While adopting a cat can be hugely rewarding, the first 24 hours in a new home can be stressful for your feline. Giving them space, routine and careful introductions can greatly reduce anxiety levels.
The Journey Home
Cats don’t tend to be great travelers. To minimize any stress, make sure they are transported in a snug, well made and well-ventilated carrier. Including a piece of their bedding inside the carrier can provide them with a reassuringly familiar scent. The journey home should be as quiet and smooth as possible, don’t bring along the family dog and, if possible, leave any noisy and excited children at home.
You may also want to spray the bed and carrier with Feliway before you put the cat in it. This is a synthetic version of the naturally occurring “happy” pheromones found on your cats face. These can have a reassuring effect.
Don’t feed them any treats while traveling; if they are stressed this could cause them to vomit.
If your cat is stressed out by the car or carrier, once they are home and settled, you could work on a desensitization program to build up more positive associations.
The First Few Hours - Providing a Safe, Quiet and Secure Space
You should not flood your cat with too many new and stimulating experiences when they first arrive home. For at least the first day, possibly more depending on the cat, it is recommended that they stay in one quiet room to help prevent them from becoming overwhelmed.
Make sure you don't allow any other pets into this space in the beginning and give access to a litter box and fresh water. The room should be peaceful and cozy, and your cat should be able to hide if they wish. If there is no bed or sofa to hide under or behind, then you could create a hiding space with a covered box.
Place the carrier in the room and then leave them to come out when they are ready. Trying to force an interaction with your cat when they are very stressed can hamper successful bonding.
After a Few Hours - Introducing Food
It is better to introduce food after your cat has had at least a few hours in their new home. If they do take the food at the start but are anxious, it could cause them to vomit or increase the chances of an upset stomach.
Your new cat might not eat for the first day or two if they are extremely stressed. Unless they continue to refuse food after this, it is not something you should be overly concerned about.
After Half a Day - Careful Introductions to the Wider Family
Ideally, you should allow your cat a good few hours of quiet time, to adjust to their new surroundings. If, at this point, you want to offer them a little company then do this gradually and calmly.
It is a good idea to start spending time in the room, perhaps just reading a book or watching a quiet TV program. This will allow the cat to get used to your company without it being too stressful or intrusive.
If the cat goes into a hiding place when you enter the room, don’t force them out. Let them come out when they are ready. You may want to reward them with a tasty treat if they approach you, to build up positive interactions.
If you have children, make sure they understand not to chase or annoy the cat, that they are supervised, and that they only interact if the cat approaches them seeking attention.
After 12 Hours - Introducing Toys
If your cat is starting to voluntarily interact with family members you may want to introduce some toys to see if they would like to engage in some play. Of course, if they are still feeling overwhelmed, toys may have to wait a few more days.
What Not to Do in the First 24 Hours
Some things are best left until your cat has had the chance to become settled and relaxed within their immediate surroundings. If they are introduced too quickly, it can cause additional stress, and a poor first experience can make things more difficult going forward.
Introductions With Other Pets
Cats are naturally territorial, and introductions with other cats should not be done immediately. It can sometimes take weeks or months for cats sharing a household to integrate fully. In the initial days, it is best to keep them separated before gradual introductions begin.
Introductions with dogs should also be gradual and initial meetings will be more manageable if your dog is on-leash. Make sure that your cat has an easy escape route if they are uncomfortable. Baby gates can also be a useful management tool.
If you have smaller pets, they must be kept safe and secure, and you may have to consider whether your cat is allowed access to the room they are in. Because birds and rodents are natural prey for your cat, it could cause over-arousal and also be a source of stress for your small pet when the cat is in their presence.
Letting Your Cat Outdoors
If you plan to let your cat outdoors, do not do this in the first 24 hours. The stress and disorientation of a new environment increase the chances of your cat getting lost, injured or fleeing. It is normally recommended that you wait at least two weeks before you start introducing the wider world, and this can be longer, depending on how confident and settled your cat is.
Make sure doors leading outside are not left open when your cat is nearby, to avoid any accidental escapes.