Cat Whisperers, I need you
March 7, 2022 1:44 PM   Subscribe

Mr. BlahLaLa and I, cat owners/lovers for 30+ years, have adopted a cat who is deeply unhappy, and we want to make sure our happiness strategy is on point. Experienced cat people, please advise.

(Sorry, no cat tax availability today.)

Disclaimer: We've always adopted rescues, and always provide a forever home. We've actually never rehomed any cat, but at the very worst, if this situation doesn't work out, this cat will go back to the rescue he came from. I want to avoid that.

So we started the pandemic with 4 cats. Three of them died, the last being our 17yo patriarch. We are left with a big, cozy 10yo male. We went to a rescue place and after much consultation we met New Cat:

-- NC is 7 years old, was sent to the rescue center almost a year ago after the death of his owner.
-- NC was housed on his own in a smallish room and, per the rescue workers, was a total doll to people once he warmed up, but was slow at warming up and thus never impressed any potential adopters. When we entered the room, we were slow & gentle with NC, who allowed himself to be petted, bonked our legs, and was generally showing signs of being the perfect cat for us.
-- He was *deeply unhappy* to be placed in the carrier to go home with us. I mean, who wouldn't be? Hissing the whole time.
-- At our house he was put into a small bedroom with food, water, litter box, his own toys from the rescue place, and his own blanket. Lots of hissing and swatting, and we left him alone for the evening.
-- NC and our current cat can smell each other/see a bit under the door, which remains closed. Lots of hissing on both sides.
-- It's now been 48 hours. NC is chowing down (super!) and using the litter box (yippee!) and loves treats (we have a strategy of shaking the treat container like a little rattle when we come in, and he's learning that means "treats are here!"). Also, NC is still deeply unhappy. The best he can do is sit quietly or hide under the bed. He also hisses and swats a lot. We're using the Feliway spray several times per day.
-- I have been spending about an hour inside the room, at various times of the day. I sit on the bed and quietly work, play classical music. Usually NC will chill out as far away as possible, but if we make any eye contact he hisses, and will swat if I come within reach.

So: Does this sound like the natural progression (meaning, not much progress yet)? Is there something different we should be doing? Should I...sleep on that bed at night? For a few hours or the whole night?

Additional complication: The deeply stupid thing I should have considered beforehand is that in 12 days I need that bedroom to function again as my child's bedroom when he's home for spring break.

Will take any advice you have, cat lovers!
posted by BlahLaLa to Pets & Animals (33 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think this sounds like a natural progression.

It's only been 48 hours. It takes time (weeks) for cats to establish themselves and feel comfortable. NC has already demonstrated that they're willing to warm up to you, and as long as they're using the litter box, eating, and getting excited about treats, I don't think you have anything to worry about.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 1:55 PM on March 7, 2022 [30 favorites]

Wait, it's only been 48 hours? He's doing great so far. I have no experience with multi-cat households, so I don't have advice about interactions with your current cat, but hiding under a bed is totally par for the course. I would give it at least another week before you start to worry.
posted by redlines at 1:57 PM on March 7, 2022 [9 favorites]

This all sounds well within the range of normal to me. I'm especially encouraged by the eating and using the litter box. It may be time to open the door and allow them to interact, and take it from there. There might be hissing for a few more days (or even weeks) while they find their footing, but there's only one way to find out if this is going to work!
posted by slmorri at 1:57 PM on March 7, 2022 [3 favorites]

Natural progression. I've never had a cat take less than a week to act mostly-to-fully comfortable in a new home, and Mr. Lancelot (cat tax) took more like three. NC sounds fine.
posted by humbug at 1:59 PM on March 7, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: It sounds normal to me? 48 hours is barely any time. Eating well and using the litter box are excellent signs so far. My cat stayed in "her" room for over a week before she so much as poked her wee head out the door, and took even longer than that to feel comfortable starting to explore the rest of the house. I visited her a LOT in her room during that time, and once she was showing signs of being comfortable with me, we opened the door a crack and let her and the other pets see each other from a distance. He sounds like he's experiencing normal settling-in nerves.
posted by anderjen at 2:02 PM on March 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: NC is middle-aged. The last move to the shelter, the loss of the owner was traumatic; so why wouldn't this move also be traumatic? I think NC needs more time and will be happy to become part of the household.
posted by theora55 at 2:31 PM on March 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

Sounds like you’re doing great, and you have every reason to think that new cat will adjust in time. 48hrs isn’t much time at all - one of our cats hid for about a week after we moved a few years ago. Once you let new cat out, expect the cats to hiss and growl at eat other for weeks / months as they figure things out.

