When it comes to roommates, cats are where it’s at. Famously tidy, reasonably quiet, and never late on rent, cats are top-notch companions. (As for the whole “watching you while you sleep” thing, well, no roommate is perfect.) That said, bringing home a new cat can present challenges. Compared to dogs, cats tend to play it cool – some may even say downright frigid – and bonding with your cat can be tough at first.
So what’s a pet parent to do? First, don’t believe the hype: Just like their canine counterparts, cats can form strong, meaningful relationships with their humans. You simply have to learn to understand your pet’s behavior and body language.
Hold Your Cat Early and Often
For many cats, handling and touch can help them feel safe and comfortable in a new home. If your cat exhibits naturally social behaviors, set aside plenty of time for getting-to-know-you pets and lap naps.
“Handling your cat is vital,” says Dr. Michelle Burch, a veterinarian and founder of the tele-health platform MomentMD. “This is especially true for kittens. Provided they are not too shy or scared, snuggling and handling helps provide emotional support for your cat, while getting them used to your touch.”
However, it’s important to consider your cat’s individual personality and body language. If your cat is hesitant, never force the interaction.
“For some cats, handling and snuggling may need to be delayed as they adjust to their new environment,” says Burch. “It may take up to three weeks after a cat has been in a new household before they are comfortable being handled.”
Always pay attention to your cat’s body language. A cat who wants some hands-on attention may rub against your leg, or even jump directly in your lap. Dodging touches, shrinking back, and running away are signs your pet isn’t ready.
Learn When to Let Your Cat Hide
Not every kitty is a social butterfly. In fact, some cats will instinctively hide in new environments – and that’s OK.
“Cats are often nervous of new places and situations – it's how they survived in the wild,” says Dr. Joanna Woodnutt, a veterinarian based in the UK. “As vets, we like to use the adage 'go slow to go fast' with cats. In other words, keep quiet, keep calm, and let your cat come to you.”
If your cat is hiding, don’t take it personal. Stay in the same room and read a book or do another quiet activity to bond with your cat, suggests Woodnutt. When they’re ready, your cat will come say hello.
Make Time for Playtime
Playing is one of the easiest (and most fun!) ways to bond with your cat. Just like dogs, cats enjoy interactive, vigorous play sessions with their humans.
Every cat has different play styles and body language, so be prepared for some trial and error. “I recommend purchasing a variety of toys, such as wands, mice, balls, and puzzle toys,” says Burch. “Each cat will have their toy preference, and it may take some time to discover their favorite.”
One toy that should never be offered? Your hands. While it may be fun for your cat to “catch” and “hunt” your hands, it can lead to bad habits and unwanted swats, warns Burch. Instead, satisfy your cat’s natural prey drive by dangling a wand toy.
In addition to toys, it’s important to enrich your home with feline-friendly entertainment. Make sure to provide a quality scratching post, as well as a cat tree or shelves for exploring vertical space.
Always Keep Your Cat Well Fed
Food is a time-tested way to make people feel welcomed and relaxed in a new environment, and cats are no different. Just as you would serve snacks to guests in your home, offer your new cat a meal soon after arriving.
“Mealtime lets your cat know that you will be providing for them and helping to ensure their safety in the new home,” says Burch.
Place your cat’s food and water bowls in an area of the home that isn’t too busy or noisy (after all, everyone likes the quiet booth in the back). As for the menu, work with your veterinarian to determine the best diet and portion size for your pet.
While too many treats can lead to unwanted weight gain down the line, they can be helpful during the settling in period.
“Treats can be used with timid cats who are nervous about coming out from their safe space,” says Burch. “Place enticing treats in an area that the cat can see, but do not coax them out of their hiding zone. You may not see them come out, but you will see evidence that the treat is gone.”
Create a Routine (and Stick to It!)
Even the most easy-going cat can feel edgy in a new home. They may think: “will there be another meal?” “Are there predators down the hall?” “What’s with the big talking monkey waving feather toys?”
To build trust, create a daily care plan, and then stick to the routine as much as possible. “Being able to predict what comes next will help your cat gain in confidence,” says Woodnutt. “Feed them at the same time each day, and offer them play each day.”
Don’t plan a vacation after adopting a new pet, and try to avoid too many late nights as your cat gets used to being with you in your home.
When to See A Vet or Behaviorist
Many pet parents are alarmed by certain new cat behaviors, such as hiding, not wanting to be touched, eating very little, and not using the litter box. These are most often signs of stress in cats, says Burch, and are to be expected.
However, if your cat exhibits the following behaviors, a prompt visit to your veterinarian is in order:
Not eating or drinking after the first three days
If a medical problem is ruled out and your cat still seems stressed after three weeks or so, your veterinarian may recommend working with a cat behaviorist.
Never Forget: This Is Your Cat's Home, Not Just Yours
Despite their reputation for “aloof” cat behavior, cats are ready, willing, and eager to create strong bonds. Like any relationship, bonding with your cat will take work, but it’ll be well worth the effort. Meow, let the bonding begin!