Pet care: Clarissa, Leonora & Oleg join the Family. Laurie Conrad is the author of "The Spiritual Life of Animals and Plants", a collection of true stories.
Pet Behavior: Introducing a New Pet into an Existing Pet Household: Clarissa, Leonora & Oleg Join the Family
One day, when I was still living at 113 ½ W. Buffalo Street, the neighbor’s cat Jamie came flying through the kitchen window - which I always kept open for my cats to use as an entrance or egress. His eyes were wild - he looked pushed to the limit, almost psychotic. I shooed him back out the window and thought no more about it.
A few months later my neighbor stopped and said that Jamie had run away. My neighbor had gotten a new long-haired kitten, a little girl - and Jamie just couldn’t handle it.
Of course, I felt terrible that I had shooed Jamie back out the window that day. If only I had known! He could have stayed with us until he adjusted to his new little sibling ....
Jamie never returned home.
Introducing a new animal into an existing pet household - can be tricky, if not upsetting or, in Jamie’s case, even tragic. When there is initial trouble, pet behaviorists might tell you not to get a new animal - but that is no real solution. I have found that each animal has their own very definite personality - and there are no hard and fast rules in the pet kingdom.
Clarissa Joins the Family:
The day the cat Alice died, we were left with two cats, Sergei and Igor, who were brothers and about three years old. Our other cat, Angela, had adopted them and taken care of them in their childhood. Angela was a beautiful, fluffy, long-haired cat many years their senior, and she died about a year before Alice.
Some hours after Alice’s last earthly breath, M. and I went to a shop on the Commons that was an SPCA outreach center, and brought home little Clarissa who was about twelve weeks old. As it turned out Clarissa had pneumonia, and I put her in bed with Sergei and covered her with a blanket. Sergei was a little scared of the blanket, but fine about Clarissa. The one and only hiss on their initial meeting, came from Clarissa.
The boys immediately decided that they should act parentally towards their younger, adopted sister. To appear more grown-up, they rarely slept together in their little cat bed, and tried to act parental and wise. It was a terrible strain on them and mainly a flop. Clarissa, however, was very pleased with the arrangement, and very happy as the only child.
About a year later we brought home Leonora, from the SPCA. Leonora was a beautiful, fluffy, long-haired cat very reminiscent of Angela, and we were told that she had had at least one litter of kittens. The moment she entered our front door the boys gave a huge sigh of relief and gratefully entrusted the future parenting of young Clarissa to her - and Clarissa declared war on Leonora.
Within a day or two, the boys were happily back to sleeping together in their little plaid cat bed in the kitchen. From that vantage point they also were able to watch the dynamics between young Clarissa and the more mature Leonora, whom they already adored. M. and I, of course, tried to shield Leonora from Clarissa’s attacks; we also gave Clarissa much added attention and special treats. This was to be expected, we were the humans. What amazed us was how the boys handled the situation.
When they saw Leonora headed for the cat bowls for a snack, if Clarissa was in the room, the boys left their cat bed and physically placed themselves between Leonora and Clarissa.
At first I didn’t really understand - but as time went on I saw that this was a deliberate action, and that Clarissa then went peacefully to her own bowl.
One afternoon, Clarissa attacked Leonora and then went to another part of the room to rest. When I entered the room, I watched Igor walk very slowly and ponderously towards her - well, he was a big boy - and when he finally stood before her, he then gave her a smack with his huge paw. He then slowly turned and walked away. I had never even heard Igor hiss in all the years I had known him. Clarissa was speechless - and it was a turning point in her relationship with Leonora, at least in terms of her behavior.
Clarissa did not make peace with Leonora until Oleg arrived. Then she immediately declared war on Oleg.
Oleg Alexander Joins our Family:
I speak about little Igor’s brief and fatal illness in A Mystic’s Journal. A week or so after Igor left us, M. went to the SPCA and brought home little Oleg. He was about eleven weeks old, and Sergei immediately made friends with him. Clarissa opened hostilities. After about three days, Leonora adopted him as her own child and raised him. She still takes care of him when needed, and Oleg adores both Sergei and Leonora.
