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Time, space, and the single cat

How to help adopters choose and introduce feline companions for their lone cat

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2014

When cats who are accustomed to flying solo find themselves dealing with new companions, owners should count on providing the time and space their pets need to make the adjustment.

He’s always been a single cat.

He’s got the run of the house. One food bowl, one water dish—all his. No competition for lap time. No squabbles at the litter box or the scratch pad.

But his owners start to worry: “We both work such long hours. Mittens must get lonely.”

Mittens, of course, cannot offer his opinion on this matter. And one day they come home from the shelter—whoa! What’s this? A new creature who looks a lot like him, right here, right now, in his face. Smelling funny! Invading his territory! Taking valuable resources!




Well, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Animal welfare groups can help adopters find the right cat for their swinging single, and assist with the transition to a multicat household. You can’t ensure that the new housemates will love each other, but you can offer advice that increases the chance of a peaceful coexistence.

A key component of that advice? Owners can’t expect perfect harmony from the get-go, and must take the time to gradually introduce the new cat, both to the resident feline and to his new surroundings.

Mixing and Matching

The first thing single-cat owners thinking about enlarging their pride should consider is the cat they already have. What are his likes and dislikes? Does he really want company?

“A lot of cats don’t want another friend,” says Melissa Bain, associate professor of clinical animal behavior at UC Davis in California. When one cat in a pair dies, for instance, some owners “may believe that their cat is missing a friend, when in fact the cat is thrilled that they’re now the single cat in the household.”

Unlike dogs, cats are not pack animals, says Molly Stone, animal behavior specialist at the SPCA of Wake County in North Carolina. Some cats simply don’t enjoy the company of other cats. Before single-cat owners commit to another one, Stone advises them to gather as much information as they can about how their current cat reacts to others. By pet-sitting a friend’s cat in their home, for example, they can get a glimpse of how their cat might respond to a permanent new addition. (To get a more reliable idea of how their cat will behave in the long run, they would likely need to pet-sit for an extended period.)

While a single cat may be sweet to his owner and other humans, he may bully other cats—or may get bullied himself, by a more dominant newcomer. Adoption counselors can help uncover such potential problems by asking about the resident cat’s history: Has he lived with other cats before? How long ago was that? What was the experience like? And it’s helpful to have the same information on the potential adoptee.

Cats who aren’t cat-friendly get tagged accordingly (“May do better as an only cat”) at the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region (HSPPR) in Colorado, and program manager Ami Manivong hears lots of people say their cat “really likes being an only cat.” Still, she believes many cats do better with a buddy.

So what kind of buddy is best?

There are plenty of theories for matching cats according to age or gender. “I’ve heard it all over the years,” says Joan Levergood, head behaviorist at Tree House Humane Society in Chicago—listing the notion that two female cats shouldn’t live together as a common myth. She’s never found that to be a useful guideline, and experts interviewed for this article agree that there are no surefire, hard-and-fast rules. Successful matches often come down to a matter of personalities and play styles.

“The most common questions I get are, ‘Are kittens better than adults?’ ‘Are males better than females?’ ‘Is it worse to get two females versus two males?’ And I tell everyone, ‘Cats are different. I can’t tell you that two females are going to do worse than two males,’” Manivong says.Making good matches, Stone says, “is an inexact science … with a good sprinkling of art mixed in.” Adopters naturally want a checklist and a guarantee that matches will work if they meet certain criteria, but the real feline world doesn’t work like that. The new cat might have been perfectly friendly at the shelter—getting along with 20 other cats in a colony room, for example—but living with a single cat in a new home will be a completely different experience.

Generally, two cats with similar play styles will get along better than cats whose styles are vastly different, Stone notes, and cats of opposite genders sometimes jell better than same-gender pairs. Older cats tend to cut kittens more slack, so a possible rule of thumb would be to go for a younger cat of the opposite gender when you’re picking a new one. But the problem with sticking to rules, she adds, is that cats haven’t actually read any of them.

Adopters’ ideas about the kind of cat that would be good for them run the gamut from wonderful to wildly unrealistic, says Lori Rolnick, cat program director of Homeward Trails Animal Rescue in Washington, D.C. On the wonderful side, someone with an 8-month-old male cat might be looking for a playmate around the same age—an appropriate choice for wrestling and chasing. In that case, Rolnick would look for a cat from 4 months to 2 or 3 years old, and try to find a compatible personality.

“But then I get the people [who say], ‘I’ve got a 17-year-old cat, and he’s lonely. I’m interested in an 8-week-old kitten,’” she says. “And we just won’t do it. [It’s] so unfair to the kitten, and so unfair to the senior cat. We’ll encourage that person to either get a cat above 6 or 7, or a pair of kittens that can entertain the senior, but not be dependent on the senior for play.”

HSPPR and other shelters are taking some of the guesswork out of matchmaking by utilizing Feline-ality, a cat behavior evaluation system developed by the ASPCA that measures cats’ sociability and helps predict how they’ll do in a new environment. After their Feline-ality assessment, cats are assigned a personality type as well as a color that indicates how outgoing they are.

The program aims to match adopters’ preferences to cats’ behavior. At shelters using the Feline-ality assessment, visitors take a survey about their lifestyle to help determine what kind of personality they should seek. Manivong says adopters who use Feline-ality frequently tell her that the assessments proved accurate.