I wouldn’t go out of your way to sleep in the bed, though I think it’s fine for you (or your kid in 12 days) to sleep in it.
posted by maleficent at 2:32 PM on March 7, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Did tons of cat fostering over the pandemic (10+ cats and kittens of varying ages and experiences with humans). You’re making progress and I would say to be patient. Sometimes cats, particularly if they’ve had some trauma from being moved around, need a few weeks to adjust to a new space.

It’s not unusual for a cat to need at least a week before they’re ready to come out from hiding mode, hang in there! Earning trust by being consistent, quiet, and positive (aka lots of snacks and play time) will really help your new cat learn that this new place and these new people are ok.
posted by forkisbetter at 2:54 PM on March 7, 2022 [4 favorites]

I'm no expert, but have have experience adopting one deeply traumatized older adult rescue in a home with another cat. 48 hours isn't much time at all. I'd suggest being patient. If there's not ticking clock, give it at least a month before worrying. As others have said.

Don't be surprised if the cats never really become friends, or if the new one is always a little skittish about humans and especially surprises. It took around a year for ours to go out of their way to engage with humans in any way. Even then, petting them too much or standing up was a problem. But, they had a happy life, I think, and didn't actually physically fight with the other cat after the first few months.

For the bedroom thing, you might consider a roofed exercise pen. But, that will allow fights with other cats if they're in the same space. A pair of nested pens is expensive, but an option. Or, you could just tell your kid that they now live with an angry cat. Who knows - they might get on well. Best wishes!
posted by eotvos at 3:07 PM on March 7, 2022 [3 favorites]

Jackson Galaxy is your go-to reference for how to do this properly.

Please no matter what you do, do not open the door and "let the cats work it out."
posted by Medieval Maven at 3:10 PM on March 7, 2022 [25 favorites]

Our most recent feline acquisition had his own space (my "office") for almost two weeks before he was able to roam and freely interact with the other cats in the household. By the end of the first week he was busting to get out and explore. This sounds like a perfectly cromulent first 48 hours to me.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:34 PM on March 7, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding Medieval Maven - The cat introduction needs to be carefully choreographed and change on a moment's notice.

Doesn't sound that bad to me. Here's some things to check:

- Plenty of hiding places. Ideally a comfortable, large-enough-to-sleep-comfortably-sprawled place above your eye or head level where he can feel safe and see anyone coming (i.e. the bedroom door) from a substantial distance. Also hiding shelter near the food and/or litter box.

- Maybe make sure the bedroom is topologically complex, again, so that he feels like he can be difficult to get at / safe when he wants.

- Some kind of quiet ambient noise, similar to the noise level of the shelter, so he's not left in total silence. Silence is really weird and can be scary.

- There's a second pheromone product you could try, but I wouldn't worry about it.

- Keep the other cat away - let him adjust to the space as much as possible.

- Try playing with him - often cats will play when they're not even interested in eating. Use a shoelace or something else that you can move over the floor like an insect or snake -- don't dangle it overhead, overhead things can be scary. Don't make it too large. Use the shoelace at it's longest length, then, once he's used to playing that way, gradually decrease the length to get your hand gradually closer.
posted by amtho at 3:58 PM on March 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

> Please no matter what you do, do not open the door and "let the cats work it out."

Agreed. This can go horribly, horribly wrong. (material written and vetted by vets.)
How to introduce cats
Many cats are returned to Cats Protection because they haven’t got on with the adopter's other cat. But with some planning and taking it in stages, you can give them the best start.

Setting up a sanctuary room - such as a spare bedroom - with everything a cat needs is a way to ensure your new cat has their own space and space to adapt to their new home.

Next, scent swapping - collect scent from one cat using a cloth by wiping it around their cheeks or forehead and then give the other cat the cloth. Placing it in the middle of the floor gives them the option to investigate or ignore. This helps them to get used to each other's smell.

Once the cats are no longer reacting to each other’s scent, the next step is using a glass barrier such as patio doors. This allows them to see each other without being able to get to one another. Let the cats have the choice of approaching the glass rather than forcing them. If this goes well, use a mesh barrier or baby gate to allow them to see and smell each other.

