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Foster caretaker perfects the art of feline introductions

It would be a challenge to find a more welcoming, even-tempered cat than Clawdia, the sweet calico who lives with Stephanie Serafini.

“Even people who say they aren’t cat people become Clawdia people after they meet her,” said Serafini of her sleek cat with luminous light green eyes, who is comfortable enough after greeting visitors to stretch out on her back on the floor of Serafini’s South Buffalo apartment.

Since Serafini adopted Clawdia as a young adult four years ago, she has taken in an estimated 16 felines, mostly kittens, in her role as a foster cat caretaker for the SPCA Serving Erie County. Between Clawdia’s placid nature and an SPCA-recommended process for introducing new cats into a household that already has a cat, her foster experiences have been successful and rewarding.

The process needed to successfully introduce new cats to a resident cat or even a dog has developed over years of observation and learning, said Krissi Miranda, adoption floor supervisor at the SPCA. The agency not only sends adopters home with instructions on how to make a successful introduction, but follows up with a phone call a few days later to ask how things are going.

Some people are surprised when they are told to gradually introduce a new cat into their home. “They say, ‘Well, when I was growing up, we just threw the cats together,’ ” said Miranda. “Well, when we were growing up, cats didn’t have litter boxes in the house; they went in and out. Now they are confined to a small area, in a house, and it’s definitely different.”

Serafini’s current foster kitten, baby Bartholomew, about 3 weeks old, is the tiniest scrap of cat imaginable, his big, unsteady head wobbling on his thin orange-striped body. Too small to regulate his own body temperature, he wears a jacket Serafini fashioned from a sock and, when she is not holding him, spends his time in a towel-lined plastic laundry basket warmed with a heating pad.

Clawdia came from different, but no less dire, beginnings. She was found stuck in a chimney, her white fur stained black with dirt and soot. She was also pregnant. Serafini fostered her until she had her six kittens, then adopted her.

Clawdia has become used to the routine of a new foster kitten’s arrival, Serafini said. Because some ailments in cats don’t manifest for days or even weeks, when Serafini fosters kittens old enough to feed themselves, she keeps them in a spare room that contains their food, water, litter box and bed.

The keys to successfully introducing cats to each other are time and patience. “Don’t go home expecting this to just work immediately,” Miranda said. “If you plan that this is going to take some time, and it works out more quickly, you are going to be pleasantly surprised. But if you go home thinking that in two days these cats are going to be best friends, and they aren’t, you are disappointed.”

Although Miranda will discuss options with people who say they have no room where the new cat can settle, she strongly recommends that a spare room, office, or even a bathroom be set aside for the new cat’s arrival.

Then, she said, “I tell them to take the new cat home in its carrier and bring it to the room without showing it to your current cat. There’s no need to stick them in each other’s faces. The cats will each know within 15 minutes that another cat is in the house.”

Take the new cat into its room, which should have food, water, a litter box and bed, open the carrier, close the door and leave it alone to emerge and explore.

The next step is to have the new cat examined by a veterinarian within three or four days. Although the SPCA vets do check animals, some ailments take a few days to show up.

“I would never recommend introducing two cats until you have brought the new cat to a veterinarian,” said Miranda.

After the cat is medically cleared, Miranda said the owner should take two towels, rub each cat with one of the towels and then place a towel with the other cat’s scent near each cat’s bed or under its food and water dishes.

“The cat may hiss at the towel,” said Miranda, which is fine. “Hissing is just a warning from the cat that he can defend himself.”

Once the cats accept each other’s scent, Miranda recommends that the owner remove the new cat from its room for a short time and close the resident cat in there, while allowing the new cat to explore the rest of the house. Then return the cats to their previous residences, still without allowing them to meet.

Finally, place the cats’ food dishes next to each other on either side of a closed door. After they have eaten calmly a few times, the owner should securely prop the door open about an inch so the cats can see each other.

After the cats have seen each other through the crack of a door, “then you can actually introduce them, maybe through a baby gate,” she said.

If one of the cats is frightened at any point – “its ears are back, it’s rigid and staring, it’s making funny noises, it’s hiding” – don’t move on to the next step, she said.

“This might all happen in a week, and after seven days the cats are sleeping together, or it might also be a two-month process. It’s better to take too long, because if you push it and they have a negative interaction, it’s going to take a lot longer to reverse their thoughts about each other.”

“This isn’t like getting a pet,” she said, aiming another syringe of liquid food at Bartholomew’s open mouth. “It’s about making a difference, even for one like this little runt.”