Photo Credit: Gen Nishino/Taxi/Getty Images
When you’re about to provide a forever home for a cat or dog, opening your heart is only the first step. “You must have realistic expectations for your pet, says Dr. Katherine Miller of the ASPCA. “No pet is perfect -- it’s not like Lassie on TV. It won’t be easy at first, but it will all pay off.”
To be sure the transition is happy and safe for everyone, follow Dr. Miller’s smart tips.
Get Your Home Up to Snuff
Your first step is to pet-proof: Make sure pesticides, ant traps, cleaning products and anything your pet could ingest is locked away or on a high shelf; block off access to tight (and potentially dangerous) hiding spots like behind the stove; and remove items you don’t want pet-handled. “You want to set up the pet for success and make it as easy for him to do the right thing,” says Miller. That means putting away or covering up anything that’s valuable or you don’t want chewed or scratched. A good rule of thumb: “Look around your house and think, ‘probably three things in here will be ruined,’” says Miller.
Make a Not-So-Grand Entrance
Everything is going to be new to your pet, including you and your home. To make it less overwhelming, prepare a small area in which to confine your cat or dog when he first arrives, a home base where he can get comfortable in the new environment. Good spaces might be a bedroom, bathroom, or the kitchen -- basically, anywhere that has a door you can shut and ideally a floor surface that you can easily clean, in the event of accidents. In that room, set up food and water, a pet bed, the litter box or wee-wee pad, and a few toys.
Start a Routine Right Away
Once home, let the pet loose in the “safe” room. Spend some time with him (but don’t crowd him) and show him where food and water is. Don’t shower him with hours of affection, though, especially if he’ll inevitably be left alone for stretches when you’re at work. He’ll get used to that attention and you’re setting him up for separation anxiety. Even if you adopt on a weekend, spend stretches of time away, letting him get to know his surroundings and also learn to entertain himself. Begin the typical daily routine right away -- feeding time, walking time, playtime, and time alone -- so the pet becomes familiar with the structure of his new life.
Let Your Pet Be Himself
It’s important to understand basic dog and cat behavior as your pet settles in. A cat is likely to be nervous and want to hide for a few hours or even a day or two after arrival. Make sure your designated room has a safe spot for her to retreat, whether by leaving the room’s closet door ajar, or providing her with a simple cardboard box. Spend some quiet time in the room just sitting and waiting for her to come around -- and, yes, she will eventually do so.
A dog, on the other hand, will be interested in smelling everything and he may be very excited to be finally “home.” Before you even enter the house, take him for a walk and play outside so he can go to the bathroom and burn off some of that doggie energy, to stem off the potential for accidents and his ability to mark his new territory. Give him something he’s allowed to chew on, such as a rawhide bone -- chewing and licking are calming mechanisms for dogs, says Dr. Miller.
If you’re bringing a new cat or dog into your family that already has a four-legged member, you want to create a positive first impression for both pets. To put their best paws forward, follow these guidelines:
Cat to cat: As you undoubtedly know, kitties don’t like change, so keep them separated at first in their own rooms with doors closed, so they can smell and hear each other but can’t touch or see each other. During the first two to three days, gradually introduce them via scent by rubbing a piece of fabric on one cat then the other. After a few days, you can now switch the cats’ rooms for more smell immersion and to let the new cat learn other sections of the home.
Your next step is to let them out together at feeding time or playtime, so they’ll be distracted by food or other stimulation, and to make a positive association that good things happen when the other cat is around. Put the food at opposite ends of the room and have a squirt bottle ready to break up fights. Continue to keep them in the separate rooms when you’re not supervising, but gradually increase the amount of time together if things are going well -- i.e., no one is aggressive or cowering. “It’s a slow, gradual process -- two weeks at least,” says Dr. Miller. “But it’s so much easier to do this early on than to have to mediate later.”
Cat to dog: Similarly, you want to isolate the cat in his own room to get used to the situation. You’ll want to give the dog something that smells like the cat and vice versa so the dog will be less excited when they finally meet, and the cat will get used to his scent (the cloth transfer technique works well here).
A couple days in, let them catch a first sight of each other during a feeding time: Keep your dog on the leash and let him see the cat but not get too close. If your dog is excitable, Dr. Miller recommends putting the dog in a head halter, which gently closes his mouth with a tug, so he can sniff but not make a grab for the cat. Again, a gradual introduction is key here.
Dog to dog: It’s best to introduce the two pooches outside of the home first, so the resident dog is less likely to consider the new dog an intruder. Take them for a walk together and let them meet nose to nose. If things go well, when you arrive home, bring them both in calmly, and let them interact for a bit. If either dog becomes tense or aggressive, separate them in different rooms and try again with another walk. The goal is to create controlled happy experiences for both pups, so neither associates negativity with your home.
Amy Roberts is a New York City-based writer and editor.