Pets: Introducing a new cat: The tale of Mrs. Huggins and Smike W.

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The 13-year-old Mrs. Huggins, left, and new kitten Smike W., right. (Courtesy Photo)
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By Sarah Liu

About three months ago, my husband and I decided to expand our family. Up to that point, my senior female cat, Mrs. Huggins, had been sharing the house with us, each of us at peace with our daily routines and the stability of many long years of familiarity and companionship.

Then came Smike W. I won’t get into the how and why, but long story short, he moved in. Smike was eight months old, a refugee orphan from a Florida hurricane with sleek tabby fur and big innocent eyes. Once released into our home, Smike turned out to be fast as lightning, insatiably curious and alarmingly comfortable with heights.

Like so many before me, I had high hopes that a kitten would enrich my senior cat’s life. Mrs. Huggins is 13 years old. She spends 18 hours of her day in our bed, four on the couch and the balance at her food bowl or litter box. Smike seemed like just the thing to perk her up and provide entertainment and company when we’re away at work.

It’s been three months since Smike moved in, and the cats aren’t the bonded pair I had hoped for. We’re thankful that Smike has stopped doing what we call “the flying squirrel,” which involved surreptitiously leaping from heights onto the lounging Mrs. Huggins. But nowadays, the best we can hope for is a tenuous side-by-side nap with minimal warning growls and no swats. A measure of peace is upon us, but my vision of two cute cats grooming each other and sharing a basket by the fire remains a fantasy unfulfilled.

Why can’t cats just get along?

Cats are territorial and they prefer consistency to change. In our case, Mrs. Huggins spent 11 years as an only-cat, then one day felt expected to share her favorite spots, her scratching posts and her personal blankets and toys with a complete stranger. On top of that, her daily routines were disrupted by uninvited interactions, including the sneak attacks and robust play natural to a healthy eight-month-old kitten.

Cats have distinct personalities, and like humans, some individuals do not “click” with other individuals. In our case, Smike W.’s high-energy enthusiasm was a mismatch for Mrs. Huggins’ couch-potato lifestyle. Additionally, as a long-term only-cat, Mrs. Huggins has forgotten any feline social skills she might have learned early in life. While kittens under six months, litter mates or mother cats with grown kittens may retain a positive social bond, unrelated adult cats typically have a harder time learning to like one another.

What can you do?

Start slow. Many sources suggest locating the new cat in a separate, isolated room to allow a period of acclimation. Exchange blankets, scratching posts or toys between the resident cat and new cat’s territory to introduce them to each other’s smell. Place food bowls on opposite sides of the closed door, so the cats can sense one another while engaging in a pleasurable activity.

Supervise and observe. Once your new cat is ready to explore the house properly, supervise his activities and closely observe any attempted interactions with the resident cat. Redirect threatening behaviors with toys or treats as distraction. Never let the cats “fight it out.” Break up violent interactions with hand clapping or a spray bottle.

Separate resources. Provide multiple scratching posts, multiple litter boxes and numerous beds, perches and toys to reduce competition and stress. Place important items in different locations around the house to help the cats maintain privacy and personal space.

Consult your vet. He or she may recommend pheromones or other treatments to reduce aggression and stress. Vets can be good resources for tactics to encourage positive feline behaviors.

Did we make a mistake adding a kitten to our family?

The decision to add another cat to your household is intensely personal and requires informed analysis of the pros and cons.

In our case, circumstances dictated Smike make his home with us, and we did our research to minimize the disruption to Mrs. Huggins’ life. She retains sole access to our bed at night, and we increased our efforts to engage her in the activities she enjoys most – brushing, petting and plenty of undivided attention.

We have encouraged play between the two cats, but never force Mrs. Huggins to remain in Smike’s company if she chooses privacy elsewhere. We diligently seek to redirect Smike when his overtures become too enthusiastic, and we provide him with plenty of age-appropriate interactive toys to decrease uninvited attention.

We don’t have two cats sharing a fireside basket, but we have attained a semblance of peace and the tools and knowledge to prevent open warfare. It’s my hope, in sharing the story of Mrs. Huggins and Smike W., that some of our experiences will help you in your journey with multiple cats.

The writer is a longtime volunteer with King Street Cats. She lives and works in Alexandria. For more information about King Street Cats, go to www.kingstreetcats.org.

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