Every so often at the shelter, a cat gets returned to us because her new owner claims the cat is “not adjusting well.” This happened recently at For the Love of Cats- two lovely young cats, Joshua and Ivy, were returned because their new owners were concerned that they weren’t friendly.
The truth of this is that 99.99999% of the time the cat is adjusting fine, it’s the new *owner* that’s not adjusting well.
A cat is a creature of habit if ever there was one. Most cats are deeply happy with their set daily routines of eating, grooming, playing, doing their “rounds”. And they can’t do any part of their routine unless they feel safe and secure in their environment.
Cats hate to travel, so just the journey from rescue environment to new home will be enough to knock them off their game, and they’ll need some time to recover from that alone. Add a whole new home and family… it’s a lot.
A cat’s life is not just about having a friendly face to fill their bowl with food, but a complex system of things humans aren’t even aware of: Smells. Noises beyond the human range of hearing. Vibration from cars, trucks, and footsteps. Shadows and light. Territory and safety.
As you can imagine, every time a cat changes environment, everything that the cat is familiar with is gone. It’s not as simple as adjusting to a new home, it’s literally as though the cat is being taken to a whole new planet. In a new environment, a cat usually has to start from scratch- exploring things, smelling things, figuring out territory, and learning what is “safe”.
More often than not, the experience of “starting over” is more than a little overwhelming, so a cat does something that humans don’t always understand- the cat hides. This isn’t permanent. This isn’t a sign of reticence, or unfriendliness. It’s simply a cat saying “whoa, this is a whole lot for me and I’m not sure how to process it. Let me just find a quiet corner where I can observe and figure out what I need to do next.” The cat isn’t freaking out or shutting down, she’s simply being cautious and thinking things through.
Providing a quiet, dark, secure space away from the noise and traffic of your family is key. Put the cat’s food and water in the space and a litterbox. Spend as much time as possible in the room with the cat as you can, simply letting her know that you are there and not a threat.
As your new cat gets more comfortable, let her meet other members of the family (human and otherwise). Consider opening the door a bit so the new cat can explore her new environment- on her own time. She may come running out or she may decide to just remain hidden for a while longer.
Over the next few days and weeks, most cats will slowly enter and exit “their” room and explore their new homes apprehensively. They’ll likely begin to seek you out as they get more and more comfortable. Some cats are total lap cats and will want to be with you all the time, and others will be more like shadows as they adjust- you’ll catch little glimpses of them as they cautiously check out their new surroundings.
With time, and patience, your new cat will feel so safe that she will begin making the home her own- marking with her nose, rubbing against furniture, venturing into busy areas of the house, and making new friends with family members.
But remember- this whole process takes time.
This is why it’s crucial that when bringing a new cat home, the new owner allows that cat adequate time to adjust to the new environment. It will take time for a cat to feel safe enough to begin their daily rituals. To come out in plain sight of brand new people. To eat and live and groom and sleep in a space that they don’t know is 100% safe.
For some cats, this adjustment period takes a few days- they go through their new homes actively and excitedly, interested in all the new smells and sounds and people and things. Very young kittens are more likely to adjust easily.
For most cats and kittens, this adjustment period takes longer- sometimes weeks, even months. Just because a cat takes longer to adjust and learn about their new environment doesn’t mean that cat is not friendly, trained, or not socialized.
Every cat has a different personality, a different set of variables that is required for her to feel comfortable and safe and happy. Until a cat is sure that those variables are all in place, she feels vulnerable, so she sometimes will hide or shy away from people or other animals. This is not reticence- it’s just adjustment.
So please- on behalf of Josh and Ivy and all the other kitties who get returned to shelters after just a few days because they aren’t being “friendly” enough- be patient. I promise you it will be worth the wait.