Easy Does It: Bringing Home a New Family Member

When you bring home a new pet, the first few weeks can be both exciting and stressful. 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. Here are tips to give your new and established pets–including dogs and cats–the space, time, and tools to adjust to the new arrangement.

How Do Your New Pets Feel?

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. Don’t do this! 

Take a moment to see this from the animals’ perspective. 

Your new pet has just been through a major transition. You’ve just met one another, and your new pet was 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 suddenly, there’s a new social partner to contend with.

From your resident dog or cat’s perspective, the new pet may seem like an interloper prepared to steal valuable resources, including your time and energy.  

Sometimes, we ask families to bring resident dog(s) to meet potential adopted dogs. But even so, your dog may be okay with meeting another dog on neutral ground but your dog may have very different feelings about sharing intimate space, such as your home.  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.

Five Steps to Success

With patience and careful introductions, drama and trauma can be reduced. Try these tips to set you up for success:

  1. Go slow. Put the resident pets behind closed bedroom doors before bringing in the new pet. 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 could harm their relationship (or worse). 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. Let cats “meet” first by having them on 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 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.

We’re Here to Help 

Do you have questions about your pet’s behavior? Do you need help managing a difficult problem with your dog or cat? Access our free public Behavior Helpline via email at behavior@whs4pets.org

When contacting the Behavior Helpline, please include the following information:

  • Your full name
  • Your email address
  • Your phone number
  • The best time to return your call
  • Type of animal (cat or dog)
  • How long you’ve had the animal
  • A brief summary of the problem or question

We look forward to helping you!