Jacob is a cat with a story. He had been adopted as a kitten from a shelter. For reasons about which we can only speculate, he was returned to the shelter after a short time. Once he landed in what will surely be his “forever” home, he broke with a viral infection that proved difficult to treat. It may have been the reason he was given back to the shelter. The stress of these early experiences allowed the virus to make Jacob quite sick.
After a month of isolation from the other cats in his new home and intensive treatment of his infection, he was introduced to the other 3 cats in the household. It did not go well. Jacob is, like all cats, a solitary being who has a profound attachment to place. Safety and security means a consistent place to live and a reliable source of food. Being among cats that he had never known before was very frightening.
Cats naturally flee from any situation that they find unpleasant or perceive as dangerous. Putting some distance between a new cat and yourself is a natural instinct. Being wary of a new environment is a smart response for a cat who needs to feel safe to relax. Sometimes, flight is not an option to a feared situation, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to go. One would naturally turn to confront the source of danger and show one’s available weapons before fleeing again. A swipe of claws and a good scream is sometimes enough.
The third option is to freeze. This motionless cat might “fool” his enemy into failing to notice him. This is less common in cats but can learned if a circumstance is such that nothing can be done to escape, for example being confined to a small space.
Jacob used all 3 and had trouble finding for himself a safe territory in this strange new land.
Because territory and resources – food, water, litterbox, resting place, perching space, hiding places, toys, scratching posts – all have to seem like they are available and safe to access, sharing with unfamiliar cats or in a new space has to be worked out. Cats are the ultimate control freaks! Sharing or waiting in line are off the table.
Each unrelated cat must have their own “stuff” in order to feel they have control over their lives.
Resources must be distributed throughout the house so that access feels safe. While cats may indeed use the same cat tree, for example, they probably will occupy it at a different time of day. In the room where important things are there should be an entry point and an exit point so that escape is always possible. Visual barriers can be helpful, too.
Cats are not social eaters but are driven like all animals to eat when they are hungry. Unrelated cats should be feed out of visual contact of each other and from separate bowls. The same is true of drinking. Cats forced to eat together will find it quite stressful. Their instinct to eat will overcome their wariness but the signs are unmistakable. Watch for ears rotating back and forth; look for tails low and moving behind them as a warning. Interrupting a meal to look around at the other cats is a sure sign that the cat isn’t comfortable with the danger he must endure to eat.
As a solitary hunter, keeping secrets is critical. You don’t want to “whoop” it up when you find a nice tender mouse for fear some bigger cat will come and take in from you. The keys to unlocking how cats are feeling are body language and facial expression. Subtle body position can tell you whether a cat is relaxed or stressed. The front paws are a good place to start. A truly relaxed cat will tuck their paws underneath their chest and rotate them so pads are off the ground or will stretch out when laying on a side.
Cats that are tense will sit with front paws visible in front of them will all four paws in contact with the ground, ready to spring up at a moment’s notice. Twitching ears, tense muscles and eyes tightly shut or pupils dilated, are the hallmarks of a cat who doesn’t feel safe.
Whatever the threat, an unfamiliar cat, a new person, an unknown environment, cats will not relax until they perceive that threat has been eliminated.