Cat Integration: Can we all just get along?

November 13, 2017

Dear readers,

Brace yourselves – this post is a doozy!!!

First impressions are important, but not everything.

Let’s be honest, we’ve all been introduced to somebody before and instantly gotten a bad vibe from them. Whether it’s something they said, something they’re wearing, or just a natural bad energy—you just don’t like them. But then cut to years later and they’re your best friend!

I’m sure it took some time to cultivate that relationship and it didn’t come without some new insight and a deeper understanding of that person.  Well, cats are the same way.  If you’re lucky, when you adopt a new cat into a pre-existing cat household, your cats will instantly get along.  It’ll be like love at first sight or that instant connection you have with a good friend. Usually this will happen with young cats (kittens even).  But in most cases with cats, it’s not that simple, especially if you have an old curmudgeon of a kitty.

I currently have two cats that I adopted when I was a veterinary student at the University of Minnesota. One day I was perusing through and came across this adorable kitten named “Ace.”  After much coaxing of the boyfriend (who is now the husband), I took home my first polydactyl cat that we renamed “Lando Cat-rissian”, paying homage to one of my favorite movies growing up. It wasn’t too long before we got our second polydactyl kitten, “Smokey” whom we’ve renamed “Kingsley” after Kingsley Shacklebolt. Clearly, you can see we are a fantasy/sci-fi loving household here.

When I first brought Kingsley home, we had only had Lando for a year, but he had already cemented himself as the “king of his domain.” He had no interest in sharing his toys, litterbox, and especially his food with anyone else.  I made the mistake of accidentally letting Kingsley out of his crate the day I brought him home and Lando went beserk.  He chased Kingsley into a corner and hissed and growled at him like a maniac. It was something I never saw before and it scared the crap out of me.  Both their hackles were up! To this day I still haven’t seen them as stressed as they were that day.  Actually…I take that back…Lando is a stress ball at the vet (that’ll be a blog post for later – ways to make your kitty’s vet visit less stressful.)

I digress…but what I did was a definite no-no. I could have ruined a potentially good relationship between them by exposing them to each other too quickly. Instead, I learned that building relationships between cats can take time and requires creating a positive association between them.  So don’t be quick to jump the gun and try to get your cats to bond in a matter of days.  Like any lasting friendship, it requires dedication, effort, and above all—patience (sometimes weeks to months). To quote one of my favorite writers, “Anything worthwhile takes a long time.” And in an age of immediate results, this can be a challenge.

So here was my strategy in integrating Kingsley with Lando. To start, I separated him from Lando in another room with his own litterbox using only a door as a physical barrier between them. They could smell each other and knew that the other one was there but they had no direct physical contact.  There might have been some occasional paw touching underneath the door but otherwise there was no physical interaction.

The key to any behavioral training is positive association/reinforcement—the idea that you associate something you desire from your kitty with something positive to encourage them to keep exhibiting that desired behavior.  I’d often feed them in close proximity to each other (only separated by the door) to correlate food (a positive reward) with the other’s presence. So if your cat is food motivated, take advantage of that.  Lando definitely loves food so I used that as my reward for him.  My goal was that anytime he was in contact/close proximity to Kingsley, he would be fed.

Another thing I did was have Kingsley sleep on my sweatshirt which filled it with his scent, then I’d place some treats that Lando loved on the sweatshirt when it was feeding time. That way, he would smell Kingsley while he inhaled his treats.  In short, he again associated Kingsley with being fed! I would also play with them only when they were in close proximity to get them to once again associate a positive moment with one another.

Something else I tried was fur exchange. I know this sounds crazy and weird, but I promise you that it can really help.  I even went as far as putting some of Kingsley’s fur on Lando’s bedding and toys and vice versa. I did this for weeks until I felt comfortable allowing them to see each other but even then only at a distance. I even exchanged some of their litter,  so I would put some of Lando’s litter into Kingsley’s box and vice versa.  But make sure that the new kitty’s poop has been tested negative for parasites before you exchange litter otherwise there’s risk for intestinal parasite transmission between cats.

Then I swapped rooms for hours as a time, so I would put Lando in the room that Kingsley hung out in and I placed Kingsley in the main room.  I sprinkled a good amount of treats all over the room Lando was in because I needed him to  have a positive correlation to Kingsley’s smell.

After some time  (based on their positive response), I finally felt comfortable enough where I could put Kinglsey in a carrier and bring him out into the main space where Lando was and feed Lando while he was able to see Kingsley.  I made sure it was only during those times that Lando would be fed.  I would also give treats to Kingsley during this time as well.  However, I was more worried about Lando adapting to Kingsley which is why I spent more time training Lando. Kingsley was a kitten and was pretty much open to anything.

Once I felt comfortable with Lando and Kingsley in the same room, I allowed Lando to go up to Kingsley’s carrier for pockets of time and always under supervision. All the while I would constantly reward both of them with food. I would allow Lando to climb on the carrier and take note of Kingsley’s smell, and as long as he didn’t hiss and show aggression, I would reward him. If he did hiss, they were immediately separated and I would try again.

I remember about 5 weeks after I brought Kingsley home, my boyfriend texted me a video of Lando and Kingsley grooming each another. I think I had a meltdown. All that hard work and patience finally paid off!  Let me tell you, there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing your labors bear fruit even if it’s in a five second video. To this day, they have remained the best of friends and my biggest furry loves (see above photo).

I hope this post can help you integrate your kitties together. My wish is that if you’re considering adding another feline friend to your home that they will get along as well as mine do.  It’s always nice to be able to snuggle with all of your little ones together!

Please feel free to send me photos of your happy feline family!

Thanks for reading,

Dr. Theresa Loo

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