I’ve watched just about every episode of Jackson Galaxy’s “My Cat From Hell” multiple times. I’ve read cat books and done a ton of research on the subject of introducing cats. But nothing really prepared me for the journey I was about to embark upon.
I’m in a committed relationship with a guy who happens to have a cat. I am the proud cat mom to two F5 Savannah cats. The fact that we were both cat people is one of the reasons our relationship has been so successful. But now we are faced with the task of introducing my 4-year-old Savannahs, Arya and Django, to my boyfriend’s 4-year-old rescue kitty, Puddles. Rehoming any of our cats is simply out of the question. So we have a lot riding on the successful comingling of these 3 cats. Before we get into my experience with introducing cats, here’s a little backstory into the lives of our 3 main characters.
In my household, Django is the boss. He’s got a lot of alpha male characteristics and he tends to act up if he doesn’t get his way. Fortunately for us the solution is pretty simple – just give him lots of attention. He’ll definitely let you know if he’s feeling neglected in any way. Django gets the first pick at dinner, the first opportunity to play with any new toy, and the “best” spot on the human’s lap. Thankfully, Arya is totally cool with this arrangement.
Arya doesn’t always get the short end of the stick. She’s just not interested in being showered with affection from the humans. She appreciates attention, but only on her terms. The funny thing about Arya is that she’s less of a scaredy-cat than Django. Her extreme curiosity usually makes her the first to venture out. Then Django is quick to follow. Over the years, Arya has definitely learned to hold her own in this brother-sister relationship. She used to get beat up all the time by Django. But nowadays, it’s often Arya who is doing the fight-provoking. Being that Arya is the smaller, weaker Savannah, she ends up taking a lot of abuse, even during playtime. If anyone has doubts about the relationship between these two kitties, just try separating them for a few minutes. It doesn’t take long at all before they get incredibly upset and vocal. So like a lot of sibling relationships, my Savannahs have their tiffs, but they truly are inseparable.
Puddles is a spoiled only-kitty who has never had to share any of her stuff with anyone. She’s got a pretty unpredictable temperament. One minute she’ll be purring and the next she’ll take a swipe at your arm. It takes Puddles a very long time to warm up to anyone. She’s definitely Daddy’s little girl. But even Dad isn’t exempt from her bad behavior. When strangers (which includes everyone outside of me and my boyfriend) enter the house, Puddles vanishes. She’s been known to hide under beds, inside couches, and occasionally inside her litter box. She has never shown any signs that would indicate she’d be a dominant, territorial cat.
Prior to their introduction, my biggest fear was that Django and Arya would gang up on Puddles and act aggressively towards her. Boy was I wrong. Over the course of several months, we would conduct 1 week trial meetings. Since I am planning on moving into my boyfriend’s house, this meant bringing Arya, Django, and most of their belongings across town to Puddles’ home. We set up the guestroom in my boyfriend’s house as my Savannah’s home base. This would be their new safe spot. Puddles would have the remainder of the 2,700 square foot house. The plan was to slowly integrate my savannah cats into Puddles’ life, thus making the actual move-in far less stressful on everyone.
Week 1 – Total Isolation
Arya and Django aren’t very happy travelers. Up to this point, their only interaction with carrying cases and the car have been trips to the vet’s office. The short 5 minute drive across town involved lots of howling and crying. But the drama didn’t stop when we arrived at their future home. For almost an entire day Arya and Django acted very strange towards each other. Maybe it was the new scents or the increased stress, but both kitties were definitely on edge. We kept them completely isolated from Puddles for the majority of this first trip. Puddles was aware that strangers were now living in her home, but she coped with this fact by hiding even more than usual.
Week 2 – Growling makes Puddles Sleepy
On our second trip to the house, Arya and Django acclimated to the guestroom almost immediately. They were still a bit on edge, but it was clear that they felt safe being in this familiar room. After a day we decided to let them explore the living room and kitchen area. We kept Puddles isolated in the master bedroom and bath area. My curious kitties covered every square inch of the new territory and they were anxious to see what was behind the remaining closed doors.
