How to introduce an older cat and a kitten

How do I introduce a senior cat to a kitten?

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A lot of people underestimate how much work it is to introduce a senior cat to a kitten or a younger cat. Your resident cat likely is used to their typical way of life, and suddenly shaking up their routine by adding a new family member cat cause a lot of stress. This doesn’t mean you can’t get a new kitten, or that your older cat will hate a new kitten forever though.

In order to get things off on the right foot between your two cats, you need to begin the introduction process very slowly and intentionally. Dropping the kitten in the middle of the room and having your older cat figure it out is the worst way you can handle an introduction. The following is the most fool-proof way to introduce your cats in a way that won’t intimidate either of them, and give them the best chance of having a happy relationship.

Get your new cat to the vet before introducing a senior cat and a kitten

Senior cats are delicate, as are kittens, so you want to make sure your new cat is completely healthy before introducing it to your resident cat. Cats can pick up lots of nasty things from shelters, and symptoms might not start showing until you bring them home.

When I brought my cat Dobby home from the shelter when she was 4 months old, she was completely healthy. That is until about a week later when she started coughing and sneezing. After a visit to the vet she was diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection. This is a common ailment for shelter cats. The vet said she probably picked it up in the shelter but the symptoms didn’t kick in for several days. If I had an older cat, he or she could have developed that illness as well, which could have been dangerous in a senior. So as soon as possible, get your new friend to a vet just to get a clean bill of health.

Keep your senior cat and younger cat separated before introducing them

You’ll need to put your new cat in a “safe room” for at least the first week after he or she moves in. Ideally this would be a bedroom or even a larger bathroom. A young cat doesn’t need a lot of space, and will even be happier in a smaller space with some hiding places. Keep your new cat’s litter box, food, water, toys and anything else they will need in that safe room. The point of this room is to give your new cat a smaller space to get used to and feel like home. Introducing your cat to a whole house or apartment right off the bat would be very overwhelming. Most likely you’d find they’ll hide in one spot.

This smaller space will give the new cat a chance to get used to the new environment – the smells, sounds and activity of your house – without overwhelming them. Your resident cat will also get a chance to smell the cat and will know that there’s another cat in there, but because of the distance will feel less scared or threatened by the new family member.

Monitor each cat’s behavior, but don’t be too concerned if they’re upset

Don’t be concerned if your older cat is angry, upset or scared by the new cat in the house. Cats are naturally quite solitary and territorial, and especially if this cat has been the only feline for most of its life, the change will be a huge adjustment. Take cues from your older cat as to how comfortable they are to know when it’s the best time to start moving forward in the introduction process.

Spend plenty of time separately with both the kitten and your older cat. Of course you’ll need to bond with your new cat and get them comfortable with you, so giving the kitten time and attention will help them feel safe and more at home. You also don’t want your older cat to feel left out or like you’re ignoring them, so give your older resident cat plenty of love and play and treats.

Exchange scents to introduce an older cat and a kitten

Cats can learn a lot about another cat by their scent. Because of this, once your cats start to get more comfortable, it’s a good idea to exchange scents with them before actually introducing them. Take a toy, blanket or bed from your resident cat’s part of the house and give it to your new cat, and vice-versa. They might start off by hissing or running away from the item, that’s normal and expected behavior.

After a bit of time they might start sniffing the item, and you might notice the flehmen response, where the cat will open its mouth while sniffing something. Some people think this means a cat doesn’t like a smell, but it’s just a way for them to smell something better than sniffing with their mouths closed.

The feeding technique – your secret weapon

Another way to introduce scents is by getting the cats close to each other during meals. Feed cats at the same time on opposite sides of a closed door. You’ll probably want to keep their bowls far away from each other at first, maybe 4-6 feet from each side of the door. They might seem nervous at first and might even avoid eating. The goal is to associate the other cat’s scent with something they love – food!

As they get more comfortable you can slowly move the bowls closer and closer together. Eventually the bowls will be right up against the door. This can take a long time – several weeks with some cats, but it’s a step you’ll want to take.