Now that Oleg is larger than Clarissa the tables have turned: he fights back. Because of this Clarissa has made many efforts to call a truce. But I am getting ahead of myself.
When Oleg first joined us, Clarissa suddenly became friends with Leonora; she simultaneously launched an attack on Oleg. Oleg was still very small, and M. and I were both horrified at her behavior. Leonora was physically larger than Clarissa when she first arrived - but Oleg was just a baby. Our punishment for Clarissa, after a skirmish or attack against Oleg, was to send her upstairs with a verbal admonishment.
A few weeks after Oleg came, I started noticing something very interesting: Sergei and Leonora seemed to be taking turns sleeping either at the bottom or at the top of the stairs. This had never happened before, and I mentioned it to M. M. was equally puzzled.
As time went on I began to understand, and I was amazed - for it seemed to be a conscious arrangement made between Sergei and Leonora, to protect young Oleg from Clarissa.
Oleg still adored Clarissa, and wanted to play with her, make friends - and so he often sought her out. He also wandered around the house exploring and looking for M. or me - well, he was a little kitten. When Oleg was downstairs, either Sergei or Leonora would stand guard at the top of the stairs, to prevent Clarissa from coming downstairs - and to prevent Oleg from going upstairs. If Oleg wandered upstairs, they blocked Clarissa from following him. Basically Sergei and Leonora were guarding the stairs, making sure that Clarissa and Oleg stayed on different floors of the house.
How Sergei and Leonora worked this out together is still a bit of a mystery - but one of them was always either at the bottom or the top of the stairs.
Interestingly enough, at the height of the antagonism, one summer night not long after Oleg arrived some squirrels or racoons had a huge battle in our back yard. Their screams were piercing, terrifying. Clarissa came flying down the stairs - searching for Oleg, possibly because he was the most vulnerable member of the household. And she did not stop searching until she found him. Then she looked at me and went back upstairs.
This gave me something to think about - and also gave me some hope. And when I examined Clarissa’s behavior: the problems all seemed to revolve around Oleg invading her physical space.
What the humans learned:
1. Sergei and Igor very deliberately and quietly physically put themselves between young Clarissa and the newcomer Leonora, in order to protect Leonora.
2. When Clarissa refused to change her behavior towards Leonora: directly after an ugly incident - and while it was fresh in everyone’s minds - Igor calmly and deliberately walked over to Clarissa, swatted her with his paw, once only, and then calmly walked away, leaving her to her own thoughts and conclusions.
3. Sergei and Leonora formed the plan to keep Clarissa and young Oleg separated on different floors of the house, except for feeding times.
Basically: the innocent were protected and the warring factions separated. And the aggressor was gently and briefly, but unmistakably disciplined. During this entire time Clarissa was treated lovingly by all - except for the times she attacked either Leonora or young Oleg. When I verbally sent Clarissa upstairs after an incident, sometimes I would put treats out for all the cats a few minutes later - and Clarissa would come down and be treated with acceptance and love, to show that all was forgiven and that we all still loved her. Interestingly enough she seemed to expect that all was forgiven - which helped her and us to heal faster from each incident, and also helped prevent future incidents. A part of Clarissa’s fear was that Oleg would take our love, and we wanted to make sure it was clear that this was not the case. We still give Clarissa extra attention and treats, and help protect her favorite spots from young Oleg.
Now that Oleg is a year and a half old, Clarissa is more used to him, and Oleg a bit wiser about her - and most of their fairly rare skirmishes are more play than attack. But it took the entire family - human and otherwise - to achieve this truce.
Two more suggestions: as a way to help everyone feel more like a family and bond together, M. and I played with them all at the same time - two cats each. And when Oleg was old enough to respect a few physical boundaries, when I gave them special treats - I made sure all four cats were there together. These happy, shared family occasions have helped pave the way for a more lasting peace.