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The First 48 Hours with a New Cat

June is Adopt a Cat Month. Here’s how to help your rescue kitty feel at home.

by Lindsay Hamrick, CPDT-KA
June 4, 2021
Woman using a laptop in bed, looking at her cat
Nabi Tang / Stocksy

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You’ve made the exciting decision to adopt a cat — congrats! With the perfect name picked out and your home cat-proofed for their arrival, the last thing you want to hear is that you should curb your enthusiasm. Being a new cat mom or dad is an exciting time — we’ve been there! Which is why we think it’s a good idea to manage your expectations for those first few days (okay, possibly weeks). Just keep in mind where your cat came from and know that even a loving home can be a bit overwhelming. So when you walk over the threshold, carrier in hand, be patient and openminded while your cat adjusts. Whether they tear the place up or hide under the bed on day one, it’s not a reflection of the pet they will be once they’ve settled in. Trust us…

Give your cat some personal space

While some cats are innately more confident than others, all cats benefit from initially having their own, personal space they can retreat to as they slowly acclimate to the smells, sights, and sounds of their new environment. A spare bedroom, bathroom, or quiet corner of your apartment — basically anywhere they can have privacy from other pets, roommates, children, or high-traffic areas in general — can serve as the safe room for the first few days or weeks.

Think about where you’d like the litter box long term, then build out their safe space from there. Some cats are sensitive to a shifting toilet so, ideally, the litter box should stay in the same place throughout the transition. And everything they need should be easily accessible: litter box, food, water, scratching post, toys, and — crucially — a hideout. It may sound counterintuitive, but cats come out of their shells more quickly when they have places to hide in. So don’t be discouraged if your new kitty hides under the bed for a few days, coming out only to eat and drink at night when the world is quiet. It’s all part of the process.

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Be patient while your cat acclimates

If your cat is outgoing, seeking attention and playtime throughout the day, you may find they only need this space for the first 48 hours, soon venturing out to explore the rest of your home while you play fetch with a mouse toy. But if they spend most of their time hiding, untempted by a riveting game of chase the cat wand, don’t stress. It’s not uncommon for some cats to need a week or more before checking out their new environment — even more if you have other pets at home. You can show them it’s safe to wander around by sitting nearby and doing your own thing — quietly — such as reading a book or listening to a podcast about cats who are taking over the world. (We’re not sure that exists, but feel free to start one.) Finally, feline calming diffusers can chill out an anxious cat and ease the transition.

After a few days or weeks, if your cat’s game, you can move playtime to the living room or set up a cozy cat bed on the couch where you can watch movies together — and reward your cat’s curiosity when they leave their safe space. Start by feeding them a few feet from where they are used to eating meals, gradually increasing the distance. But if they don’t come out of hiding for food, you may be moving too fast.

Remember, all cats are different

The most important thing is to remember that every cat is different, and their ability to acclimate to the vibe of your home is a complex combination of their genetic confidence (or lack thereof), early socialization experiences, previous home environment, and any recent stressful events like time spent at an animal shelter. If your new cat was raised with rambunctious dogs or kids, they’ll likely find a busy family lots of fun, but if you opened your heart and home to a fearful, older, or unsocialized cat, maybe one whose only person recently passed away, expect them to take a little longer to feel at home again.

The foundation you build in the first few days and weeks after bringing home your new cat will set the stage for your relationship. If you moved slowly, set up a safe room, broke out the treats and toys…but your new cat is still struggling, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your local shelter or a certified cat behaviorist will have some pro tips. And let’s face it: Some of the best relationships begin with a little hiding under the bed.

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Lindsay Hamrick, CPDT-KA

Lindsay Hamrick lives in New Hampshire with her three dogs, chickens, and an assortment of rotating foster animals. She forces her elderly chihuahua, Grandma Baguette, on overnight backpacking trips, can diaper a lamb with one hand, and while she’s a long-time Certified Professional Dog Trainer, 66.7% of her dogs still won’t lay down when asked.