Welcome to Pet Detective, a new column where The Globe’s Amberly McAteer will find answers to the health and behaviour problems of our four-legged friends. Send your questions to email@example.com (All questions will be published anonymously.)
The question: Me and my girlfriend have been dating for four months and want to buy a place together. The only thing stopping us from moving in is our cats. Mine is 15 and he’s declawed, very calm. Her cats are five-year-old littermates, with claws, and hate all other living creatures. When she takes them to the vet, she says they want to attack other cats and dogs. They once met a pug who barely escaped alive. I’m afraid of the cats coming together and my old guy getting hurt. Neither one of us wants to talk about getting rid of our fur babies, but my girlfriend is 30 and wants to have kids soon.What do you recommend?
The answer: First, allow me a non-pet-related piece of advice: Take your time. Living together is a huge, relationship-altering step and you’re still in the kitten phase. You don’t want to jump in to something too soon and risk, among other things, a mortgage on a newish relationship.
Buying a house together is a huge commitment (one that at least two ex-couples I know are currently regretting), so, from your friendly pet columnist, take it slow.
Turns out, though, that your girlfriend’s cats might be onto something. According to Mieshelle Nagelschneider, the “Cat Whisperer” (yes, that’s actually a thing), cats need a lot of time to warm up to someone new.
The Portland-based animal behaviourist and author has helped thousands of clients with “cat integration” and blending families together. The trick, she says, is to let the cats do it on their own schedule.
“You can’t just throw cats together and expect them to get along,” Nagelschneider says. “There’s a process to do this successfully, where there are gentle exposures to each other without feeling threatened.”
Once you’ve bought the house (don’t say I didn’t warn you), the first phase of the process is to get all cats smelling similar. “Scent is very important. When cats attack, it’s because they’re reacting to another cat’s unknown scent and think it’s an intruder.
“In a group of feral cats, there’s one cat who’s the social facilitator who grooms and licks everyone, and this keeps them smelling the same.”
Nagelschneider says it’s your job to act as this facilitator: Create a group scent by rotating the opposing camps of kitties through different parts of the house. So keep your cat in one bedroom, your girlfriend’s in another and switch rooms every day for a few weeks.
Grooming the cats with the same brush will also increase this same-scent process, she says.
The next phase is to get the cats together in two adjoining spaces, divided by a see-through baby-gate. You stay with your cat in a hallway, while your girlfriend and her cats are in a bedroom.
“You want them to see each other, be aware there’s another cat presence, but not care,” she says. Start with a few short sessions every day, then gradually increase the duration of each one while ensuring all cats are kept at “subthreshold stress levels,” meaning the cats’ panic buttons aren’t being pushed.
The key, according to Nagelschneider, is to stop a session before things get ugly. “If you remember one thing, remember that. It’s like playing Russian roulette with your cats, but you don’t want to set anyone off.”
So how long until you’re one big, happy family?
“It’s not an Excel spreadsheet. Every cat moves at their own pace, but they’ll let you know if you’re moving too quickly.” Cats tend to get puffed up or hiss when agitated.
Nagelschneider says the usual duration of this phase is three weeks, “then problem cats usually mellow out.”
And the issue of claws or no claws shouldn’t matter. “We don’t ever want to get the cats to a point where whether they have claws or not matters,” says the whisperer, in a whisper. Your old cat isn’t aware he can’t do any damage - and your girlfriend’s little guys should be cool cats by the end of this process.
One bonus trick: Once you move in together (ahem, whenever that is, on your own schedule), buy pheramone-scented collars for all cats – it’ll help everyone adjust to the new surroundings.