Over the years, I’ve brought home my share of rescue cats to be integrated into my clowder.
As the rift between my two cats, Trinity and Princess, taught me, it was best to do this at their pace while using the Safe Room Method – which I got from Cat vs Cat by Pam Johnson Bennett.
Considering how important territory is to a cat, moving them to an unknown, new territory has to have a massive impact on them. After all, taking them away from everything they know and everything they derive their sense of security from must be terrifying as hell. It is only natural that they’d need time – and a safe haven in the meantime – to process.
Over the years, I’ve fine-tuned the Safe Room Method for my own personal use, to where it’s become a breeze for both me and the cat in question.
And I hope it can do the same for you to and your kitty.
Step 1: Prepping Your Guest Room
First off, I start by setting up a room for them, just like you would for any guest that is staying the night. Preferably a small room, away from the hustle and bustle, so that they’re able to scout the room within minutes.
I try not to use rooms like the laundry room as the noise from the washer and dryer may terrify them. Additionally, rooms that our family has to use regularly for our daily routine, such as the bathroom are less than desirable, as well. Though, it works, in a pinch.
Now, I always put the litter box on one side of the room and the food and water on the other side. In that regard, cats are not that different from us. Eating while you go to the bathroom isn’t exactly appealing to them, either.
I also add a scratching post and some toys for them and spray the corners of the room with Feliway. That way, the environment already smells more familiar, easing their anxiety. Lastly, I provide some hiding spots, both on floor-level and high-up (with the scratching posts) for an added sense of safety.
This set-up had another benefit for me back when I often took in strays – it also doubled as a quarantine. I did, after all, have other cats in the house and I often took in strays with…well, a checkered background, health-wise. In fact, I often kept my new guest in their safe room a little while longer than they needed to, until the vet fully cleared them.
Step 2: Prepping For Pick-Up
Next, I prep a carrier by spraying it with Feliway spray.
And, whenever possible, I have the current guardian ready a bag of litter and a bag of food for me. The cat already has to adjust to so much. So, I usually try to get a hold of the food and litter they are familiar with. After a week or so, I gradually switch them over to what I use at home. I start by first mixing the old with a little of the new and then increasing the new steadily.
A bonus perk is to get a blanket or old t-shirt with their own smell in it. When put in the carrier, it will ease their travel time.
Lastly, I let the person that the cat is most familiar with put them in the carrier. That way, they can minimise the cat’s level of panic at what is happening.
Step 3: Welcome Home! …Or?
Once home, I usually bring them straight to their room. No greeting the kids, other cats or dogs, none of it.
If you have kids, you may need to prep them for this. They will get to meet the new addition soon, just not now. And yes, there is a good reason for this.
Right now, the cat is likely the most stressed of all during this process. They’ve just been captured, taken away from their familiar surroundings and transported to a place they know absolutely nothing about. Meanwhile, they’re surrounded by strangers who may or may not be hostile.
A Perspective-Swapping Exercise
Imagine someone took you in the middle of the night and dumped you in Moscow ( or for you Russians out there, Beijing).
Then, a The bunch of people touch and prod you while talking to you in Russian – or Chinese. Meanwhile, you don’t even know you are in fact in Moscow. Wouldn’t you recoil, look for a safe place to hide and get your bearings? At best, those people mean well and this is all a big misunderstanding. At worst, you’ve just been sold to human traffickers.
While this sounds awfully dramatic, think about what your cat is going through right now. There is no way for them to know who you are, who your family is and what your intentions are. Sure, most well-socialised, domestic cats do have some basic trust in the goodness of humankind. But this is still a lot to swallow.
Meanwhile, it’s not like you can tell them things are going to be ok. So, you (or other family members) insisting on contact will only make things worse. Especially, when you consider the fact that cats don’t rely on their pack for support or security. There is nothing you can offer them to make this easier on them, right now – safe from a safe place to hide.
This truly is the worst moment for them.
Their Safe Room
So, straight to their room they go. There, I usually place? the carrier in the middle of the room. Then, I fill the litter box with the sand I brought, add the food, open the carrier and walk straight out.
Yep, I don’t even say ‘hi’ myself. Because, right now, their main concern isn’t befriending other living beings. It’s securing the perimeter, and I need to we let them get on with their scouting.
Introductions will come later. When they’re open, ready for the next new situation and able to give us their full attention.
Step 4: Looking For That Tail-Up
After about an hour – sooner, if it’s a kitten – I check up on them.
I do this every hour the first evening until I go to bed, and every couple of hours the next few days. This entire process can take up anything from an hour -usually with kittens- to 2-3 days. in extreme cases, it might even be a full week or longer.
I only step into the room as far as I need to, to close the door.
And now, we look for clues:
Is the cat still in the carrier?
If so, you can try talking softly to them. Crouch down next to the carrier and without staring, stretch out your hand for them to sniff.
Sometimes, encouragement from friendly humans will let them come out.
If they’re however flattening their ears and pushing themselves back against the wall and floor of the carrier, leave the room immediately.
Is the cat out of the carrier and hiding somewhere?
If so, they’re making progress.
Next, check to see if they’ve eaten anything or used the bathroom.
If they have, that is good knows, because it means they’re getting comfortable. These are two actions a stressed-out cat will not undertake.
Either way, leave the room for now – they’re not ready yet for more.
Is the cat showing you a tail-up?
This is especially true if the cat is coming up to you and introducing themselves. And, if they’ve been eating and using the litter box. Once they’re showing curiosity about what lies beyond the door, you can start thinking about introducing them to the rest of the house.
Not the family, the house! If your family really does want to see the cat, let them do what you’re doing. But only one at a time and 30 seconds max until the cat is comfortable, showing interest and a tail up.
The tail-up is a way to make sure that you’re going at their pace.
It means ‘hi’ in cat language and shows interest.
The thing is, if you rush them before they get to this point, you may find yourself having to back up and redo certain steps anyways. Meanwhile, you may run into trouble such as hiding, litter box issues and vocalisation throughout the night. Also, if you run into issues with antipathy towards family members due to a rushed introduction, you may have to resort to a re-introduction – after finishing the introduction to the house.
Step 5: Exploring The House
In the feline world, first impressions can carry a lot of weight as cats simply cannot afford to dismiss a potential threat. They’re prey as well as predator, and they’re a solitary animal, after all.
In order for them to start out on the right foot with your family, your safest bet is usually to introduce them as gradually as possible.
All right, time to prep them for the rest of the house.
If you have small children or other pets, you may first want to remove them from the room your new cat will get to explore. Grabby hands, screaming, flailing and enthusiastic barking or hissing tend to be a downer during this kind of exercise.
I usually start by keeping my other cats in the living room. That way, the new cat can explore the bedrooms and bathroom first. Then I swap them around. Meanwhile, their lingering scent will indirectly introduce the new kitty to the rest of the family.
I also leave the door open to the safe room so the cat can come back to it when they feel overwhelmed. Don’t be surprised when this happens. Just close the safe room behind them so they can process while feeling safe. I usually do this exercise a couple of times a day. Meanwhile, I’m looking once again for that tail-up to confirm they feel comfortable in the space. If they’re still skulking about by crouching down against the floor, they’re not there yet.
I’ve found that most cats gain confidence the more rooms they explore and need the safe room less and less. Once they’ve explored the entire house, they’ll start marking the home as theirs. At that point, you can usually safely dismantle their room and distribute the stuff there over the rest of the house.
And there you have it – a happy kitty owning their new territory!
So, what about your kitty? What was it like to adopt and bring them home ? How did you go about it?
Share your tips and tricks with us in the comment section!