Whiskers, Tango, Foxtrot?? (Or, how to combine cats)

I know the scenario all-too-well…  You have a cat (or more than one).  You want to adopt another one (or more) additional cats.  (Hell, the Crazy Cat Lady stereotype didn’t emerge from nowhere, right?)

Here’s the deal…

If you’ve never brought unfamiliar cats into a household with existing cats before, you might be in for a surprise.  They don’t just bark at each other for the first day and then get along like Best Buds Forever after that like dogs (often) do.  You can’t just throw them together and hope that “they’ll work it all out, and everything will turn out fine.”

No.  That’s not how it works.  🙂

(It’d be a lot easier if it was!)

I’ve experienced kitty-combining a total of 4 times.  I’ve learned over the years that there are right ways and wrong ways to do this.

The first 2 times, I was a kid, so I didn’t really have much of a hand in the feline-combining.  The first time, my mom, bless her heart, was the one with the primary responsibility.  It did not end well.  The second time, I was an adult, but young and unknowing…and that didn’t end well, either.  None of the felines involved were injured, but there was some severe stress, and the newcomers had to be re-homed in both cases.  (My mom and I each tried, we really did.  But we didn’t really know much at the time.)

Things have changed, at least for me.  😉

After that, I armed myself with knowledge, and the most recent 2 times I’ve tried to combine new kitties with existing ones…it has turned out well.

And today, as recently promised, I’ll share the information I’ve learned with you.

Before I start out, it’s important that I mention that I’m not a vet, veterinary assistant, zoologist, animal behavior professional, or anything else, nor do I have a degree in anything having to do with animals except for humans.  I’m just a cat-mom who wants the best for her fur-kids and must have more than just one, but with minimal stress involved all around.

I will, however, tell you a bit about our background and situation.

When Maddie passed away, we adopted Vanessa, who we estimated was born around mid-December 2012.  She had been about 9 months old when we adopted her, had already given birth to a female kitten, had already weaned her, and had already separated.  During this time, she was essentially living on the street in a rough South Texas city neighborhood.  It had been hot.  It had been rough.  Food had been scarce.  Predators had been plentiful.  And yet, here was this little mama, still a kitten herself–pregnant, delivering, and then raising a kitten on her own in that environment.

She was a tough cookie.  She had been around friendly people, so she was not feral, but she had never lived in a home before.  Lord knows what she might’ve been carrying in terms of diseases at the time.  Before allowing her to come into our home and exposing her and Murphy to each other, we brought her to our vet first, and had everything done, including spaying, shots, and extensive lab screenings.

She is the existing/senior resident cat in my story.  Since weaning her own lone kitten several years ago, she had not been around kittens at all.

Then, enter 2 kittens, both about 7 weeks old.  Both were raised extremely well, in a clean-air, no-partying home with a feline-loving family who knew what they were doing with young kittens, with other dogs and adult cats in the home.  Neither had had anything by way of veterinary care, but that didn’t matter to me, because we already planned on doing that anyway.  Their father is an outdoor-only kitty (his (strong) preference), and their mom lives indoors but goes outside often.

We managed to introduce these 2 new little ones, and within 3 weeks, they were all playing with each other, bathing each other, eating together, and even–ahem–using the same litter box.

Of course, like people, all kitties are different, so your mileage–and timeline–may vary.

So… without further delay…

I’ve learned the following…

It’s important to integrate cats slowly, and you’ll probably want to break this up into stages.

The pre-first-stage is to prepare everyone.  Bring your existing kitty(s) to the vet, and make sure they’re up-to-date on all of their vaccines and other procedures before bringing the new kitty(s) in.  If they’ve never been tested for bugs like Feline Leukemia or FIV (the feline equivalent to HIV/AIDS), you’ll want to get that done, too.  Do this with enough time to get the results back before bringing new kitties in.  Many of these diseases can be passed around just by sharing bowls or sleeping in un-vacuumed spaces and whatnot, so you can never be too careful.

Before bringing your new kitty(s) into your home, bring them to your vet first, too.  Have them thoroughly examined, lab-tested, disease-screened, and vaccinated (no, I’m not one of those pro-vaccine-at-all/any-cost conventional wisdom people, but it’s just smart practice in this case).  You don’t know what they might be carrying, even under the best of conditions.  This is particularly true if they ever set foot outdoors, caught birds or rodents or other prey, or if their biological parents did (many pathogens–disease-causing bad guys, like parasites and whatnot–can cross the placenta and infect developing kittens).

OK, once that’s done and you’ve got your new kitties home, it’s time to get to work.  But slowly!!

