Welcome Home! How to Introduce a New Pet
By Sarah Liu and Steph Selice
Humans who love their pets often want more than one. How can we help our animals make new friends at home so everyone will be happy?
To learn about how to handle pet introductions, we talked with Janet Velenovsky, an animal behavior consultant who lives in Virginia. Janet is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant, and past president and board member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She shared some tips on how to bring new pets home, focusing on dogs and cats.
Janet, as an animal behavior expert, what do you ask about when you first meet humans and their pets?
Before I meet with clients, I ask them to complete a behavior questionnaire. It gives me important details about all members of the household—both humans and animals—and the daily schedule, diet, and activities of each pet. Not only does this give me a chance to plan a strategy for a good first consultation, but I can also give the humans directions to ensure we keep everyone safe for my arrival. The excitement of someone new in the household often puts everyone on high alert and could potentially complicate things.
I also ask questions about any potential problem behaviors—things the humans don’t care for, though these are often “normal” pet behaviors. These often let me know how the humans in a household feel about their pets in general.
What would you recommend a new adopter do about vet services, pet products, and other support for a new pet?
It doesn’t always happen this way, but I recommend planning ahead for a new pet. This includes interviewing a veterinarian ahead of when you’re adopting (if you don’t already have one); buying necessary supplies; and setting aside extra time for doing introductions to other pets, family members, and the environment the new pet will have to get used to.
If you’re adopting from a shelter or a rescue group, get as much information about the pet from them as possible. Take advantage of support services that the organization might offer as well. Some have behavior experts and printed materials to help ease the transition.
What else can we do to prepare for a new pet in our home?
I recommend that you put precious items away for a while when bringing a new pet home. Be reasonable about the pet’s understanding of your things. Puppies don’t know that shoes aren’t chew toys until we help them understand. Kittens don’t understand that a Christmas tree is not for climbing. To a kitten, everything looks like a toy! Work to set everyone up for success—both human and canine, feline, etc. —by taking potential dangers or points of conflict away.
It’s wise to restrict the movement of your new pets when they first arrive home. It’s easier to supervise your new pet, and you can more easily restrict things the dog or cat could get in to. Giving them the opportunity to explore the whole house means they might have inappropriate elimination, chewing, or eating. This might lead to unpleasant interactions with something or someone. We don’t let human babies wander around unsupervised. The same should be true for our new pets.
Each pet deserves his or her own food and water bowls, space, and privacy to establish good eating and bathroom habits to begin with. It can be highly stressful when an animal is moved from one housing situation into a new home. You can help reduce that stress by keeping things calm and quiet, which reduces chances for conflict or anxiety. Be a good “host” for your new pet.
What do you recommend we do—and what should we expect—when we’re introducing a new pet to our established animals?
I like to remind humans that we probably wouldn’t be keen on a new housemate we hadn’t met before—especially if someone just surprised us and then asked us to start sharing space and belongings right away. Add to this that cats and dogs do not have the language skills we have, so we cannot explain or negotiate details that would make things better. Cats especially need a good bit of time to adjust to new situations. I recommend that the humans set up “dates” for the established pet to have short, pleasant periods of time to be exposed to some aspect of the new animal. That might mean allowing the established pet to sniff a towel or bed the new pet has slept on, or maybe just hearing the new pet playing behind a closed door.
The goal is to keep both animals calm and happy during these “dates”. The humans can use crates, baby gates, leashes, or other tools to maintain space between the animals. It’s not necessary—and not even preferable—for the pets to meet face to face on the “first date”. It’s better to build interest and trust by restricting interactions to future “dates”. After these managed interactions, the new pet can be returned to a separate room.
To improve these interactions, offer small bits of something enjoyable to each animal. This might be tiny bites of a special treat, or possibly toys, play, petting, or brushing—whatever the pet likes. The idea is to make the sight or sound of the other animal “predict a good thing”. Perhaps one human has catnip and treats handy when another human brings a new kitten into the room. One human puts the catnip down on a favorite blanket while the other wiggles a wand toy for the kitten. Keeping plenty of distance between the two pets, the new adopters keep each cat busy during the few minutes they are in the same room. One human removes the kitten and puts her into a separate room, and both humans ignore the cats for a while. This may help each cat look forward to the next “date”, because the fun stuff happens when that other cat is present.
Repeat this and after a while gradually allow the cats to be closer to each other as long as the cats remain calm.
If the introductions involve a dog and a cat, remember that allowing the dog to lunge forward will trigger the cat to run. The dog may think this is a fun game, and the cat may learn that dogs are frightening and dangerous. You can ensure a better outcome by putting the dog on leash or behind a barrier. It’s helpful if the dog understands “sit” and “down” and can be encouraged to remain calm during the introductions. Use treats to both reward the position and calm behavior and to make the presence of the cat a good thing.
What might we avoid doing when we’re introducing a new pet?
The biggest mistake I see and hear about is rushing things. Not all dogs and cats can make “friends” instantly with other pets. If they are feeling shy or fearful, those introductions may not go as well as we would like. There’s no hurry! Give each animal time to observe and learn about the other.
For dogs, this should be done over a few days, depending on each dog’s response to the other. For cats, the process often takes much longer. It’s not unusual for cats to need months to warm up and accept another pet as “safe” and worth playing or sleeping near. We must learn from each pet to know how quickly to proceed. Remember: It’s hard to overcome a bad first impression. Helping your pets take time to learn from one another is worth it, for your happiness and theirs.
Janet Velenovsky, CPDT-KA, CDBC, KPA CTP, ACCBC
Animal Behavior Consultant
Montpelier, VA 23192
YouTube has hundreds of videos on how to introduce a new pet into your home. Not all animal behavior experts may agree on how to conduct certain introductions, but many of these videos are still useful and fun to watch. Here are a couple to check out:
Jackson Galaxy: “The Best Way to Introduce Your Two Cats”
Hannah Pet Society: “How to Introduce a New Dog to Your Existing Dog”
Photos: Copyright © Janet Velenovsky. Used with permission.