Cats are lovers of routine and the arrival in their new home may feel like a complete revolution: new people, unknown places, strange sounds and aromas... Very often so much change turns out to be stressful for the cat you have just brought into your home. You should therefore resist the urge to shower them with attention and let your cat familiarize with so many new novelties at its own pace. So how can you help?
A safe place
Prepare a quiet room for the cat (ideal would be a little used room, like a guest bedroom) and put all its things there before it arrives: a feeder and a drinker, a sand tray, a scraper, various hideouts, a basket and some toys. Make sure certain objects are kept at distance from each other. The sand tray, for instance, should be as far away as possible from the feeding and resting area (e.g. on either side of the room), while the drinker is best placed at a short distance from the feeder. Although you can buy feeders with integrated drinker, cats will drink more if the drinker is separate.
If possible, some of these objects should be derived from the place where the cat used to dwell before she moved to your house: a familiar smell in a completely new environment can be helpful in this adaptation phase. Keep in mind that detecting their smell marks in the environment has a calming effect on cats, so apart from bringing some old things you rub the cat with a clean cloth, especially its face between the mouth and the base of the ears and on the sides. This cloth you can later use to transfer the cat's smell onto the rooms furniture, especially at a height corresponding to that of the cat's nose. Also useful can be placing a feline pheromone diffuser in the room a day before the cat's arrival. These pheromones also exist in sprays. Spray its basket and the insides of its hideouts.
While you are preparing the room, remember that hideouts are very important in a cat's environment and if well positioned can help in familiarizing sooner with its new surroundings. They can be cardboard boxes, paper bags, cat's houses or even tunnels. In fact, the latter are especially important because they do not only offer shelter but also permit the cat to get around its new home in a safe way. Tunnels are for sale in pet shops or you can make your own by putting cardboard boxes or strategically cut paper bags together. To create a safe track, you can also fall back on the way the furniture is placed. The space between sofa and wall or under a bed offers your cat the possibility to safely move from one side of the room to the other. Tunnels and safe ways should also connect the hideouts with the main resources, the feeder and the disposal tray.
Place some cat hideouts in high places as frightened cats sometimes like to take refuge up there.
There comes the cat!
When you finally cross the doorstep with your cat in its carrier, take it to its room, open the carrier and let the cat decide when it is time to explore. Don't force it out and if you see it is more at ease on its own, let it explore the room in its own time. Some cats immediately leave the carrier and start exploring, others will look for a hideout to relax before they start scouting.
Leave the carrier open in the cat's room: it will be an extra hideout for it to use.
The possibility to hide away helps cats to better manage stress (Carlstead, 1993). If you see it has found a hideout, do not take it out of there.
Upon arriving at their new living space, some cats prefer to hide themselves for the day, refuse food and not use the tray. In many cases it is best to serve its habitual food plus some small quantities of wet food near its hideout and leave it in peace. Check regularly if it has eaten anything and replace the food so that it stays fresh and tasty. Some cats may refuse food for a full day, but if the cat still does not eat on the second day it is better to contact your veterinarian of choice and ask them how to handle the situation.
To know precisely how much your cat eats, it is important to weigh both the fodder and the wet food you give it daily.
The rest of the house
When your cat arrives at its new home, it is best to only give it access to the room you have prepared, at least until it is totally calmed down. This may take between a few hours and even some days. As soon as you see it is calm and moves around with ease in its new environment, let it explore other parts of the house. If your home is very big, let it explore it progressively, room after room and with access to the initial room always available. This way the novelties in its new surroundings will not be quite so overwhelming and there is less risk it decides to hide away in some unexpected place in the house. Should it get to this stage, it may be useful to place pheromone diffusers elsewhere in the house.
Make sure you keep the door to the cat's room closed as long as it is not ready to explore the rest of the house.
Interacting with the cat
Not all cats are prepared to have people stroke and handle them from the first moment. Some even won't have anybody near them. Respecting this need for space will help start the relationship well, but it does not imply you shouldn't try to interact.
You can go into its room, sit down and wait for a reaction or use a toy, something like a rod, to stimulate its interest. You can also offer it food out of your hand. If you see the cat coming closer to check you out, let it sniff you but don't try to touch it if it isn't the first one to start rubbing itself against your hand.
Do not worry if you can't touch it those first days, there will be time for that later on when its behaviour has normalised.
Other members of the family
Even if the other members of your family cannot wait to get to know the newcomer, it is best to do these things gradually. They can come into its room one by one to let the cat familiarize with all of them, but if you see it gets tense, postpone such introductions.
Your cat's adaptation to its new home may be somewhat more complex if their are little children or other pet animals around. In that case you can reference our sections on how to perform the introductions to make sure the relationship between your new pet and the rest of the family starts off on a good footing.
And if you have a garden?
As long as it hasn't got used to its new home and family, it is better if the cat does not yet explore the outdoors. Therefore ensure that all doors and windows to the garden are closed. Once it is adapted, there comes the time to decide whether you want it to have access to the garden or not.
If you decide to do so gradually, you can initially supervise it and let it outside for only a short while. Have some stimuli with you to call its attention, for instance tasty food or a toy it likes. You can use these stimuli to teach it how to react to your call, but remember you should practice this exercise first in the house and only later in the garden.
Before you let it go outside, it is fundamental to be sure it has the latest vaccinations and de-wormings and is equipped with a microchip; this will help you enormously in case the cat gets lost. Also helpful is a collar with a small identification tag with your telephone number on it.
Identify and block the entry and exit points in the garden to avoid your cat from leaving and the neighbours' cats from entering. Even so, it is pretty difficult to completely prevent these agile climbers from moving around.
Literature and webography
Carlstead, K., Brown, J. L., Strawn, W., 1993. Behavioural and physiological correlates of stress in laboratory cats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 38, 143–158. Fatjó, J., 2010. Manejo del estrés agudo. Instituto de Veterinaria Aplicada – www.inveta.org, 1-2. http://icatcare.org/advice/keeping-your-cat-happy/moving-house-your-cat