How to Socialize an Adult Cat

Even grumpy old cats can learn to be (somewhat) friendly

Ginger domestic cat in sunshine
Image by Chris Winsor / Getty Images

It can be tricky to invite a new adult cat into your home. If you're adopting an older cat, you may not know exactly what kind of treatment that cat has experienced at the hands of its former owners.

If you're blending cat-loving households, multiple cats will have to figure out a "pecking order" and decide whether their new housemates are friends or competitors. Fortunately, most adult cats can figure out how to live together—and many, over time, become fast friends.

What to Expect When Socializing Cats

It is a normal cat behavior to be cautious of anything new. In fact, a cat will automatically stay a healthy distance away from anyone with whom it has not had a positive experience. Kittens, up to about seven weeks, are usually fairly open to new people and experiences, but after that, it takes time and patience for a cat to learn to accept change.

Have Patience

Some cats (just like humans) are simply born less social than others. Some kitties are perfectly satisfied being near to people but prefer not to be touched, picked up, or handled. That means that, no matter what you do, you may wind up with a cat that will never sit on your lap.

There are, however, some steps you can take to invite your cat to spend time near or even next to you.

  • If your cat is new to your household, start interacting slowly. If there are other cats in the house, introduce them gradually, providing both new and older pets with options for coming closer or getting away easily.
  • If your cat runs when you move (usually a sign of anxiety), find a place to be stationary and invite it to come to you.
  • Use the treats/foods that it likes and make it worth its while to be near. Start by tossing tidbits some distance away so it knows they come from you but it doesn't have to come too close. Over time, something this simple can entice it to come closer and be more willing to interact.

Problems and Proofing

Cats' fear and antisocial behavior can be caused by many different factors.

Even healthy cats can be shy when they're in a new environment or confronted with new animals who will be sharing their space. When cats are not feeling well, their instinct is to find a quiet, hidden corner and stay away from humans and other animals.

An established cat may urinate outside the litter box to "mark" its territory when a newcomer arrives. If that's the case, you may want to provide separate litter boxes for each cat. It may seem like a bit of overkill, but if it keeps the cats happy, it will be worth it.

If your pet has not been to the vet lately or is displaying unusually antisocial behavior it's a good idea to be sure there isn't an underlying health issue to address.

You'll know your socialization efforts have been successful if your cats encounter each other without hissing and growling. Some cats may settle in and groom each other like old friends, but be realistic with your expectations. As long as the fur isn't flying, consider it a win.

Cats and Stress

It's stressful to be placed in a new situation with new people and new relationships. In some cases, a new cat may be the target of aggression on the part of resident cats, making it tough for the newbie to show affection to its human owners. Stress can also affect your cat's appetite, mood, and sleep patterns.

If you can identify and remove the stressor, or modify the behavior of the other, more aggressive cat, you may be able to persuade the newcomer to relax and feel more at home.

Common Mistakes

When trying to socialize a new cat to an existing environment, some well-meaning owners go too far in one direction; either over-praising and coddling the new arrival, or treating the established cat with kid gloves, fretting about how they'll get along with the new cat.

It's not easy to find the balance, but if you have one cat acting jealous, chances are, you're neglecting it in favor of the other. While you have to work to help the new cat acclimate, make sure to set aside some one-on-one time with your current feline housemate. Maybe that's offering a special treat, or giving its fur a brushing while offering praise.