The right preparation can make cat playdates not only safe, but cat-tastic too. "Cats are social animals and can have one or more select friends," says Dr. Jane Brunt, a Maryland-based, cat-exclusive veterinarian. "Cats that are properly socialized tend to be happier and enjoy their environment more." Brunt offers her top five tips for helping your furry friend make friends of its own.
Tip No. 1: Start Young
"Kittens aged 7 to 12 weeks are the most suitable since this is the critical time to shape positive behavior," says Brunt. "Many veterinarians recommend kitten socialization classes, like Kitten Kindergarten, where kittens are allowed to interact with each other." During these classes, kittens are also introduced to handling, grooming and transport. Food rewards are given to reinforce positive actions and reactions.
Adult cats can also be socialized – they simply must be introduced to their new cat friends more slowly (see below).
Tip No. 2: Identify Your Cat’s Personality Type
According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners, cats may be loosely classified into four categories: bold and active, easy and affable, withdrawn and timid, and assertive. Your cat may be easier or harder to socialize depending on its personality.
"Cats that are fearful and easily aroused will require more patience and time using positive rewards for tiny improvements in calm behavior," says Brunt. The other three types will have an easier time in general. If possible, try to bring at least one easy and affable cat into each playdate pair. Avoid introducing a timid cat to a bold or assertive one.
Tip No. 3: Find a Neutral Territory
"A neutral territory is a place neither cat has been," explains Brunt. When neither cat has claimed a place as its own, you can expect less territorial and adversarial behaviors.
If a neutral territory is not a possibility, Brunt suggests choosing one room in your home. "Any room can serve as a playground, as long as you’re there."
Tip No. 4: Make Slow Introductions
"Always go slow!" emphasizes Brunt. Relaxed owners should introduce cats gradually – over a period of days or weeks. Begin with complete separation, which means the cats are occupying different rooms in the same house. Then allow the cats to make visual contact.
From there you can move to free exploration of the same room, but only when the cats are supervised. "All cats should be ‘chaperoned,’ preferably by at least two different people," says Brunt.
Tip No. 5: Know Your Cat’s Signals
Your cat’s body language speaks loudly. "A ‘Halloween cat,’ standing with its back arched and tail up, is exhibiting an aggressive stance and should not be further aroused, as it may exhibit extreme aggression," says Brunt.
Owners who are familiar with their cat’s communication can watch for signs that the animal is uncomfortable or unhappy, and can extricate the pet from the situation. Recognizing signs of contentment and positive energy is important as well. Brunt encourages rewarding an animal with treats for "speaking" appropriate body language.