On the last day we decided to allow a supervised encounter. Puddles was laying on the couch with Dad and we allowed Arya and Django to enter the room to explore at their own pace. It took them awhile to even realize there was a third kitty in the room. Puddles noticed immediately but kept very quiet. It wasn’t until Arya approached a little too close that Puddles began growling. Arya was initially startled, but her curiosity kept her from fleeing. Django on the other hand hightailed it back to the guestroom. Arya slowly inched her way towards Puddles until they were about 3 feet apart. Puddles continued growling and hissing the entire time. Arya had a curled tail and didn’t appear to be acting aggressively towards Puddles, despite all the hissing that was directed at her. When Arya relaxed her position into a casual loaf, Puddles stopped growling. After a few minutes it actually looked like Puddles fell asleep. We thought this was huge progress.
Week 3 – The Tables Have Turned
After getting my savannahs settled in on this third trip, we put Arya back in her carrier and brought her to the other room to see Puddles. We were hoping this would give Puddles an opportunity to sniff her without either kitty getting hurt. We ended up with 2 very unhappy growling, hissing cats. For the next day we tried scent swapping. We would brush my savannahs then bring the brush to Puddles. She would instantly hiss at the brush. We tried giving her treats while introducing the scented brush, but she didn’t seem to notice the treats. Arya and Django would sniff at the Puddles-scented brush, but they didn’t display any aggression.
By now, Arya and Django had free reign over the house. Puddles would either hide under the bed or under the couch. For the most part my kitties didn’t go out of their way to bother her. But Django got brave and decided he was going to get under the bed where Puddles was hiding. We barely realized what had happened when 2 bushy tailed cats emerged from underneath the bed hissing and swatting at each other. But to our surprise, Puddles was the one chasing Django clear across the house and into the guestroom! And shortly after that event, Puddles started attacking Arya whenever she was in sight. So at this point the tables had turned. My kitties were acting like victims and Puddles was now the aggressive problem kitty.
Week 4 – The Big Stand-Off
On this visit Arya and Django were much more reserved than on their previous visits. They were well aware that there was another kitty in the house who didn’t appreciate them being there. Puddles was no longer hiding at all. On this trip Puddles started displaying the most obvious signs of bullying. Not only was she not hiding from my cats, but she was actually seeking them out to pick fights. Puddles set up camp in the doorway to the guest bedroom essentially blocking Arya and Django from leaving. She then started to pick completely unprovoked fights with Arya. Arya would end up running away and Puddles would chase her all over the house until we were able to intervene. Then Puddles picked a fight with Django, but this time Django didn’t back down. There was a lot of loud growling and eventually Puddles gave up on that battle and left the room.
So here’s how the scorecard looked at this juncture.
Django: 1 vs. Puddles: 1
Puddles: 5 vs. Arya: 0
But despite being the apparent bottom kitty on the totem pole, Arya still didn’t give in. Even though Arya wasn’t acting aggressively, she was clearly provoking Puddles with her constant staring contests.
I read that cats need to establish a hierarchy before there can be peace in a new environment. Things were going to be incredibly stressful and tense until everyone agreed who was the top cat in the house.
Week 5 & 6 – Back to the Basics
Puddles was prepared for this 2-week long visit and she didn’t waste any time chasing Arya and Django into the guest bedroom. After that first attack I decided to dial it back a few steps to see if we could make any progress mending the relationship between Puddles and my Savannahs.
The focus was on breakfast time. The goal was to get all cats eating in the presence of one another. That way we could build positive associations like food with the sight and smells of the “enemy” cat. Since we didn’t have a baby gate handy, I constructed a make-shift gate using the cat carriers and a pillow. I placed the kitties’ breakfast a few feet from either side of the barrier. Arya and Django were pretty uncomfortable at first but their hunger outweighed their fear and they ate. Puddles stayed a good distance away but within eyesight of my cats. She eventually came and ate from her bowl after my cats were long gone.
