will be an indoor cat, remember that indoor cats do not have the ability to expend their energy outdoors, so you may need to be prepared for a whirlwind of energy in your home if you bring a young or frisky cat to live with you. For indoor/outdoor cats, or cats living entirely outdoors, they will have less of an impact on your home, but be mindful, however, that the outdoors has many threats and dangers for a cat. In outdoor cat colonies or even single stray mother cats, young kittens are slowly and carefully taught how to navigate their environment and the physical threats that might be present. When you bring a cat to your home and let it go outside, it has no skill set on how to navigate the threats he may encounter in your area that he will be exploring. Worse yet, young cats taken from their parents before they are 6 months old will have never had the chance to have role-modeled specific skills from their mother or other cats. Whatever living arrangement you choose for your new kitten or cat, it’s important to have reasonable expectations, and a behaviorist, like myself, can help guide you through this and help you understand the needs of your cat that include a cat skill-appropriate, neurologically stimulating and safe environment.
Lastly, I will share a simple, easy, and humane way to stop unwanted behaviors to help both you and your cat(s) live happier lives. When you see an instigator start an un-wanted behavior towards another cat, calmly walk over to the ‘bully’, and without saying anything to the cat, take him or her into another room, shut the door to that room, and walk away. Leave the offender in the room for about one minute. If the animal is quiet, you can open the door, but do not look at, talk to, or touch him. Simply open the door and walk away. The reward is that the animal gets to join his family once more. They really don’t like being removed from everything, even if they are a loner type cat. When the offending cat is purposefully isolated from the family for a short time by being put in a separate area, even if the cat typically likes to be alone, they will not enjoy it. They don’t like being kicked out, and they know the difference between being kicked out and choosing to be alone.
Whether you need help selecting a new animal, or things are not going well between your animals, my in-home consultation can help you get things going in a direction that allows you to have the best life you can have with your cat, and for your cat to have the best life it can have with you!
If you'd like help have questions, please feel free to email me at: email@example.com
- Beverly Morgan -