When we adopted Swooner last month, I was rather worried. For one thing, the kitten has a slight disability, a dicky paw, and for another, Target and Guido, our pets, aren’t fond of outsiders.
Cats are social animals, which means they react very much like us when it comes to strangers. They tend to be cautious about anyone new, and they’re liable to rejecting those they think don’t fit.
Our senior cat Target is a drama cat. If anything upsets his little world, he has hysterics. He also loves me to the point of extreme jealousy. If Guido wants a cuddle, Target might march over and whap him, shouting in cat, “She’s mine and I don’t share!”
Guido is a big softy but he’s not the kind to invite other cats to play in his garden. He’s quite likely to whap an intruder and, as he’s huge, he could do real damage to a little kitten.
Accordingly, I set about working out a programme whereby we would introduce Swooner in small stages, all the while working to assure Target and Guido that they are loved.
I kept notes, and this is what happened.
Settling in. Swooner is skinny as a rail, and the vets he’s seen say he’s run down. The neighbour who first found him said he’d been terribly dehydrated too. We decide he needs rest and building up.
In terms of mental health, Swooner has been terrified while living on the street. He was beaten up a few times, and has a cut on his shoulder, and bite marks. He needs to feel safe and settled.
Target and Guido know someone is in the spare bedroom. They sniff under the door, growl a little and that’s about it. Life goes on as usual, except for us popping into the closed room every now and again, but our senior cats can live with that.
The next issue is that we arranged to go away for a couple of days some months ago. Luckily Target and Guido love our neighbour, and Swooner takes to her instantly. So we leave the kitten in his room while Target and Guido have the rest of the house and their usual routine.
Visual contact. Swooner has been in the bedroom for a week. His shoulder has healed, his fur’s looking better and he’s smiling all the time. We’re back from our short break and so we think it’s time for a short, no-contact viewing.
As it’s Saturday, Tom makes a chicken liver lunch for Target and Guido. This is a weekly ritual and it always has everyone purring.
This time we bring down Swooner in his carrier, so he can watch Target and Guido eat from a distance. Sadly, the older cats leave in a huff. We let Swooner stay half an hour, then he goes back to his room for his own lunch.
At eight in the evening, curfew means the senior cats come home, have supper and are locked in with us. After dinner, we bring the kitten down again, and this time the senior cats grumble but can’t leave. Swooner steps out of his box, stuffs his face with dinner, and then he goes back upstairs.
Actual contact. We intended to keep the cats physically apart for a week but on Tuesday, Swooner escapes from his room, makes his way downstairs and steals leftover breakfast from under Target’s nose!
To my surprise, my drama cat is outraged but silent. Guido huffs and puffs. His fur stands on end, making him look like a grumpy bear. However, he finishes his food and only then stalks out.
I give Target more breakfast, heap him with praise and then present him with a velcro band, something of mine he’s been dying to steal. While Target plays with his new toy, Swooner goes back into his box so he can watch from a position of safety. Then I lure Guido inside with a treat.
I think we’re well on our way to integration but unbeknown to me, Target sneaks upstairs and pees in Swooner’s room. I catch him at it, give him a cuddle to tell him he’s still my favourite kitty and we wash the curtains.
Stretching the contact. Over the next three days, we let Swooner out of his room for longer and longer periods. Guido sulks, and Target pees on the curtains a couple more times, but nobody is beating anyone up.
In fact, Swooner decides that Target is wonderful. The kitten stalks his idol relentlessly, lying down respectfully and meowing every time Target looks at him. To my surprise, Target falls for the flattery. He pretends to sleep while the kitten sniffs him. Target pretends to be bored but secretly he’s revelling in the hero worship. He also stops peeing on the curtains.
By the end of the second week, Guido also lets Swooner touch him and they end up having Saturday chicken liver lunch together. However, all this time Swooner has slept in his own room.
That night, intending to put the kitten to bed, I go upstairs and I find Target on the big pillow he and I share, and Swooner lying stretched out in the middle of our bed, one paw over his eyes. Guido takes one look and is appalled but he doesn’t have a hissy fit.
We’re not quite cuddling yet, but we’re well on our way to being a family.
Helping your old pets and new pets get along
We were extremely lucky in that our cats decided they didn’t hate each other. Cats are just like people, in that they like to choose their friends. Sometimes there’s a character clash, and you might be stuck with pets who just loathe each other.
However, if your pets are fairly easy-going, then you can probably integrate a newcomer. The main ingredient is patience. Expect it to take weeks. Also, don’t expect your pets to be reasonable. They’re animals and they run entirely on their emotions. Rational thought doesn’t come into it.
Scent is a main marker. So start by letting all the animals get used to each other’s scent. Lock the newcomer in a room, and let the scent drift through the house for a few days. Just let everyone sniff under the door. No contact, no confrontation.
When everyone knows everyone’s smell, allow visual contact but don’t allow physical confrontation. If pets get into the habit of hitting each other, integration becomes more difficult.
As the pets become used to seeing each other, extend social times. Then allow very short contact. Supervise carefully, keep it short and make sure it’s positive. Extend as you go on.
Mostly, you must offer your pets unconditional love. They will be worried, stressed and they will likely express this by peeing or pooping, and possibly by howling, not eating normally and other behaviour.
This is your pet worrying that you don’t love them anymore. They can’t speak so this is how to tell you how they feel. Always cuddle, and never scold, no matter how bad it is. Be patient, be kind, and take your time. Good luck!