Then I tried site-swapping. Every night I’d relocate Arya & Django’s litter box and food and section off the house. My cats would either be in the master bedroom area or the guest bedroom area, and Puddles would have the remainder of the house. Django had a lot to say the first night, but the site-swapping was relatively painless after that. Since the living room was often the area when battles ensued, my Savannahs started acting very skittish when they were in this mutual territory.
Our final goal for the trip was to have all cats playing in the same room without a fight breaking out. We were only partially successful on this front. Our biggest obstacle has been trying to find a toy that Puddles really likes. Chasing after ice cubes that we throw around the room is the only form of interactive play that interests Puddles. And we’ve tried just about everything! (Da Bird, Cat Charmer, Leather Bouncer, Laser Pointer, Catnip Pillow, etc.) None of those toys are even remotely as interesting as Arya and Django.
On the other hand, Arya and Django are toy junkies and they get transfixed during playtime. While they are playing, they have little concern or awareness of Puddles. But we’ve found it virtually impossible to break Puddles’ focus on my cats. And as soon as Arya and Django stopped to take a momentary break from chasing Da Bird, their eyes locked with Puddles and she chased them into the guest bedroom for yet another growling/hissing standoff.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
- Puddles won’t attack Arya or Django while they are playing or sleeping
- Puddles will attack as soon as Arya or Django break eye contact and begin to flee (thus acting like prey)
- Despite the loud hissing and growling, the scuffles have not resulted in any visible scratches or bites, yet.
- Arya and Django only feel safe in the same room as Puddles if they are up high.
- Puddles is sneaky and much faster than she looks.
- Arya might actually enjoy being chased.
- Django is a huge wimp.
Week 7 – Epic Cat Fights and the Pet Gate
Things were definitely moving in the wrong direction and that became very apparent during this trip. A completely unprovoked fight broke out when Puddles ambushed an unsuspecting Django who was looking out the window. Fur was flying, cats were hissing and making awful screaming noises, and I attempted to break up the fight. First I tried using a pillow to separate them, but when that didn’t work I instinctively reached in with my hands which I immediately regretted doing. Puddles got me really bad and then went right back to attacking Django. I was eventually able to get them separated, but not after most of the damage was already done.
Django was now officially traumatized and refused to leave the back corner of the guest bedroom. Arya was shaken up as well but her curiosity continues to prove stronger than her fear. Puddles aggression had definitely elevated to a point where she could not be trusted to be in the same room as my cats, even with human supervision.
We replaced the make-shift cat carrier door barrier with a much more effective pet gate. We were initially worried that our cats would just jump over the gate, but that hasn’t happened yet. Apparently cats don’t like to jump clear over barriers.
We continued feedings on opposite sides of the pet gate, but had to start off with 25 feet of separation. Even with their food bowls an entire rooms-length apart and with the pet gate between them, Arya and Django were still very skittish and reluctant to eat.
Week 8 – Cat Tree Confidence Building
On this trip we focussed on re-building Arya and Django’s confidence. Knowing how much they love being up high, we decided to purchase our top-rated cat tree – The Refined Feline Lotus Cat Tower. It was an immediate hit with Arya and Django. They would constantly fight each other for the top perch. Puddles was somewhat interested in the cat tree, but she doesn’t really like being up high in general.
Week 9 – The Final Move, Pet Fence, and Hurricane Irma
Although our prior visits didn’t prove to be very successful, they at least prepared us for what to expect during the final move. Our hope is that once Arya and Django begin to accept their new home as “their’s”, they’ll develop more confidence and challenge Puddles for a share in the ownership of territory.
What a week! I fast-tracked my move-in plans by a week to beat Hurricane Irma. For me, the past few days have been a frenzy of packing, moving and hurricane preparation. I’m hopeful that Arya and Django will have an easier time adjusting to their new home now that all of their favorite belongings are here. (Litter-Robot Open Air, Smartcat Ultimate Scratching Post, Pet Fusion Jumbo Cat Scratcher)
Meanwhile, my boyfriend has been hard at work constructing a temporary kitty fence to more evenly divide the home into separate kitty zones. So far it has held up to one full-on charge by Puddles.