Easing Them Into It

Since no method of matching cats by age, gender, or personality is foolproof, it’s crucial for adopters—whether they’re adding their second cat or their third or fourth—to take the time for introductions. Simply plopping a new cat into a home with the current resident could result in fights—and a quick return to the shelter. To avoid such failures, shelters and rescues should provide instructions aimed at ensuring that cats get the time and space they need for a smooth transition, and emphasize the importance of following them.

Many adopters are inclined to introduce the felines immediately and “let them sort it out,” an approach that can have disastrous results. A key to success is to make gradual introductions, says veterinarian Susan Krebsbach, owner of Creature Counseling, an animal behavior consulting service in Wisconsin, and an adviser for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.

An incoming cat needs to get used to both her new territory and the sight and smell of the resident cat, and experts recommend doing this via a multistep process—with roughly one week devoted to each phase. Owners should proceed to the next step only when the cats are doing well. If they’re not, go back and spend more time on the previous step.

Exchange Smells. Separate the cats, confining the new addition to a small area such as a spare bedroom or bathroom, which will serve as the new cat’s safe room. (The biggest mistake people make in the beginning, Krebsbach says, is giving their new cat too much territory to explore.) With the cats safely apart, give the newcomer a blanket or pillow that the resident cat has laid on, and exchange them daily. A cat’s sense of smell is 40 times more acute than a human’s, so this will help acclimate the new cat to the smells of her new home and the other animal.

Supervised Exploration. In this stage, keep the resident cat in a separate room, while letting the new cat investigate other rooms to become familiar with the rest of the house. Keep some doors closed so the cat isn’t overwhelmed and you can control where he goes.

Visual Introductions Without Physical Contact. In this stage, crack open the door and let the cats see each other from a comfortable distance as you offer them a meal. Gradually decrease the distance between the feeding bowls, and open the door a little more. It’s a good idea to place a baby gate across the door to keep the cats physically separated.

Physical Introductions While Strictly Supervised. Here, the cats meet each other, and at first it might be wise to keep them on harnesses or leashes. Have a couple of toys or treats handy that you can use to help each cat associate one another with something positive as well as distract them. Most importantly, keep the sessions short, and end on a positive note.

Physical Introductions With Less Supervision. Now the owners are still in the house, but not monitoring every interaction.

Solo Physical Introductions. The cats are tolerating each other while the owners are home, so it’s time to leave them alone for gradually longer periods of time. Don’t suddenly leave them alone for eight hours at a time. Owners should start by leaving the house for a few minutes, then gradually increase the amount of time the animals go solo. The new cat should have his safe room available.

These techniques increase the likelihood that cats will stay in their new homes, and potential adopters need to know that they’ll have to take the time to do gradual introductions. The first month of owning a new cat will be a little more difficult, but will make the future easier.

Owners who don’t have a lot of room in their home can create vertical space by adding shelves or cat trees. “Every cat needs to have his own place. He needs to have something that is his, whether it’s his own perch on a cat tree, or his own blanket, or his own cat bed,” Manivong says. “They need to have something that’s safe, something that’s theirs,” and something that they can use to get away from the other cat.

In addition, when a new cat is added to the family, it’s important to have enough resources—especially litter boxes and food bowls.

A Gradual Success Story

A gradual approach to cat introductions worked well for Abby Volin, rescue group coordinator for The HSUS.

A few years back, Volin was doing animal rescue work in New York City, and regularly bringing foster cats home to her studio apartment. Her two cats, Foxy and Portia, didn’t mind the feline company. But her boyfriend’s cat, Julia, presented a bit of a challenge.

In August 2011, Julia spent a night at Volin’s apartment during Hurricane Irene. Age 5 at the time and an only cat for her entire life, Julia suddenly found herself in an unfamiliar home with two other cats.“She was growling and hissing and hiding. She sounded like a gremlin,” Volin recalls. “I was actually scared of her at one point.”

So when Volin and boyfriend Max Polonsky got an apartment in Washington, D.C., and merged their feline families in late 2012, they knew they had to proceed slowly and carefully.

At first they kept Julia in the bedroom around the clock, while Foxy and Portia had the run of the rest of the apartment. Julia hid under the bed for the first three weeks.

They tried feeding the cats on opposite sides of a door so they could smell each other, but Volin’s cats—who she says are “weird, as most cats are”—will eat only if their bowls are in certain parts of the apartment, and they declined to chow down near the doorway.

Volin and Polonsky kept the cats separate for about a month, then switched to keeping them apart during the day but letting them cohabitate at night. Even when she was free to explore the apartment, Julia tended to hide in the closet. She might go up to Foxy and Portia and exchange swats, or keep her distance and just watch them.

The couple gave the cats the time and space they needed. Good behavior was rewarded with treats. Eventually, the cats achieved an accord that at first seemed unimaginable.

“After seeing how they interacted with each other in New York, I was really scared that we were gonna have a problem on our hands,” Volin says. Today, while the three cats in her home don’t exactly snuggle, they tend to stay in the same room and like keeping an eye on each other.

“They’re friends in their own way,” Volin says. “… I never thought Julia would coexist peacefully and happily with other cats, and now … they’re a threesome. She’s one of the gang.”

For shelters and rescues, the challenge is to help adopters understand that there are no shortcuts to such success.

Manivong notes that “a lot of people want ready-made animals,” believing that the cat they fall in love with at the shelter will automatically be a perfect fit in their home. But by failing to take time to do introductions, adopters set their cats up for failure.

“It’s [a matter of] letting them know that cats, they’re mystical creatures. We don’t understand why they do the things they do,” Manivong says. “We teach patience, patience, patience, and go slow, slow, slow. We want them to have a lifelong home.”

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.