Easy Does It: Bringing Home a New Family Member

The first weeks are a stressful time when you’re bringing home a new pet.  Here are tips to give your new and established pets the space, time, and tools to adjust to the new arrangement.

As Behavior Program Manager at WHS, I often field questions relating to bringing home a new pet. Whether the new family member is a cat or a dog, and whether there are felines or canines at home, a little preparation goes a long way. Sometimes, there is conflict and chaos such that well-meaning adopters quickly find themselves in over their heads and end up returning their new pet. With patience and careful introductions, this drama and trauma for everyone can be avoided.

New Pets Meeting small

The most common mistake adopters make is to bring the new pet home, release him in the presence of the resident pet(s) and hope for the best. No. No. No. Just don’t do this! Take a moment to see this from the animals’ perspective. You’ve got a stressed out animal coming out of a shelter situation. And although our shelter is one of the best ones in the country with tons of enrichment, care and love, it’s still kennels and catteries, filled with scent of stressed animals, extra noise and limited physical space. You meet the pet, fall in love and promise to keep him forever. His routines are disrupted, he’s packed into a car and ferried off to a new life. He may be happy for the trip, but he has no idea what is coming. He enters the home, begins to check it out and *WHAMO* there’s a new social partner to contend with.

From your resident dog or cat’s perspective – WHO IS THIS INTERLOPER?! WHAT ARE HIS INTENTIONS? WHY ARE YOU DIVERTING YOUR GAZE TO HIM, AND GET OUT OF MY FOOD BOWL!  I mean, really. We can do better. At WHS, we require you to bring your resident dog(s) to the shelter to meet a potential new friend so that we can help make the first meet happen well, but even so, your dog may be okay with meeting another dog on neutral ground but IN MY HOUSE has a whole ‘nother angle. The situation is more critical when either of the pets is a cat.

Both canines and felines can be cautious about introductions and slow to warm up to new social partners. Neither your resident pet(s) nor the newcomer is anywhere as enthusiastic as you are about this new arrangement. Have a little empathy and take it one step at a time.

Here are a few tips to set you up for success:

  1. Go Slow. Put the resident pets behind closed bedroom doors before bringing in the new kid. Let the new pet explore the scents, sights and sounds of the new home for an hour or more before you even consider bringing out the resident pets. Let the new dog check out the water bowl, sleeping areas, potty places and common areas of the home with no interruptions. Let him take it all in. Look for signs he is settling, breathing normally and relaxed. Bonus if he lies down for a nap. If the new pet is a cat, limit his access to just one small room for the first few days. It’s enough. As the week progresses, allow more freedom one room at a time, without the other pets. In general, cats need MUCH more time than dogs (weeks as opposed to days) to adjust to new places and partners.
  2. Potty Break. When the new pet has had a chance to relax, he’ll likely need to pee and/or poo. This is a great sign that all systems are “go.” Animals who are in a high state of arousal don’t generally stop to take care of these things. A certain level of relaxation is necessary for elimination. Look for this. In cats, it may take an entire day.
  3. Trading Spaces. The resident pets need a chance to get to know the newcomer without pressure to “get along”. One way to do this is to allow the animals to switch locations so that scent messages can be read. Remember that for cats and dogs, scent is a primary tool for gathering information. By allowing the animals to spend time deeply scenting where the new family member is sleeping, what it is eating and eliminating, much information about species, gender, health and emotional state can be gathered. Let them read the scent mail and then have time to consider the information. Trading spaces can happen for a few days before a meeting takes place.
  4. First Impressions. Don’t underestimate the power of first impressions in the home. Even if the dogs met at WHS for the very first time, how they meet up at home is critical to success. If one or both of the pets are cats, this is especially important. If you are introducing a cat to a dog, leash the dog. If the cat runs, the dog will chase and that’s very hard to recover. Reward the dog for ignoring the cat. “See the cat? Eat this cheese.” “What cat?” your dog will say, “More cheese, please.” Exactly right. Cats can be harnessed and distracted as well. I recommend letting cats “meet” first by having them in opposite sides of the room. Heated cat beds are perfect for those first meetings. Let the cats settle into a nice warm bed and feed some treats for staying there.  No drama is what we are after, “Oh, the interloper is here. Whatever.”  End the session before the animals engage at all. The response we are after is: no big deal.
  5. Building a trust account. By taking it slow, managing interactions and allowing supervised time together, you are essentially making emotional deposits into a trust account. Every interaction should increase the balance of trust and not put either pet into a deficit situation in relationship to the new friend.

Bringing home a new pet does not have to be crazy change and unsettling for everyone. By going slowly, the pets will both relax and realize that you are the pet parent – you’ll lead them through this and you’ve got their back. If you take little steps and put some effort into proactive preparation, you can set your pets up for great relationships and a lifetime of love and affection.

Catherine Comden, CPDT-KA

Behavior Program Manager at Willamette Humane Society
Named “the dog lady” by peers in grammar school, Catherine Comden, CPDT-KA first became a California licensed veterinary technician, then finished a BA in Psychology while doing undergraduate research on the human-canine bond at the University of Montana. After that, she was recruited by the Purdue University Veterinary Teaching Hospital to develop the ABC puppy school, to assist during veterinary behavior consultations and to help create and instruct the Purdue DOGS! behavior modification course for veterinary staff. Catherine is now an adjunct faculty member at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon and instructor for the state’s only community college level professional dog trainer certification preparation program which began in Fall 2014.
Catherine Comden, CPDT-KA