How Not to Introduce Your Cats

I can never judge cat guardians because if there ever was a cat rearing mistake to make, I went ahead and knocked it out before I knew better. I firmly believe that we are all doing the best we can with the resources we have available to us. And like the great Dr. Maya Angelou said, "When you know better you do better."

Well, I made a whopper of a mistake and I'm still paying for it four years and quite a few certifications later. I introduced my cats wrong.

There are a lot of myths circling about the best way to introduce cats, such as just letting them work it out or carrying them up to meet each other. The fundamental misunderstanding is that we expect cats to adapt to a new household the way humans do: meet roommate, interview roommate, and move in (or not). It's pretty simple. Not so for cats. You need to work slowly and methodically, introducing them to each other and their new environment one sense at a time.

Did I know this four years ago? Nope.

In 2016, the question on the table was whether or not to sell my house and move me and my two cats in with my partner and his two cats. The other question on the table was who the heck will rent to a couple with four cats?! Luckily, we found a sucker someone.

My introduction method made perfect sense for the people involved. I and my cats "moved in" with my partner and his cats for a trial week. We jumped all in together for seven interesting days. I tried out the commute, sharing space, and new rituals like eating dinner at an actual dining room table. My cats tried out some new hiding spots and kicking three out of four cats off of the people bed, which used to be a communal space. We all survived the week decided to move forward with moving in together.

When moving day came, we packed everyone up with all of our belongings and just dumped them in the house together. (I'm cringing as I write this!) I thought that the cats got along in the week-long apartment experiment for the most part, so why would this be any different? Well, it was different and now the consequences started to show. The girl cats bickered and no one was themselves for quite some time. Sadly, one cat was so bad off that we had to take him to the emergency vet. We made the painful decision to let him go over the rainbow bridge, all the while wondering if the stress exacerbated his condition. And for the cherry on top, we started discovering little wet spots around the house as not one but two cats developed litter box issues.

We consulted with the vet and everyone was in good shape, so these were behavioral issues. Fortunately, this was around the time I enrolled in the University of Washington Applied Animal Behavior certificate program and I had many colleagues to bounce ideas off of. I tried blocking the windows so they couldn't see the feral cats outside, which exacerbated the issues. We considered re-introducing the cats, but that just seemed insurmountable. We tried adding litter boxes, calling a cat psychic, and putting the paper towels doused with the accident urine in the litter boxes. We removed all soft surfaces, area rugs, meditation cushions, etc. from the floors. We tried carrying the cats to the litter box when they were about to have an accident. All of these tactics only showed mild improvement.

What finally worked was the Litter Box Cafeteria, which was so life-changing that I wrote it out and made an easy-to-use printable download here. It was amazing and endearing to watch our cats sample each of their options before deciding which litter box they wanted to soil. We gathered the data, found their favorite litter, and never ever bought anything else ever again! The reward? One of our cat's litter box issues was completely cured. She never had an accident again!

My boy cat, however, still sprays on occasion. I continue to work with him as my "live-in case study" and we have made dramatic, but not 100%, improvement. More on this in future posts. For now, please just understand the importance of introducing cats slowly and methodically. Do NOT just throw them together and let them work it out. They can't. They're territorial and routine-based by nature. Heed my cautionary tale, and reach out to me if you need assistance properly introducing cats. I am well versed in how to do that now!

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