After plenty of mesh barrier introductions, it’s finally time for the face-to-face meeting. Again, it’s important to allow the cats the option of meeting and not force them to meet. Both cats need to know where they can exit the situation or where they can get up high. Keep these meetings short and make them a good experience with treats and toys. If things don’t go well, it’s important to ensure you can break any eye contact between the cats, allowing them to retreat from each other. It is important not to rush the stages, but following this guide gives your cats the very best chance of being able to live together. Good luck!

There's a pdf on that site that elaborates.
posted by sebastienbailard at 4:01 PM on March 7, 2022 [6 favorites]

It sounds like things are going fine. It’s a bit woo, but I would focus on projecting positive, calm energy in all your interactions with him, trying not to convey any worry or urgency. Any animal overcoming trauma is going to be extra sensitive to the emotions of the creatures around them, as a survival mechanism, and cats definitely do this reflection and response in my experience. It’s one of my favorite things about cats but it can be tricky with transitions and if you are an anxious person with an anxious cat.

If you are especially worried about him not having enough time in that room, go ahead and set up a different room for him now, and start swapping out soft things between the two rooms. That way when you move him (give it at least a week though) the new room will have plenty of stuff that smells like him. I think you should continue in as you have been as much as possible for about two weeks and if there has been no improvement, then you need to try new things. But it does really sound like you’re doing fine. Two days is almost nothing.

I’d be cautious about your kid coming back for spring break. Make sure they know to give the new cat lots and lots of space. Having a couple weeks to adjust to new humans and a new space then suddenly there is ANOTHER ONE and they SMELL DIFFERENT… that can be a lot. It might be good for your other cat though, if he wants to be friends and isn’t having success, for your kid to give him extra love and attention.

One thing you could do, if you have time, is spend some of the time in his room reading out loud. This gets him used to your voice and might be easier for him to adjust to than music which can be unpredictable and not associated with a caretaker.
posted by Mizu at 4:42 PM on March 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oooh yes -- I forgot the best thing I've found! It's spending time _near_ the cat, quietly, but not focusing on him or looking at him. Using the computer is great, as is reading, but Mizu's idea of reading out loud is great. Maybe talking on the phone too.
posted by amtho at 4:44 PM on March 7, 2022

That sounds normal to me, after only 48 hours in a new place with new smells, noises and a resident cat. We've always had rescues too and we had our latest pair hide under a bookcase for about a week when we first brought them home, and after that they would vanish underneath it if we did catch them out and about for a good few weeks. Lots of quiet talking, treats and just sitting on the floor near the bookcase (and a fishing rod toy) got them comfortable enough to start socialising.

Sorry to hear that you lost your other three cats - that must have been hard to deal with in a relatively short space of time.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 4:57 PM on March 7, 2022

48 hours?

When I brought my first cat inside, he was deeply unhappy. Frightened and territorial and even aggressive. Now he's sitting at my feet, a big orange contented lump. It took a while for him to calm down.

When I brought home my second cat, I kept them separated for weeks - closer to a month. There was hissing underneath the door for at least a week. Over time, the aggressive/confrontational interactions transitioned to more curious and playful ones, and I eventually let them meet without a door in the way. Now he and the second cat are best friends.

I'm mostly commenting to emphasize:

This takes time. Sometimes you luck out and get a cat that adjusts quickly, but it's also normal for a new cat to take a while to become comfortable in its new environment and with its new roommates. It sounds like your other cats might have been more chill.

You can set progress back severely if you let the cats interact too soon and they fight. It's better to go too slow than too fast, as annoying as it might be.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:58 PM on March 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

Lots of great advice here, just to add:

Feliway never seemed to make a difference for my cats, but I would suggest trying the plug-in instead of the spray so that it's more continuous. Maybe get another for outside the room/where your existing cat hangs out.
posted by sm1tten at 5:16 PM on March 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers so far. Just want to add that when my kid comes home, there are literally no other rooms to put the cat in.
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:23 PM on March 7, 2022

Not to scare you but some cats take a long time to settle in. My latest cat, Baby Goat, we kept isolated in the bathroom with his own food and litter box for over a month. Established cat, Caius Merlin, was extremely curious and much sniffing through doors occurred. Baby Goat was nearly catatonic for nearly a month. He was tame and docile but stayed hidden in the back of the closet.I spent hours sitting in the bathroom talking to him and petting him a little.

It took about three months to get him fully introduced and integrated into the household. Since we took it so slow there was no fighting between the cats. Caius, who was used to having a cat buddy wanted to play with Baby Goat but BG took a long time to understand that it was play. He seemed like he had lived in isolation for years. (The rescue org had almost no info about his past.)

