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When an adopted cat has a hard time adjusting

Orange tabby cat

Orange tabby cat Credit: Dreamstime

Q We recently adopted a 2 1/2-year-old orange tabby cat from our local TNR rescue. He was rescued as a feral kitten and neutered at 3 months of age. Since then he has been at the rescue. Before we brought him home, I spent time with him over a three-week period. Although not overly friendly, I could pick him up, pet him and play with him using cat toys. After we brought him home, his disposition changed. He hisses and swats at us if we get too close. We have him set up in the den except for his water and food, which are in the kitchen. He stays in the den all day and only comes out at night. His appetite is fine, and he uses the litter box. He is very curious and is mesmerized by the TV. He has never been in a home before and seems afraid of us and runs into the den when he sees us. During the first week, we could pet him occasionally. Then I accidentally touched his collar and things have gotten worse. Do you have any advice as to how long it will take to get him to trust us? We want to make this work and give him a good home.

— Diane, Green Valley, Arizona

A If he wasn't handled and petted a lot at the rescue, he may be overwhelmed by the attention in his new home. Don't touch him or pick him up right now unless he walks right onto your lap and pushes his body into your hand. It's always best to let a cat like this come to you.

Let's help him relax, though. Buy some feline pheromones plug-ins at your local pet store or online and plug them in the outlets in your den and around your home. Pheromones can have a calming effect on cats. Pheromones are also available in wipes, sprays and collars, but I don't want you to touch him right now.

Next, find a great YouTube video featuring outdoor birds and let it run on the TV to entertain him. To engage him, get a wire dancer toy or some other toy that encourages his hunting behaviors — similar to how you played with him at the rescue. Most animals won't play until they feel comfortable in their surroundings. Playing will help engage him and take his mind off his new surroundings for just long enough to begin to relax. The more you play, the more he relaxes.

It may take some time for this little guy to adjust. I can't say how much time; it could be a few weeks or a few months. But he will eventually adjust to his new home if you are patient. You sound like an amazing pet parent already, so I think he is in good hands.

Q My sister and I started our own cat rescue a little over a year ago and this is our first official "kitten season," and we are struggling with the issue of bonded pairs. My question to you is, at what age do you think it would be unwise to separate a bonded pair? Right now, we have a set of kittens that are about 3 months old, and another set that is about 5 months. Even though the 5-month-old sisters are adorable and playful, we are having a hard time finding them a home together. What guidelines do you use to determine whether it would be safe to separate them?

— Christine, Vice President, SOS Rescue Inc.

A Separating bonded pairs under 12 months old tends to work fine. They are still young and haven't developed solid patterns of behavior and codependency from living together. While kittens will always love their littermates, they can move independently to new homes and adjust quickly.

Older bonded pairs, however, don't fare quite as well. The older the bonded pair, the more difficult it is for them to separate and the more likely they will suffer some sadness at the loss of their companion. If they are in your care, then they have already lost their family and home for some reason, so trying to keep them together is important. Sometimes that's not always possible in rescue work but do the best you can.

Tell potential adopters that animals should always have a "friend" to play with and interact with when they can't be home. It's a little guilt-provoking, but absolutely true. Animals like to be around their own kind.

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