If your senior cat is currently not on a set feeding schedule, you want to set up a feeding schedule before getting your new cat. This way your older cat is used to being fed at certain times, and will be hungry when feeding times happen with the kitten around. If you free-feed kibble and your senior cat is stress-eating through the day, he or she might not be hungry at dinner time and might ignore their food if it’s near the kitten’s door.

Swap the rooms your cats are in

In addition to feeding together and exchanging scents, an additional bigger step you should take is sight-swapping. This means you take your new cat and swap your older cat into their room without the two seeing each other. This can be tricky if you’re doing this on your own, but definitely doable. This serves two functions. First, your cats will be able to get an even better idea of the other cat’s scent. They might explore each other’s beds or litter boxes. Just give time time to look around and smell the space.

Also, for your new cat, it’ll give them time to explore more of your home. This, however, is something you should focus on when your new cat has had a week or so to adapt to the safe room, so they won’t feel lost or overwhelmed. If they start getting nervous you can quickly put the cats back into their normal spaces. Aim for an hour in the swapped spaces before switching them back.

The moment of truth – how to introduce a senior cat to a kitten

So your new kitten has adapted to the safe room and had some chances to explore other areas of the house. You’ve gotten the cats eating on opposite sides of the door, and they’re no longer running from each other’s scent when you swap toys. Now’s the time for them to meet face-to-face. A popular way of doing this initially is with a baby gate. Put it between the safe room and the other room your older cat has access to, and stay close by monitoring the situation.

The cats might growl or hiss, this is completely normal. One or both might hide. If you’re lucky, they’ll get close to each other to say hello. No matter what they do, don’t intervene unless you’re worried one of the cats is about to fight. Hissing or growling doesn’t mean your cat is about to attack, it’s just an alert that the cat is not completely comfortable. That’s ok, let them get that out of their system.

Another option if you don’t have a baby gate handy is to put the kitten into a cat carrier and bring the carrier into your senior cat’s space. This keeps them both safe, but lets them see and interact with one another.

How to introduce a kitten to a senior cat

Facilitating the relationship

You might want to repeat the initial face-to-face introduction process behind a barrier several times before letting the cats loose in a room together. Once the cats don’t seem to be that startled by the other’s presence, you can let your kitten out of the safe room into the rest of the house. If you have a large house you might want to let the kitten explore section by section so it doesn’t get lost.

Make sure early interactions are supervised – you won’t want to let the kitten loose before you go to work for 8 hours. You might want to keep them separated if you’re going to be away from home until you’re completely comfortable with them together.

Now that your cats are in the same room together, try and get them to play together. An interactive toy like a wand toy is perfect for you, your senior cat and your kitten to start playing together.

Give your cats enough space

Give your cats places to hide in case they get overwhelmed by the other. I personally like those soft beds that are covered. They’re small, cheap, easy to store and easy to clean. Cats prefer to hide rather than fight in tense situations. Not having enough escape routes will make your cats feel trapped. That’s when you’re at risk of having them lash out.

You can also “catify” your house, as Jackson Galaxy says. Make sure you give your home levels. For example, arrange your living room so the cat can jump from the top of the couch to a bookshelf. Some cats prefer lower spaces while others prefer heights, so giving them options where they can escape when they need a break will make them feel more comfortable with each other.

Sometimes older cats will have some physical responses to a new pet like changes in appetite, but if you introduce your cat very slowly, these should go away very quickly.

Let your senior cat teach your kitten how to cat

Some people freak out if they see their older cat bop their kitten on the nose. As long as your cats seem to be relaxed, this is normal AND a good sign! Many kittens lose their mothers at a young age. Unfortunately this means they don’t have a lot of the social interaction skills mother cats teach their babies.

In many cases, if your older cat and kitten start developing a healthy relationship, your older cat will step in to teach the baby these skills. So your kitten might try to treat your older cat’s tail like a feather toy to be greeted by a hiss or a claw-less swat on the head. Your older cat is essentially teaching your kitten manners.

Be patient with the process

This process can feel like it takes ages, and in some cases it can. However, you’re facilitating a relationship that might be lasting for 10+ years. So for the sake of your cats’ happiness and your general household peacefulness, take your time with your introductions. Doing this slowly and correctly helps guarantee many years of happiness for you and your furry family.

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