What you really have going on here are 2 different processes: acclimation (of the new kitties to you, your family, and your home), and introduction/integration (of your new and existing kitties to each other).  Hint: focus on the acclimation first.  Don’t even try introduction/integration for a while yet.  The new kitty(s) need time to get used to their new environment.  I can’t say this enough: take it slowwwww…

There are sub-stages to this acclimation…

The first stage is The Quarantine.

This is where you designate a separate space for the newcomer cat, keeping them totally separate from the existing cat.  They’ll probably be able to hear and smell each other, but they should not be able to see each other, and they definitely should not be allowed to interact.

First, the main goal of the Quarantine is to allow the new kitty(s) to acclimate–or get used to–their surroundings (which includes you, your family, your living space, and your daily routine).  During this time, it’s all about your new kitty and getting them used to you and your life, and your getting used to them.  This is an important time for bonding, which is an important process.  You need to bond with them, and they need to bond with you.

The Quarantine area, where the new kitty(s) will spend their first days, should be a space where you can keep close watch over them and have frequent contact with them.  Our first-night Quarantine consisted of only the master bathroom, but beginning the next day, which was the first full day our babies were home with us, The Quarantine included the whole of the master bedroom/bathroom suite.  This accomplished several goals and carried several benefits:

  • The master bedroom/bathroom suite has only one way in – the bedroom door; the master bathroom can only be reached by entering the bedroom first.  This ensures only one way in, and one way out, for the safety of all involved.  It was much easier to keep everybody separate.
  • The master bedroom/bathroom provided linoleum-floor space for their food, water, and litter box, and also carpeted space for them to wrestle.  There’s a big king-sized bed, next to which we placed a small carpeted cat-scratch post, to help them get up onto the bed (we don’t mind that).  There was also a big window for bird-watching and natural light, and a big, tall carpeted cat-tree in the corner of the bedroom near the window for them to climb up and play/sleep in.
  • I don’t sleep in bed (long story), but Mr Kitty (my partner) does, and he’s a very light sleeper who semi-wakes every time he moves, and he has excellent hearing.  So he’d be a good shepherd over the kittens and wouldn’t pose any risk to them while sleeping.

During this time, the only kitty-integration you want to do is the scent-exchange only.  “Scent-exchange” (not a technical term, AFAIK) is where you get something like a soft towel, blanket, item of clothing, etc, let your existing cat sleep on it, then allow your new kitties to smell it (read: inspect it with their nose), and then vice versa.  You’re introducing the scent of each to the other, before they even get to see or interact with each other.  (Their response to the scent is a loose indicator of how slow you want to take things, but it’s not a precise indicator.)

For us, this master-suite-quarantine lasted for about the first week.  Before too long, our existing cat, Vanessa, knew there was “something” behind the closed bedroom door and wanted to know what it was.  She started sitting out in the hall, in front of said closed door.  The newcomer kittens, too, wanted to see The Great Beyond that was the rest of our apartment, on the other side of that same door.

Hence… The First Meeting:

So, one day, we brought Vanessa into their space, situated her, both of us sat between everybody as though we were all sitting at an invisible square table, and let them see each other.

Of course, it was a no-go at first.  It was a stressful meeting.  It wasn’t so intense during the first few seconds, when the kitties just stared each other down.  But it doesn’t take much to put everybody over the edge, and it happens pretty fast.  Nobody attacked, but everybody freaked out.  When that happens, re-separate, and quickly (but without showing any anger, hostility, exasperation, or disappointment.  Patience and compassion and calm are totally key; remain neutral, calm, gentle, loving, and nurturing).

A few days later, one of the newcomer kittens, in her ever-amped curiosity, slipped out and went scampering down the hall…. right up to Vanessa (the existing cat).  Oh boy, I thought.  They went nose-to-nose; I stayed close, my eyes peeled, on high-alert, but frozen still, to see what they would do.

We scooped the little one and brought her back to the master suite before any fur flew, and we were pleased to say that neither of them did anything to the other.

The second stage is Exploration.

This is where the newcomers are allowed to roam a little wider and explore, say, the rest of your apartment/house (depending on its size; if it’s a large space, you’ll want to break this up into smaller, more gradual steps.  We have an 1100 square-foot apartment, so it’s not very big).

When you allow the newcomer(s) to roam, it’s important that you now temporarily quarantine your existing/resident kitty(s).  They should not be allowed contact yet.  This is sort of another acclimation stage on a grander scale; you’re letting the newcomers explore the rest of your place, getting the lay of the land, and becoming comfortable with it.

Tip: here’s how we knew our newcomers had sufficiently explored each space and had gotten comfortable in it: they started to play with each other.  This means that they felt relaxed enough about their surroundings to let their guard down a little and relax enough to play.

