Today’s the day.  You’re ready to add a cat to your household.

You’re at the shelter, excited but nervous because you’re not just choosing for yourself. There’s someone else at home: someone who will soon have to share living space, litter boxes and your attention.

Staring at an array of cages containing felines of all ages and personalities, you ask yourself, “Who would my cat choose?”

Unfortunately for you and your cat, there’s no simple answer.

Spectrum showing different temperaments of house cats, ranging from being affectionate to most other cats to be a loner.
Illustration by Paul Roberts

Feline sociability exists on a spectrum, says Mikel Delgado, co-founder of Feline Minds Cat Behavior Consulting. At one end, you have cats who are loath to share space with another of their kind; at the opposite end are the gregarious souls who delight in mutual grooming sessions.

Most cats fall somewhere in the middle, Delgado says, which means that most can cohabit peaceably with a compatible cat. But there’s no magic formula for predicting compatibility and no evidence to support the commonly held assumptions that male-female or adult-kitten pairings will be more successful, she adds.

Still, you can increase the likelihood of a good match by choosing wisely. Look for a cat with a similar energy level as your resident cat, Delgado says. Consider your cat’s personality, preferences and history with other cats, and learn as much about the potential adoptee as possible, says Mara Keller, lead shelter associate with the Cat Adoption Team in Sherwood, Oregon.

For a cat with a dominant personality, Keller recommends a “go-with-the-flow” type who is neither overly dominant nor overly submissive. A cat who demands a lot of your attention may appreciate a shyer friend who doesn’t compete for your lap, adds Danielle Bays, senior analyst for cat protection and policy at the Humane Society of the United States.

All that said, feline matchmaking is more of an educated guessing game than a science, admits Keller, and there’s no guarantee any cat you adopt will become your resident cat’s soulmate. But what you do at home can help pave the path to peaceful coexistence.

Smells like group spirit 

The right environment­—with multiple litter boxes, food and water bowls, scratching posts and other resources sprinkled throughout your home—will  go a long way toward establishing multi-cat harmony, Delgado says. Use cat trees and perches to add vertical space, and place resources in a way that one cat can’t ambush another.

Since most cats dislike change, introductions should be controlled and gradual. Start by keeping the new kitty in a separate room, apart from your resident cat. This allows the newbie to adjust to your home environment while your resident cat becomes accustomed to the stranger’s presence and scent.

“Group scent helps create cohesion among cats who live together,” Delgado says. You can facilitate the process by exchanging the cats’ blankets and toys.

In time, you can crack open the door or use a baby gate, allowing them to see one other, and eventually progress to physical meet-and-greets. At every step, use treats, toys or praise to help the cats form positive associations with each other’s presence, and stick to a predictable routine. Keep in mind that one cat may be ready to socialize before the other is, and any signs of conflict mean you’re moving too fast and need to go back a step.

Be patient, Keller says: “You’re building the foundation of their future relationship.”

Two cats stand at opposite ends of a hallway, looking at each other threateningly
Slowly introducing your resident cat to a newcomer increases the chance they'll get along.
Meredith Lee

Relationship status 

What a successful relationship looks like can vary. Your cats may develop a mutual tolerance policy but avoid each other’s company. This can disappoint people who envisioned their cats playing and snuggling together.

Bays learned this years ago when she adopted a buddy for her single cat. “They had no interest in each other,” she says. “It was my concept that they should be friends, not theirs.”

Today, she shares her home with five cats; they all get along, but only two are close friends. And that’s OK. She now realizes that “having that kind of BFF” isn’t vital to every cat’s happiness.   

A low-stress environment is important to their well-being, however, and there are some cats who can’t reach a truce. Sometimes the relationship can be repaired through training and changes to the home environment, or the conflict can be managed by giving the cats separate living space within the home. But in some cases, Delgado says, it’s in everyone’s best interest for one cat to be rehomed.

Given the unpredictability of feline matchmaking, Delgado recommends trial adoptions or foster-to-adopt arrangements. You need to follow the same guidelines for slow introductions, she says, but “it takes some of the pressure off.”

That’s how Piper Fair and her sister, Toni, who live in Germantown, Maryland, ended up with their third cat.

They hadn’t planned to add a new cat to their lives, and they weren’t sure if their 3-year-old kitties, Quantum Katherine and Schroedie Kepler, would welcome another. Still, they sensed that the mellow tabby they met at their local PetSmart would be a good fit.

“Something about her just stole our hearts,” Fair says. “We really wanted to give it a try.”

In May, they brought the tabby home on a two-week trial, named her Echo Athena and placed her in Toni’s bedroom. During the introduction period, there was some hissing on both sides of the bedroom door, but it was short-lived.

“Things were going so well, we adopted her after a week,” Fair says.

By then, the cats were playing together, and although it took another month before Schroedie accepted Echo into the kitty cuddle pile, the three girls are now fast friends who sound like galloping horses as they race around the townhouse, Fair says.

“We’re really, really glad we took that chance.”

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Cover of All Animals Winter 2024 Issue