Beyond the Gate

Written by Patience Fisher, ACCBC

Have you done cat reintroductions for clients, where everything was going fine until they removed the gate? Perhaps a cat chased the other one once the gate was removed. Or a cat just turned and hid when there was no gate. Or one cat played in a manner that was too rough for the other one. I find that this means that not enough was taught before ceding control over to the cats. Some basic learning was missing.  If cats only eat on either side of the gate before the gate is removed, they have learned very little about each other. The example I discuss here is reintroducing a playful cat to a quiet cat.

In the case of mismatched play styles, or perhaps even a young playful cat and an older cat that no longer finds wrestling enjoyable, I want to accomplish two things before they are unrestrained. I want the more playful cat to be conditioned to leave the other cat alone unless play is solicited. And I want to desensitize the quiet cat to the sight of the bouncing, playful cat. I will train the playful one first. The quiet one has every reason to dislike a disrespectful housemate. So, until some manners are taught, I prefer that the quiet cat does not even see the energetic one.

With at least one set of stacked gates separating the cats, I counter-condition the active cat (let’s call them AC) to seeing the other one without being triggered to rush the gate in a playful manner. I start with a large towel covering the lower gate, like a drape. The quiet cat (we’ll call them QC) is on one side, as far back from the gate as I can position them while still having them visible to AC on the other side, once the towel is pulled aside. I also position QC so that only their rear end will be visible. I may place a bowl of food behind a bed, which blocks QC’s head but not their rear end. Or I may have the owner sitting between QC and the gate, petting them and blocking their view of the gate. If I can position a chair for the owner to sit in, with the quiet cat on their lap, all the better! If the quiet cat is a lap cat, this helps to keep them content and looking away from the gate. And being off the floor also boosts their confidence. They might, after all, hear or glimpse that annoying cat.

Before counter-conditioning the active cat, I will have trained them to turn when their name is called. Or I might have taught them to station—to go to a box or mat on cue. And I might have begun harness training. Once AC’s quite good at turning for their name or stationing, I’m ready to start counter-conditioning. I pull the towel aside and then cue AC to station or turn after they have seen QC’s rear end. If AC does not respond to the cue, I pull the towel. If they still do not respond, then we will need a much shorter exposure to the quiet cat the next time we do this exercise. We may even not pull the towel aside at all. Or we may just pull it a couple inches and then close it. But at any rate, we just gradually show more of QC until we get to the point that AC can turn away when cued with their housemate in full view.

Now we are ready to let the quiet cat see the active one. So, less food is given, or the owner stops petting them. And we wait for QC to notice the other cat. Now we cue the active cat. It’s going to be harder to turn away after making eye contact, so be ready to pull that towel to help out. Once the active cat is good at turning away as soon as they are seen, we let them play while QC watches for a bit. The owner is with the quiet cat, and may say their name and drop a treat, to see if QC is relaxed enough to eat. And to counter-condition them to the sight of AC playing.

Once they are both content for many minutes, I start taking many breaks from playing, so the cat I’m with can see that the other cat is watching. If AC rushes the gate at this point, I block their view with a towel and take a break. Then I get AC to play again, moving away from the gate. If QC is still calm, I slide the towel so that AC can see QC. The playful cat learns that playtime continues as long as they do not rush the gate.

I follow play with a cue to turn or station, all in view of the quiet cat. This teaches self-control.  When AC turns or stations reliably with the other cat in full view, they are about ready for me to remove the gate. If the playful cat quiets down quickly and either stations or stays turned for a couple of  minutes, I’m good to go. If not, I need another tool for when the gate is removed.  So, I will either harness train or carrier train AC.

I want the quiet cat to be desensitized to seeing the active cat move about, approaching and retreating from the gate. QC should be able to remain calm for many minutes, watching AC run and jump at a wand toy. Now, I’m thinking about removing the gate.

When the gate is removed, I always have a towel over my shoulder, to block the cats’ view of each other if need be. Also, a towel can be used to shoo one cat away from the other, or dropped on a pair of fighting cats. If I need to drop a towel on the cats, I have misjudged the cats’ readiness for going without a gate. This has never happened to me, but I want to have a Plan C. My Plan A is to use the wand toy to engage AC, cue them to turn, or block the cats’ view of each other with the towel. My Plan B is to keep AC at bay by either cuing them to their carrier, their box, or their mat. Or Plan B could be the slight tension I keep on the leash, so AC knows it’s there, and any sudden lunge will be impossible. I am sure to keep that slight tension on the leash at all times: “No Surprises” is every cat’s motto!

When you first stop using the gate, keep the session much shorter than it was with the gate. Gradually allow them to look at each other longer each session, before cuing them to turn away. We will be conditioning them to avoid each other, using the same techniques we used with the gate up. That’s right. We will be reinforcing them for staying apart. So many people want to lure cats near to each other with toys or treats. But we only want cats near each other that want to be near each other. Being near someone they do not like is stressful, and cats under stress can be aggressive or frightened. Does training them to stay apart mean that they will not be friends? Hardly! It means it is their choice. And just like “No Surprises” is their motto, “My Choice” is their anthem. Nothing is more appealing to a cat than getting to choose what to do.

If you’d like to learn more about tricky reintroductions, and hear about a case study where two cats that we conditioned to stay apart became friends, then take my self-guided study entitled “Re-introductions of Cats: Using Science to Customize the Plan,” available at the IAABC web page Summer 2020.

Patience Fisher owns Patience for Cats LLC, a cat behavior business based in Pittsburgh, PA. She is an associate-certified cat behavior consultant through the IAABC. She holds a Bachelor’s in Biology, a Diploma of Feline Behavior Science Technology, and is a certified veterinary assistant. Visit her on Facebook at Patience for Cats.