Slowly, he learned how to cat from Caius. Caius died about a year later and Baby Goat became more attached to me and started sleeping on my bed but not snuggling.

Last year (year 2 of BG) we had a huge winter power outage here in Texas and no electricity for 4 days, 6°-20°F and he started sleeping on me so we could keep warm. From then on he has been a snuggly boy every night. Just the other day, in year 3, he started coming into the bathroom to hang out with me and I rejoiced in another milestone.

Baby Goat is a great cat, with the most gentle and mild personality I have ever seen. He loves to be petted now and I can pet his belly for hours, when most cats would protest. This long story is just to show that it can take a hella long time for some cats to adjust but the wait can be worth it. Of course, YMMV. Per your note about no room, the bathroom was fine for BG, Caius was excluded but me and my sister were in and out all the time. Hope all works out for your kitteh.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 5:35 PM on March 7, 2022 [3 favorites]

This will be fine. It's only been 48 hours! Don't bother with the Feliway btw, we're not sure that it doesn't make things worse.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 5:55 PM on March 7, 2022

Oh yeah, the Feliway diffuser may help, but I've only gotten negative responses to the spray. Maybe the inactive ingredients are harsh or something.
posted by amtho at 6:01 PM on March 7, 2022

This sounds totally normal. Is there any chance you can sleep (or nap) or spend long stretches of quiet times in the room with the cat? Our sweetest cat ever took about a week to come out from under the guest bed. We eventually spent a few nights in the guest room and sweetest cat hopped up on there one evening and that was that. Once sweetest cat was OK with humans we opened up to broader house socialization and other cat exposure.

Sweetest cat also came to us after his owner died & there was definitely some trauma/grief/cat processing to acclimate to new humans. Once the security/bond formed with us sweetest cat has been very social and not at all timid with new people either.
posted by countrymod at 6:03 PM on March 7, 2022

Nthing everyone, this sounds just fine for now. NC needs to adjust to a new territory, and new people, and a new cat - each of those takes time. NC's behavior in the shelter room was him with new people in his own territory, and is your best guide to his 'normal' behavior. He sounds reserved, but well-socialized and disposed to like people. Do you know if NC has prior experience with other cats? I assume the rescue considered that, but just in case!

- I'd prioritize letting him adjust to the room and new humans first, and then add in new/additional territory and then Cozy Cat last.

- At this point, I'd make a new rule that the best food appears in your presence. Maybe while you work and ignore the cat? Maybe across the room but in eyesight? Or at the end of the bed? Or next to you? Does he like fancy treats like churu that require some human interaction? Food is my favorite way to expand a cat's comfort zone.

- When you make eye contact, do some slow blinks and see if he'll blink back at you. It's a "we're both okay people" sign for a lot of cats. (Doesn't work on everyone, one of mine is a derp who doesn't get it.)

- Is your kid up for keeping his bedroom door closed and House Cat out during spring break? I think at that point a new human would be fine, or you can probably move him to a new space then. (He may be less friendly while he learns new territory, that's a thing for cats.)

- I'd leave introducing the cats to the last thing, and do that slow. NC sounds shy, which I consider a plus - I've had decent luck introducing shy foster cats to my cranky seniors. Most conflict happened in places where cats met accidentally or couldn't keep as much distance as they wanted. I let the fosters keep 'their' territory (and separate food, water, and litterbox) and work outwards. I have also had fosters who did not join the household - those fosters were outgoing and curious and sweet, and didn't seem to understand the resident cats' signals to back off. Good luck!!
posted by mersen at 8:24 PM on March 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

I adopted a new cat into a household of two existing cats in the last year and 48 hours is really short in the grand scheme of things. For reference here’s my experience:

-48 hours before new cat started eating properly and vocalizing more. He ate very little for the first few days and was hiding a lot.
-1 full week for him to get used to his home base (separate room)
-3-4 weeks or so before he was allowed to roam for significant periods outside the home base (under supervision). Nights were spent locked up in home base
-6months to a year before the other two cats could tolerate him being in the same general area (5-10m) and roaming around with minimal supervision
-1yr+ before one of the cats allowed him within a meter’s distance for more than a minute
-??? Unsure when my other cat will tolerate third cat within a meter’s distance without hissing. Maybe never.

