When you have cats who aren’t getting along and all your attempts at behavior modification have been unsuccessful, it may be time to do a reintroduction. If the aggression between your cats is severe or if they can’t even be within sight of each other without an immediate brawl taking place, then a reintroduction is your best bet.
What is a Cat Reintroduction?
With a reintroduction you’re separate the cats and introduce them in the same way you would if they had never met. The reintroduction gives each cat time to get back to normal and not be so stressed so you can help them gradually get comfortable with each other again.
Attempting to keep a lid on serious intercat aggression when the cats are constantly in each other’s sight can be very counterproductive because both cats remain at such a high level of reactivity. There’s also a good chance that one or both of the cats could get injured (perhaps severely). The reintroduction method gives you more control to avoid potential injury. It also allows you to keep the interaction between the cats at a level that doesn’t spark extreme reactions.
How Long Does a Cat Reintroduction Take?
This will be determined by how serious the aggression has been, how much time you can dedicate to doing the behavior modification, and how receptive the cats are. In other words, I wish I could give you a set timeline but you have to go at the cats’ pace. Every situation is unique.
The Cat Reintroduction Method
Separate the cats by creating a sanctuary room for one of them. If your house is set up in such a way that you can divide it up so each cat has her own territory, then that will do as well. If you’re setting up a sanctuary room, you just need a separate room that can be closed off. The room needs to be equipped with a food bowl, water, litter box, scratching post, toys and some cozy napping places.
If you’re wondering which cat to put in the sanctuary room and which cat to let have the run of the rest of the house, here’s how I typically make the decision. If one cat is clearly displaying ongoing offensive aggression then that’s the cat I usually put in the sanctuary room. That way, the cat who is being so overt in her aggressive display isn’t able to think that she ran the other cat off and is the mighty victor. However, if the cat who is the “victim” is too stressed or nervous about having the run the house then putting him in the sanctuary room may give him more security. You have to make the decision based on the dynamics between the cats and also the individual personalities. The most important aspect of this is that the cats get separated.
During the Time the Cats are Separated
The separation is mainly to allow the cats to relax again and also to prevent further injury or aggressive displays. It’s important though that this time of separation not be viewed as a prison sentence. Play with each cat, spend time with the cat in the sanctuary room and make this experience as enjoyable as possible.
Feline Behavior Modification Through Mealtime
Just as with a new cat introduction, the main purpose of the reintroduction is to give the cats a reason to like each other. That means it’s the behavior modification you do when the cats are once again exposed to each other that makes the difference. You can’t just separate the cats for an extended period of time and then open the door expecting them to have forgotten that they have been arch enemies for the last four years. They’ll need to see that good things happen when they’re in the presence of each other, and later, within sight of each other. If you do this gradually enough and allow each cat to stay within their comfort zones, your chances of keeping their aggression from boiling over again will be greatly increased. During the exposure time you’ll use a very valuable behavior modification tool: food. Remember the old adage that said the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach? Well, that really applies when you’re talking about cats! Food can help accelerate the acceptance process.
Feed the cats by placing food bowls on either side of the closed sanctuary door. How far from the door itself will be determined based on how reactive the cats appear. In subsequent sessions you’ll gradually move the bowls closer.
If one cat eats faster than the other use a dish with some obstacles in it (such as a slow-feeder bowl used for dogs who eat too quickly). If you’re feeding wet food you can also push the food against the bottom and sides of the bowl so the cat has to work a bit harder to get it.
Cat Scent Swapping
Scent is a very important communication tool between cats. With your cats separated, it’ll be important to make sure their scents stay distributed around the house. You want the scents to stay fresh so doing a room swap will help there. The cat who had the run of the house has been freely distributing her scent around but we have to make sure the cat who is in the sanctuary can have that opportunity as well. Periodically do a scent swap by letting the cat in the sanctuary room out into the house to distribute his scent. Before doing this, place the other cat in a separate room temporarily.
During the scent swap, keep a casual eye on each cat (don’t hover or else you risk making them nervous) so you can distract a cat with an interactive toy should tension start to rise. You don’t want the scent swap experience to create anxiety; the point of the exercise is to remind each cat that the other kitty is still around. Facial pheromones are considered the friendly ones because cats typically cheek-rub on objects in an environment where they feel comfortable or familiar.