By: Lexi Vollmer, Animal Care Technician at the Humane League of Lancaster County
Bringing a new cat home is an exciting experience and one that should be positive for all involved. In order for the transition from shelter to home to go as smoothly as possible your new kitty friend should be given a decompression period. You may be asking just what does that mean exactly? A decompression period is a low stress time where you set up your feline companion in an area where they will feel safe and secure as they adjust to their new environment. A whole new house or apartment, people, sights, smells, and maybe even other animal housemates can be overwhelming for any animal.
So what steps are needed to set your cat up for success? The first step, preferably before the new arrival comes home, is to designate a room for the new addition. This can be a bedroom, bathroom, or other smaller space where the cat can feel safe and isolated from the rest of the house at first. This room should contain a litter box, food, water, toys, and places for the kitty to hide if they want to. This will help to establish where the cat can find all their basic necessities in a quick and easy manner. No searching the whole home for the litter box or food. This room will also provide a space where the cat can acclimate to its surroundings gradually. Being thrust into an entire large area, especially after being more confined in a shelter, can be a shock to the cat.
The physical environment is just one aspect of your cat’s new life, they must also adjust to the other occupants of the home. If there are other pets in the house, it is a good idea to take the carrier your new cat came home in and leave it out for your established animal(s) to smell. Scent carries a wide array of information for dogs and cats. By leaving the carrier out with the scent of the new cat inside, you are giving your other pets the least stressful introduction to their new friend. This way no animals have to invade each other’s personal space in order to get the initial information via smell. Another soft introduction between pets can happen at the door to the decompression area. This door serves as a visual and physical barrier, limiting the stress involved with interactions. However, the animals can still smell and hear each other under the door. This is helpful because the fear of meeting the other animal is reduced due to the safety of the door.
When it comes to slow introductions, it is not just other pets that need to give the new kitty time to adjust. Try to keep the number of people interacting with the new cat to a minimum at first. Too many people coming in and out before the cat has adjusted can be stressful and make the cat more likely to hide. Try to put yourself in their position, bounced around from place to place, and now a bunch of strange people keep invading your space and interacting with you before you have gotten a chance to settle in. That can be quite overwhelming for anyone or animal. It can be hard, resisting the urge to show off your new feline friend, but just give them a little time and eventually they will be ready to introduce themselves to your friends and family.
A question you may be asking at this point is, how long do we give a cat to decompress? And that is an excellent question. It will vary from cat to cat, each has their own personality, experiences, and comfort levels. All these factors play a part in how fast they will adjust to a new environment. For some cats it may be as quick as a day or two, for some more shy cats. A few weeks. To know when it is best to open your cat up to the rest of the home will depend on their body language. Is the cat confident, coming up to you when you enter, or trying to make a break for it when you open the door? If so, this can indicate that they are feeling comfortable and are ready to explore more of the living space. Allow them to get a feel for the rest of home, but still keep their room set up as a safe space in case they need a place to get away if stress rises.
Once your new cat has acclimated to their new environment you can change the placement of their litter box, food and water if you no longer want it stored in the decompression room. These items should have the cat’s scent on them by now, making them easier for the cat to locate them when needed. It also helps to show your cat where you have moved these items to. Now that your new cat has been fully integrated into the household you can watch your kitty really come into their own. Sometimes even after a proper decompression period. It may take weeks or even months for a shelter animal to display their full personality. You may begin to see small quirks pop up or watch as your more timid cat opens up and gains some confidence. As with most things, the transition back into a home takes time and patience, but the reward for both you and your new cat is tremendous.
From personal experience I can say this process can surprise you. I brought home my first cat last summer (as a foster fail). She began in my bedroom. The very first thing she did was hide under my bed. I wanted to interact with her badly but didn’t push it, just put her dishes under the bed so she could eat where she felt comfortable. The next morning I was in for a huge surprise. I woke up to her curled up in my chest, purring up a storm. For context, she was not the nicest resident in the shelter so to see this side of her actually made me cry. The longer she stayed the more I saw the traits her previous owner had described come out. She loves cardboard scratchers, climbing up high where she shouldn’t and knocking items off of said high places. After a week and a half I slowly began to bring her on trips downstairs to meet my family’s other pets. She had never lived with other pets before and was very scared. The way she manifested her fears and insecurities was by being the biggest baddest one in the room. To be honest, getting her accustomed to the other animals is still an ongoing project. I think her biggest breakthrough was when she met a second foster, a small but spunky kitten. My cat was confused and grumpy at first. But gradually became interested and even tried to play with the kitten near the end of its stay.
Now, I have a cat that was quite a handful from the get go, so her journey is taking longer and I expected as much. That be said, every cat goes at their own pace, and most likely will not take nearly as long as my knucklehead is. Being in tune with your cat and their comfort level is key to gauging when it is appropriate to progress through the steps of decompression with your new cat companion.