• Dr. Rachel Geller

A Cat Behaviorist's Guide to Acclimating Your Cat to a New Apartment

Moving into a new apartment is a very exciting step for most people, but for cats, the transition to a new environment can be stressful. Too much new territory too soon will be overwhelming, and therefore it is crucial to start your new cat off in their own room. A sanctuary room is an excellent way to help your cat feel safe and make the transition easier. Creating a sanctuary room will let your new cat get her bearings and feel confident with a small amount of manageable space first. The tips below will help you set up a sanctuary room for your cat and make the transition to the new apartment easier.

Choose a Sanctuary Room

Choose a small room in your apartment where your cat can have her own safe, secure space. I like to call it a “sanctuary room.” Make sure there are no hiding places in the sanctuary room. If there is a bed, bureau or other furniture in the room that a cat could hide under, put luggage, boxes or storage containers underneath. You don’t want your cat to spend her days hiding from you! However, it’s helpful to offer some intentional hiding places within the sanctuary room, like a cat tunnel, cat cube or even a box on its side.


Fill the Sanctuary Room

Make sure there is food and water on one side and a scratching post and litter box on the other side. The scratching post should be at least three feet tall and rope or sisal-wrapped. Provide your new cat with activity toys in her room; interactive toys such as puzzle feeders are crucial for solo play when you are not in the room with her. A cat who has opportunities to work to accomplish a task or solve a puzzle is a cat who will not be focusing on her fear and anxiety! Most cats have fear, anxiety and stress when they are moved to a strange place. If you haven’t had a chance to invest in store-bought toys, using a ball or crumpled-up piece of paper in a tissue box is a great DIY toy that will keep a cat interested.


Spray a synthetic pheromone product in the sanctuary room and on the door frames. Cats deposit their pheromones on objects to signal that this is a friendly, feel-good place. Synthetic pheromones will trick the cat into thinking she has already designated her sanctuary room as her territory.


Introducing the Sanctuary Room

When you bring home your cat, go directly to the room set up as the sanctuary room. Close the door gently behind you and place the carrier on the floor. Open the carrier door, but don't force the cat out, and don't reach in and pull her out. Instead, let the cat come out at her own pace. You can take the door off the carrier or tie the door back with a pipe cleaner or baggie tie. This way, your new cat still has the safety and security of her carrier for as long as she needs it.


You can - and should - spend time with your cat in her sanctuary room. Remember that the sanctuary room lets your cat calm down and feel a sense of security in her new home, but you can keep her company. Your presence is an integral part of your new cat's security.


Don’t Rush, Let Your Cat Set the Pace

You want to keep your cat in the sanctuary room until she seems comfortable and unafraid. Depending on your cat, this could be several days to a couple of weeks. Let your cat set the pace. If she is hiding, she is not ready to come out to the rest of the apartment. If she is greeting you at the door when you come in, following you when you leave or even trying to get out of the room, those are signs that she is getting ready to explore the territory on the other side of the door. Let your new cat learn to feel confident in her new territory first, and this will also help her bond with you.

Moving Beyond the Sanctuary Room

When you think your cat is ready to see the rest of your apartment, do it in incremental stages. Don't force your new cat to try to establish her territory in your entire apartment all at once. This will be way too scary and overwhelming for her. Instead, before you open the door to the sanctuary room, close the doors to some of your other rooms.


Calmly open the sanctuary room door. Allow your cat to come out at her own speed. Some cats are brave, while others are shy. Some cats are excited to see and smell everything, while others want to take it one step. Each cat enters into a new situation at her own pace, like people! As the cat comes out into the main part of your apartment, use an enticing fishing pole type of toy to distract her if she becomes nervous. Keep the "out of the sanctuary room" sessions short at the beginning. It is better to do several short sessions a day and let her out gradually to get to know her new environment!


Set up a litter box during these roaming sessions in an area you have chosen as the permanent location. This way, your cat can get to know the other area where the litter box will be located while still having the security of her litter box in the sanctuary room.


I always recommend keeping the sanctuary set up for a while, even after it appears that your cat has settled into her new home. This provides a sense of security, knowing that she has her safe space if she needs it. In addition, by presenting your apartment to your cat gradually, you can decrease her fear, anxiety and stress. Typically it takes a cat three to four weeks to settle in, but each cat moves at her own pace.


We hope your cat will appreciate the sanctuary room, and the transition to the new environment will feel less stressful. Make sure to follow @BarkBuildings on Instagram for more tips! And if you live in a Bark Building, reach out to your pet concierge for helpful tips and pet parenting guidance.