This exploration should only be allowed for a short time at first, and then gradually lengthened.  I think we had our newcomers roam most of the apartment (except for Vanessa’s quarantine) for about 30 minutes the first time, then an hour the second time, and then we allowed them out in the evenings (for about 2-4 hours, while Vanessa was asleep in her favorite chair in the home office on the opposite end of the apartment).

This took another week, so up through the end of Week 2.

Please know that during this whole time, we’re still scent-exchanging; we would go pet the newcomers and then go pet the resident, and then vice versa.  It was a lot of hopping back and forth between “kitty camps”.  Oh, and one of us–myself or my partner–was almost always with the newcomers, continuing to bond and watch over them and play with them.

It’s also extremely important that you show just as much attention to the resident kitty as you do the newcomers, or perhaps even more.  Jealousy is a real thing in kitties, and it’s really tough to overcome if it sets in.  So never forget about–or neglect–your resident kitty!  Show them even more attention than you did before.  It’s important for them to know that they’re super-loved, too, and that nobody’s “taking their place”.

Another thing if your kitties (newcomer or resident) are kittens: allow them plenty of space to play, without scolding them.  Kitty-proof a space where they can go wild.  And if they start showing signs of slowing down, like taking time-outs or starting to bathe, they’re winding down to go to sleep.  Let them sleep–kittens need that.

At the beginning of Week 3, we allowed the kitties limited contact (integration!).

We used tools for this–toys, treats, and so on.  The toys were multiple and the treats were earned, but easy to earn.  Rewards for good behavior were given quickly.

Discipline: only do it if you really need to.  Don’t yell at them; they’re not kids who understand English.  They’ll pick up on your anger, but they can’t know why you’re mad; they’ll just associate your angry voice with you, and the situation will get worse.

First, use diversion tactics.  No, do not play with the laptop cord; chase this really rockin’ bundle of ribbons instead!!  Yeah!!  No, don’t bite your sister; hey, look!  This ball rattles, yo!!  I’m telling you, it works.

If they play too hard and will not let up despite little cries or hisses, step in, get on all fours, look them right in the eye, and hiss.  Growl–long and low.  That’s their language–if you want to get somewhere with them, speak it.  It might seem a little funny or ridiculous, but it works, too.

Do not swat or spank (or any other physical discipline!), yell, or even spray them with water.  We very lightly swatted one of our girl cats (Maddie); she just turned around and purred at us.  She liked it.  Some discipline lol.  We tried spraying her with a small water gun (when she was older); it just stuck in her outer layer of fur, beaded, and dripped off, like Rain-X on a windshield.  Heh.  That was real “effective”…  So yeah–a well-placed growl or hiss works better, and diversion tactics work best–by far.

And be consistent in discipline.  Pick your battles, yes; you don’t want to discourage every little thing.  But exercise good judgment about a thou-shalt-not-cross line, and stick to it.

The rest of the Integration Stage is a process.

It’s a process, not a single event, so take it slow and pick up on their cues.  Start low/short, and take it slow.  Watch and listen to them.  Try to avoid too much stress at once, because their nervous systems will imprint that and begin to make negative associations, and you’ll have a big uphill battle on your hands.

When we allowed our newcomer kittens to roam (while our resident kitty was sleeping), we had stretched out the time-length more and more.  Eventually, one night, in the middle of the kittens’ hanging out with us, Vanessa woke up and came out.  We watched them closely, but did not interfere, although we were ready to step in when needed.

When nobody attacked anybody else, we doled out treats all around.  We kept toys nearby in case we needed a diversion strategy.

At first, we tried to keep everybody out of each others’ food and litter boxes, but we also took cues from them; when they ate each others’ food without the food-owner getting pissed, we let it happen (making sure, though, that everybody got to eat).  When Vanessa (the resident) didn’t care that the little new ones had shat in her litter box and she used her own litter box later on, I didn’t worry about her being pissed off about them “marking territory”, because if Vanessa didn’t care and she didn’t start marking any territory of her own, then all was well.

So, the food and litter box lines got blurred pretty quickly, but we did that on their terms.

Then it came time to decide who was alpha.

This is something kitties have to work out for themselves.  They have to establish their pecking order, their hierarchy.  And there’s almost always a pecking order/hierarchy.  It comes down to personality; Vanessa has an alpha-personality.  But so does one of the kittens.  When you’re talking about 10 cats, there’s room for 2 alphas.  But in our case, there were only 3 cats–not enough for 2 alphas.  There was only going to be one alpha.

The alpha had to be our resident cat.  She had “seniority”, if you will, and she was older and more mature and more established in the home.  So, when she began to show submissive body language, we grew a little concerned.  But we kept petting her and reassuring her that she was loved and important, too, and that she didn’t have to give up her space, but merely share it.

