Anyone who takes a cat into a home, whether it be fostering, adopting, caring for a friend’s cat temporarily, or even moving into a new home will experience caring for the cat during their first days in an unfamiliar space. I work with a couple of local shelters and foster rescues, as well as my own clients, and a very common scenario I have come across, is a cat that is very scared, stressed, and hiding in the home. Typically, they have been this way since they first came into the home and in many of these cases, the cat was allowed to have full reign of the home from the get-go, didn’t have a clearly defined area with all of the needed resources, and weren’t kept separate from other animals.
To be dropped into an unfamiliar space with strange people and smells is an incredibly overwhelming situation for a cat. To cats, moving homes is essentially removing them from the space they have taken ownership over and putting them somewhere where they have no context. Cats are highly territorial and all the things that made them feel safe and secure have disappeared. They have been suddenly dropped in a place where they don’t know if they will have to fight for food, resting places, mates, etc. This scenario can obviously lead to uncertainty, fear, stress, and anxiety and the results can be hiding, aggression, inappropriate elimination including the loss of control of bowels or bladder, displacement behavior, inappetence, and many others.
As eager as we are to integrate our new family members into our home right away, it’s important to keep in mind what’s best for them and how we can set them up for long-term success.
This guide is primarily for single-pet home as I will not be going over multi-pet introductions in this post. With that in mind, many of these tips and steps are applicable to those situations as well, especially in the first stages of bringing the cat home.
Here's what you should do to help your cat adjust to a new space:
Before you bring your new cat home, pick a room in your home that they can be confined to for several days. A spare bedroom, office or less used bathroom are good options. We want the sanctuary room to be a place of safety for them. It should have all their necessities including food and water dishes, at least one litter box, toys, scratchers, bedding, perches, and hideouts. If this is a situation where you are moving homes with your current cat, use the same items they are familiar with in their new space. Including bedding and scratchers that already have their scent on them will help them feel more comfortable right away.
Try to minimize access to deep hiding places such as in cupboards, under a large bed, or in the ceiling. Instead, provide plenty of approved hiding places such including covered cat beds, boxes turned on their sides, a cozy corner behind a chair, and high perches. This allows them to feel safe while experiencing the new environment, but not so far away they are completely removed, and you can’t get to them if there’s an emergency
Having a smaller space allows them to define it as their territory much faster than if they were given a whole home to roam around in. In a short time, their scent will be spread around the room through rubbing, scratching, bedding, and litter box use. All these actions help them feel secure in their surroundings. Once they have established this new space as theirs, then they know they have a safe space to retreat to when given access to the rest of the home.
While your cat is adjusting in their sanctuary room, set the rest of the home up for long-term success and think about any other accommodations you can make. You’ll want to think about where to place all the items discussed above and how you'll be interacting with the cat. The 5 Pillars of a Healthy Environment for Cats is a science-based framework for addressing these environmental needs.
Pillar 1: A Safe Space
Your cat needs a safe space that provides a sense of security. This lets them have time alone where they can rest and observe without interruption from people or other pets. Some cats prefer something up high, such as a bookshelf, and some prefer something lower, such as a box on its side; provide both and experiment to see what your cat prefers.
Pillar 2: Multiple & Separated Resources
Key environmental resources include food and water bowls, litter boxes, beds and resting places, and perches. The ideal setup is to have multiple of all of these and they should be spread out around the house. This will help the cat not feel like they are trapped or competing for any resource. For litter boxes, you should have one for every cat plus one additional. There should be one on each level of the house and they should be away from food and sleeping areas
Pillar 3: Play & Predatory Behavior
Cats in the wild are solitary hunters, and outdoor cats, when given the chance, will spend a significant amount of their time in hunting-related activities. Providing enough opportunity for your cat to stalk, chase, and “kill” prey will help prevent boredom and frustration while letting them express their biological needs. Get creative by providing a variety of toys that mimic prey, food puzzles, and window views of birds and other wild animals. Make sure to rotate toys to keep things interesting!
Pillar 4: Human-Cat Interaction
Despite having a reputation for being solitary and aloof, cats do like to have regular interactions with their humans. But, the key here is to have the interaction be predictable and on their terms. Cats like to be in control, and you should never force interaction on a cat. Get familiar with body language cues to recognize when they’ve had enough. Regular interaction can include playtime, snuggling, and petting.
Pillar 5: Respect Their Sense of Smell
Cats have an incredible sense of smell, and it is their primary way of identifying people and objects. They have several different ways of depositing their scent in their environment. It’s crucial to creating a ‘home’ scent and you should avoid cleaning these areas all at once. Provide appropriate areas for scent marking such as scratchers. Respecting their sense of smell includes avoiding scented litter and other highly scented products around the house as they can be overpowering for cats.
Even though we know keeping the cat confined initially is in their best interest, it can be mentally challenging for us. By interacting with them in their sanctuary space regularly we make sure we are meeting both their needs and ours. Keeping it on a predictable schedule and on their terms, as described in Pillar 4 above, will help ease the cat’s transition and build your bond with them. If your cat is particularly shy or slow to adjust, simply spending quiet time sitting and reading, or talking softly, in the room can be a low-stress way to get them comfortable with your presence.
During your daily interaction and play sessions make sure to try out a variety of treats and toys to see which ones they like best. You can then use their favorites to help them get comfortable in the rest of the home. A very high-value treat can be used to reward exploration and playing with a favorite toy will help boost confidence.
When your cat is comfortable and confident in their new space and not showing signs of fear or anxiety, you can let them explore the rest of the home. Always let them choose when and where they want to go and don’t force them to leave the sanctuary space. You can encourage this by rewarding exploration around the room and home with tasty treats! Some cats require less than a week to be comfortable in their sanctuary space and some cats require much longer. Either way is completely normal.
Still having trouble helping your cat adjust?
Ellis, S. L. H., Rodan, I., Carney, H. C., Heath, S., Rochlitz, I., Shearburn, L. D., Sundahl, E., & Westropp, J. L. (2013). AAFP and ISFM Feline Environmental Needs Guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 15(3), 219–230. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098612x13477537
Rodan, I., & Heath, S. (2015). Feline Behavioral Health and Welfare. Elsevier.