Whether you’re a dog person or a cat person, or a fan of lower maintenance pets, welcoming an animal into your home is an exciting experience. Offering fun, companionship and, especially for the kids, a lesson in responsibility, it’s never long before a family pet becomes more like a family member.
Cats and dogs in particular, however, can need a little extra help settling into their new abode. So what can you do to help your four-legged friend adapt to family life?
Do your research
Could you cope with discovering a little accident in your pristine kitchen or bedroom, or finding out that your dining room table has been used as a scratching post? While these things don’t always happen when you bring home a new cat or dog, there is always a risk. If this scenario would be your worst nightmare, then maybe these aren’t the right pets for you. You need to research how to correctly respond to this behaviour (especially during the settling-in stage) to avoid problems further down the line.
Surround them with familiar smells
Dogs and cats need familiarity to feel secure, which is no surprise when you consider that taking one of these animals home can involve separating them from their family. Having the comfort of a smell they know, rather than nothing but smells they don’t, can really help them to relax. Here are some suggestions…
For rescue pets:
- If possible, bring their bed, blanket or toy from the centre – anything that is actually theirs and carries their own scent.
- Leave an item of your clothing at the rescue centre before taking your pet home – a great way to introduce your four-legged friend to your scent.
For pets from breeders:
- A blanket or toy from their birth-home
- Something with their mother’s or siblings’ scent on it
- An item of your own clothing, as mentioned above
Let them hide
If your new pet feels nervous enough in their new environment to hide, then let them. The worst thing you could do is try to reach into their hiding place and pull them out – imagine how scary a huge hand coming towards you would be, on top of everything else! This is likely to teach them to associate hands with fear, which isn’t good news. Instead, leave your pet to venture out at their own leisure, and praise them when they do. You could even put down a little trail of treats to try to coax them out.
Approach at their level
Helping your furry friend settle into their new home is all about being as non-threatening as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to approach them on their level. Rather than stooping (or looming, as they would see it) to stroke your new dog or pick up your new cat, crouch down to their level, or with smaller animals, get down onto the floor.
Maja Dumat / Flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Read their body language
Your pet will tell you when they aren’t happy, so paying attention to their body language and responding accordingly is key. For example, if your new cat doesn’t like the litter you have chosen, it’s more likely to do its business on the floor. Cats are very clean animals, and wouldn’t normally do this, so little accidents are usually a good indication that something isn’t right. Then there is rapid tail swishing to indicate irritation, and ears set back against the head to indicate fear, among many other signals.
Dogs, too, offer tell-tale clues about their mood, with facial expressions in particular saying a lot about how they are feeling. You should also pay attention to them dancing restlessly and trying to get your attention – usually a sign they want to use the doggy bathroom.
Don’t force anything
At the end of the day, the most effective way to settle a new pet is to give them time and space. Don’t force anything, even something that seems as small as a stroke on the head. Wait for your dog or cat to approach you and present their head or body, a definite sign that they’d like a fuss. Rather than chasing them around the room for a cuddle, let things like this be on your pet’s terms.
While these tips are universal, it’s also a good idea to bear in mind some cat/dog specific techniques.
- Introduce them to your home gradually. Try putting all of their things into one room that is spacious enough, and which can act as their base for exploration. Once they become more accustomed and venture further out, you can gradually move their things to their proper places.
- Keep them indoors for about two weeks so they get used to their new home. Then, let them explore outdoors for short periods of time (moving gradually up from ten minutes). Starting in the garden is a good idea.
- Make sure there are high places around the house where they can sit. Heights are where cats feel safest, and offer an escape if things on the ground get too much.
- Set clear boundaries. If they’re to sleep peacefully downstairs, or on the floor of your bedroom, you need to work for it. Take them back down when they trot upstairs, put them back onto the floor when they jump onto the bed, and if they whimper, do your best to ignore it. Responding with cuddles will inadvertently reward their noise-making, while talking softly from your bed provides reassurance.
- Reward good behaviour with treats and affection rather than negative reinforcement. This helps dogs to associate good behaviour with good things, and feel much more secure with their family.
- Be patient with toilet training. As much as you love your bedroom carpet, it won’t happen overnight, so don’t get angry, scold your pup or ‘rub their nose in it’ if an accident happens. Positive reinforcement and teaching good habits is gold, while this form of punishment could make the situation even worse.
We won’t lie, settling a new pet into your home takes a lot of dedication, but you’ll receive the very best reward in return: a four-legged friend that is secure, loving and the missing piece of your family puzzle.
Do you have any tips for settling a new pet that you’ve found effective? Perhaps you took a few days off work to really commit to the process, or use certain training techniques? Let us know!
Main image: Brandon Shea / Flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0