Adopting a cat? How to settle a nervous newcomer

Cat Behaviour Explained

If you decide to adopt an adult cat then there are a number of things you can do to help them settle into your home.

I speak from experience here having adopted my female cat Grace when she was around 14 months old. Grace came from a breeder and was destined to become a breeding Queen but due to complications with her first litter, she was unable to produce any more kittens. She found being rehomed extremely stressfully and upsetting. It took months of patience and understanding before she would even leave my spare room.

Here are my top tips on how you can help settle a nervous cat:

1. Provide a ‘safe place’ room

Before your new cat arrives prepare a room in your house for him/her. A spare bedroom or study is ideal but it can be anywhere quiet within your house. Make sure there is enough space for a water/food bowl, toys, bed and litter tray (put the litter tray in a corner away from the food etc). It’s also a good idea to get a Feliway plug-in diffuser as it will help your new cat feel calm and relaxed.

2. Keep things consistent

You want to try and make the transition from the cats old home to your home as smooth as possible. Keeping things like the brand of food, litter and bedding they are used to can really help with this. If your new cat recognises these things as being similar they will feel much more comfortable. Before you get the new cat ask the current owner or shelter what food and litter they are using. Once your cat is settled you can slowly introduce new food and litter brands if you wish.

3. Get a good cat carrier

This might seem an odd one to include but I made this mistake when adopting Grace. I went and bought a cat carrier from Pets at Home but didn’t realise the small opening would make getting the cat in really hard (particularly as she was struggling). This made the whole situation much more stressful than it needed to be and got things off on the wrong foot which is absolutely what you don’t want to happen when getting a new cat!

Choose a large open carrier with a wide opening. I recommend choosing a wire rectangular cat carrier as in the image below. Take a towel with you to cover the carrier during transport, cats feel safe in small enclosed spaces.

Nervous cat

4. On arrival

Once you arrive home, put the carrier in the ‘safe place’ room you have set up, open the carrier door and then leave the room closing the door behind you. This may seem strange to us, but a cat’s anxiety level is largely controlled by the confidence they have in maintaining control of their territory. Your cat will feel less anxious if he/she is left alone at first to assess his/her new environment. Keep the general environment quiet and calm, if you have children discourage them from hanging around the door and making excessive noise.

5. Eating and Toileting

It is highly likely that your new cat will only eat, drink, and use the litter tray when you are not there. However, many cats can withhold these functions for a day or even two. Don’t Panic – this is quite normal. Keep trying to soothe your new cat with your voice and ensure you leave them alone for a few hours at a time to allow them to relax. If you have a very nervous cat (like mine) you may need to actually leave the house for a while to make them feel safe at first.

Grace didn’t go to the toilet for three days and refused food for five or six days! I ended up taking her to the vet in the end as I was so worried! Most cats won’t put you through this trauma (she was a special case)! There is no way of knowing what their reaction will be to their new environment. In the event that your new cat is not eating, drinking, or using the litter tray after two days, call your vet for advice.

6. A few hours later

Your new cat’s first reaction to their new environment will be to look for the nearest hiding place and stay there until he/she feels comfortable with the situation. Make no attempt to forcibly remove the cat from its hiding place – just let him/her hide! If there are no obvious hiding places in the room, you can make one using a good size cardboard box or use the carrier and place the towel over it to make a den. Once your cat has been in their room for a few hours it’s time for the first introduction. Go into the room slowly, sit on the floor or bed/chair, talk in a friendly, soothing voice. Under no circumstances should you attempt to reach for the cat unless he/she comes to you. If he/she doesn’t come to you at this first meeting, you may need to have several sessions with him/her, leaving well alone in between visits.

This can take quite some time depending on the type of cat you have. It took seven whole days before Grace would come out from under the desk in my spare room and allow me to pet her. Patients is key, even the most tetchy cat will eventually warm to you if you’ve followed the above steps.

7. Bonding time

It’s important to spend as much time as possible in the room, ideally sitting on the floor or on a level with your new cat. Talk to him/her, read a book, watch Netflix, work on your laptop, take a nap – you are basically just letting him/her get used to you, and then leave him/her alone. Each member of your house should take turns going into the ‘safe place’ and spending some time with the cat, never trying to touch or pet the cat until he/she comes to you first. Young children should always be supervised and encouraged to remain, quiet, calm and still.

8. Grooming and play

Once your new cat becomes comfortable in their ‘safe place’ and they are happy with you being around and petting them, you can progress to introducing grooming and play. Try brushing your cat (go gently though, some cats may be unsure of brushes if they are not used to them) and also use toys to make friends. Use distance play first, things such as toys on a string, laser chase or even a shoelace. Your cat may not feel comfortable enough to play close to you so by using distance play you can work on this with him/her.

9. Let’s exploring

Your new cat will let you know when he is ready to explore beyond the ‘safe place’ room. On average, a new cat may stay in their room for 2 – 7 days, but generally, your cat will let you know when he/she is ready for the next step. He/she will come to you when you enter the room and will be comfortable in your presence, and when he/she is ready, may try to follow you out. Once your cat is comfortable with you and their room, you can try leaving the door to the room open a little when you leave. Cats are curious and he/she will soon want to see for themselves where you are disappearing off to. Again let the cat do this in their own time and if you notice them on the stairs whilst you go about your businesses downstairs just carry on as normal, don’t try to encourage them to come down. The cat must gain confidence in the new environment by themselves.

Shut all the doors, windows and cat flaps before letting your new cat out of his/her room. Make sure the cat can get back to the ‘safe place’ quickly and easily if he needs to.

10. Going outdoors

Even if your new cat is an indoor cat (like mine) you may want to give them access to your garden. A new cat should remain indoors for at least two weeks, to prevent him/her straying back to his/her old home, or simply getting lost or run over. Cats from rescue centres are almost always neutered prior to adoption, but if your cat is not neutered, please make sure they are before you let them outdoors. You should also ensure your cat is microchipped and has an ID collar on before being allowed out.

The first time you allow your cat outside should be just before a meal so that he/she is hungry and has a good reason to return soon. Accompany him/her outside but hang back a little to let him/her sniff and explore the garden for a few minutes, then call him/her or rattle the treats too (hopefully) encourage him/her back for a meal.

A few small outings like this, over the next few days, will ensure that you cat becomes familiar with his immediate surroundings and that he/she knows where home is.

If you already have another resident cat, careful introductions at this stage will help towards feline harmony – please read my post on Introducing an adult cat to your resident cat.

The key with all types of feline introductions is to let your cat take things at their own pace. Given them time, even very nervous cats can become friendly, happy cats!

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