You have a long journey ahead and I wish you the best of luck! Other posters have given great advice on how to integrate your cats and yes do take it slow. If you are unable to maintain a separate room for him for much longer do at least ensure that he has “safe spaces” and hideouts to rest in, so that he will feel more calm and secure.
posted by pandanpanda at 10:02 PM on March 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

The sleeping in the bed might actually be a good idea. My most feral cat was so much braver when I was asleep or pretended to be. He'd crawl slowly on the bed and nibble my fingers. Took him four months (but again, from a four-month-old feral) but he's now an absolute cuddlebug.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 4:59 AM on March 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding everyone saying to wait it out - I volunteer at a cat rescue and the cats are often very angry when they get to us, and for a couple of weeks after. They're stressed and resentful and on edge just like a person would be if their family left them behind and then they were moved to an unfamiliar environment.
posted by fern at 5:41 PM on March 8, 2022

Response by poster: Thank you for all the great advice! We are firmly waiting it out. We've already seen incremental improvement: yesterday New Cat drew blood when he repeatedly swiped at my legs while hissing and growling. Today, plenty of hissing and growling but only one or two swipes, which were a little halfhearted and didn't connect. I'll take it!
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:56 PM on March 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Today's high: New Cat let Mr. BlahLaLa give him one solitary pet when he delivered wet food!
Today's low: continued swiping and growls (but the growls are a little less aggro).

We're heading in the right direction!
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:17 PM on March 10, 2022 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Sunday update: Today's the 9th day since New Cat came to our house. He continues to make tiny advances -- today he let me scritch his cheek about 20 times. Of course, the 21st time was TOO MUCH so he had to swipe me. Fair enough.

He's been continuing to eat, drink, use the litter box, and was increasingly interested in getting out of the bedroom. So today we opened the door! He spent several hours exploring all the various nooks and crannies of our (small) house. Of course, he and Old Cat did spend some good amount of time yelling at each other, but then Old Cat took advantage of his patio privileges to excuse himself from the entire endeavor.

Eventually New Cat went to sleep on the bed in "his" bedroom, with the door open. I feel like we've crossed into "this is gonna be okay" territory...but also I'll feel more secure once I see how tonight goes. The up side of letting New Cat out of the bedroom (where I ended up not ever sleeping with him) means that he has a much bigger assortment of hiding spots throughout the house, and also means that hopefully by next weekend my kid will be able to sleep in his own bed during spring break.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:17 PM on March 13, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is good news, and I just wanted to add that I have found the "Rule of 3s" to be very true and helpful about cats.
posted by frecklefaerie at 2:30 PM on March 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I really appreciate all the answers, and basically could have marked them all best.

I'm gonna mark this resolved and make this my last update: Yesterday we let New Cat out of his bedroom, and while the day went well, I worried that the nighttime might mean cat battles. Didn't happen. New Cat voluntarily slept on "his" bed, while Old Cat slept on my pillow as per usual. Today they had about 90 minutes alone in the house together with no humans, and it seems that...nothing much happened while I was gone. They've definitely hissed and arched their backs at each other, but neither is outright attacking, and everybody is still using the litterbox (we have 3 set up right now, hoping to reduce to 2 once New Cat is fully acclimated), eating and drinking. Just now, New Cat has picked a brand-new napping spot, in our living room...where Old Cat is also napping. They are on opposite sides of the room, but they're in the same room! This really feels like a win.

Someone remarked that it must've been hard to lose 3 of our 4 cats during Covid. It was. There were varying degrees of pain. One had been in poor health basically her entire life. So that was sad but not unexpected. The second was an absolute darling, and ended up with a really horrible cancer. We nursed her through one surgery and a few months of life enjoyment afterward, but it was terrible to say goodbye to her. The final one, our 17yo patriarch? That was just a killer. It's only been 2 weeks but the house without him in it just feels wrong. However...adopting a new cat, choosing a "difficult" adult (rather than a cute kitten), adopting from a well-regarded rescue -- all of that adds up to good feelings.

Thank you for your help!
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:16 PM on March 14, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Great updates! It sounds like they are both being extremely polite to each other. Cats use hissing and body language including air swipes and arched backs to say “hey move away from my space!” And then it’s on the other cat to respect that, which is what seems to be happening. Not only does that mean they both acknowledge the other is allowed space but also that they speak the same or very similar truce-building language. I would let them hiss and posture all they want. If it turns into stalking and ambushing, that’s something to worry about. But getting big and loud is like a bid for non-violence.

I am very sorry about the companions you’ve lost. From your updates though it does seem like they were tremendously loved and helped your family and home become a place where more cats will live good lives.
posted by Mizu at 7:27 PM on March 14, 2022

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