I think she understood, because she began to get more assertive, standing her ground.  Then the alpha-kitten started exhibiting submissive body language–and that’s when we rewarded both (instantly) with treats.

I must note that although the newcomer kittens were allowed to roam the apartment at large and mingle/interact with the resident cat, they did go back into the master suite and were not allowed to mingle after we’d gone to bed or if we left the house.  They were not allowed to mesh on their own yet, without supervision, until we were comfortable that they were truly ready.  This is important!

Then, the next night or the night after, Mr Kitty (my (human) partner), came out of the home office where he had been hanging out with all 3 cats.  He told me that Vanessa had (harmlessly, painlessly) “pinned” the alpha-kitten, sitting on him, for several minutes, as if to send him the message “I dominate over you”.  And this is OK!  Actually, everybody was a lot more relaxed after that, including the now-former-alpha-kitten; he knew where he stood, and he was fine with it.  He challenged the resident cat a few more times, but she swatted him down (non-injuriously) every time.  Now, everybody’s finer than they ever have been.

You’re fully feline-integrated when you feel comfortable leaving everybody to roam throughout your living space without limitation, even when you’re asleep or not there, without having to worry.

Now…all of this occurred remarkably fast, along a surprisingly rapid timeline.  What took us 6-8 months to achieve during our first mixing of newcomer and existing resident kitties took only 3 weeks (to the day) this time around.  So, timelines will vary by the cat personalities involved, and also the experience of the humans in charge.  And don’t forget about environment!  Cats are a little autistic; they like their routine (anything outside of routine confuses them and induces anxiety), they bond with one select person or a few select people, and they tend to look upon their fellow felines as potential competition and/or a threat, to be dealt with with animosity.

So…tread carefully, take it slow, do it on their terms, and offer ample love and reassurance all around.

Don’t be too discouraged if there’s a lot of hissing, growling, spitting (that “kissing”/”clicking” sound they make with their tongue), back-arching, tail-frizzing, swiping, swatting, running away, or cowering.  Just–take it slow and continue to move forward, a little bit at a time.  Retreat when it gets too heated, and try again for a shorter time (or with treats or diversion toys involved) tomorrow or later that day.

Sometimes they’ll get to be good friends fairly quickly, and that’s what you’re hoping for.  But it doesn’t always turn out that way.  Sometimes the best that you can hope for is a mostly-civil relationship where nobody’s injuring anyone else, but they’re otherwise cold, distant, aloof, and indifferent.  That happens.  It’s not a failure, not on your part or that of any of your kitties.

In most cases, though, it can be done!

(Top Secret: I think Vanessa, the resident cat, is starting to grow fond of the newcomer kittens, and vice versa.  They’ve been playing together, bathing each other, sleeping near each other, hanging out.  They’re not only friends, but getting to be family.)

(PS: Hermione especially likes books…)



5 thoughts on “Whiskers, Tango, Foxtrot?? (Or, how to combine cats)

  1. I think it helps that Vanessa was used to having a companion, not a Lone Kitty. Also that new ones were so young. Baby kitties, like baby anythings, are flexible and learning, learning, learning. You had the perfect “ingredients”, added your knowledge and poof✨ Happy Kitty Family! Two humans (?😝) and three felines living in purrrrrrrfect harmony ❣☮👏👣🐾🐈😻😻😻😍😍👍🎉🎊🎉😎😘🌻🌸🌺🍀

    1. I think you’re absolutely right 😁👏🏼👏🏼. The ingredients do matter 😉. Vanessa has come really far; she was a little aggressor when we first brought her home 💗. She definitely subscribed to a “get them before they get you” philosophy 😳😂. She had a standoff with her reflection in the mirror. She went for our faces, in attempt to attack. She would run across the room to attack Murphy (not to kill him, but I’m also not sure that it was 100% play, either). We diluted that, coaxed her out of it with combinations of persistent love and gentleness, and hissing/growling when she had royally messed up. Over time, she became much more even-tempered and calm 😍

      Yep you’re so right to put a question mark after “humans” 😂👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼. I’ve been told I’m cat-like myself, right down to the eyes (!) 😁💖🌟💖🐾🐾🐾😎🙌🏼💟💜💙🍀🤗

  2. When I read the part they’re not kids who understand English, I thought why not speak in their language as I always meow at my cat, then right after the next paragraph, you said it! And it’s not ridiculous at all, I meow my cat (it sounds more like ‘ma…h’ which makes her my mum lol) and sometimes I rub my head against her, I haven’t tried hissing at her but we don’t have to do that. I love Kitty house! 😺 😸 😻 😽 🙀

    1. Lol cool! 😍. Yep, I frequently have casual conversations with our kitties 😂. I don’t always know what we’re saying to each other, but it seems to work for them 😉👍🏼👍🏼

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