Imagine being abducted by aliens. You’re minding your own business, just cooking dinner or going to work, or lying on the couch watching Stranger Things when all of a sudden, some gigantic creature scoops you up and puts you in a little box.
A little bit later, they take you out. They hold you down by your limbs, draw blood, and poke you with needles. They pull your eyes and lips open and make noises to each other and to you, but you don’t understand their language. As they’re poking and examining you, they periodically stroke your head with their long pink tentacles.
They put you in a room. It’s comfortable enough- the bathroom is clean, the bed is soft, there are a few little entertaining trinkets, and they deliver decent fresh food and water every day and even the occasional bowl of ice cream. When they come in to clean and deliver food, they once again stroke you with their tentacles. Most days, one comes in and just sits in your room talking to you in their alien language. Sometimes, they’ll handle you in ways you don’t really like- picking you up, giving you more injections or medications, sedating you and performing surgery to remove your reproductive organs, or simply getting in your space, but they never actually hurt or harm you.
The question is, how long would it be before you stopped being afraid of these creatures? How long until you fully trusted them? And how long would it take for you to really feel at home on your new planet?
It wouldn’t be immediate, right? So why should we expect that it would be that way for a pet?
Right from the moment you meet your new pet, you know you’ll never harm them. You know you’re going to give them a life that’s better than anything they’ve ever known before. You know one day, they will fit into your family like a puzzle piece. So it can be a little disheartening and disappointing when they don’t take to it- or to you- right away.
Sometimes, you get lucky, and from the second they hit your doorstep, it seems like they’ve always been there. But most of the time, it takes some time.
A good, and easy-to-remember, rule of thumb is the “3-3-3 rule.” It takes about three days for a pet to decompress, three weeks for them to start to learn your routine, and three months for them to really feel at home.
For the first few days, just give your pet some space. Let them hide under the bed if they choose, don’t force attention or affection, and limit activity. It takes a lot of self-control not to pass them around and force-snuggle with them and it’s tempting (especially for kids) to invite friends and family over right away to meet the new family member. But what your new pet needs is for their first few days to be as quiet and mundane as possible. Focus on keeping them safe and meeting their basic needs. Pets in a new and unfamiliar environment may be more likely to escape and, once they’re out, don’t yet know how to get back to their home or where “home” is. Keep a close eye on them as they begin to explore the house and the yard because no matter how well you think you’ve pet-proofed, they will find the one thing you missed. Offer food and water, but don’t panic if they’re not interested for the first couple of days. Follow their lead, have some faith in them, and don’t take it personally if they don’t seem to take much comfort in your touch at first.
Eventually, they will come to understand that this is a safe place to be and that they’re around people they like. But it takes some time for a pet to adapt to the routines of the home and learn what’s expected of them. What time do they get fed… and will they always be able to count on having enough food? What are the rules? Where do they sleep? What will the other pets in the home tolerate? Will the cat smack them if they get too close? Are they allowed on the furniture? When mom or dad leave, will they come back? Always? The first few weeks are when the new pet begins to let their guard down and trust that this is home. Be consistent with expectations and, as much as possible, lay down the routine you intend to keep. This is the time to lay down basic expectations, such as housebreaking and teaching manners. It may seem like a great idea to get a new pet during “vacation” time so that you can spend time with it, but make sure you allow your pet to get used to the idea of being left at home alone. Shelters see a lot of returns or surrenders during times of transition, such as going back to the office after working from home or going back to school after the summer. Establish a routine that will still work when your schedule becomes less flexible or allows for less time at home. You and your pet will both be glad you did when you’re exhausted from a day in the office and know you can count on them to be okay at home!
After a few weeks, you and your pet will start to feel like family, but it takes several months for them to really let down their guard and know they’re home. During this time, help your pet build a sense of security by staying consistent regarding training and expectations. Continue to give them some grace. Some pets will begin to exhibit some challenging behaviors in this time frame, such as resource guarding or acting out just to see what will be tolerated. They’ve begun to think of the home and family as “theirs,” but have not yet reached the point where they can be sure it won’t all be taken away from them. Be firm in your training and do not tolerate misbehavior, but understand that it’s still a tough time for your new pet and they need you not to give up on them. You can read a little more in this article.
The timeline can be rough and does not apply to all pets. Sometimes, they’ll keep surprising you for many months! For shy pets, abused or traumatized pets, or pets who have been shuffled from home to home multiple times, the process may take longer. I’ve had my semiferal cats for three years now and still see signs of progress all the time!
However long your pet takes to feel at home, the most important thing is to meet them where they are every step of the way. Don’t wait to love them until they fit the mold you had in mind. Love the cat under the bed and know with all your heart that, even if he lives under that bed for the rest of his life (which he won’t), you’ll still love him. When the dog who spent her first night panting in her crate comes and sleeps next to your bed, celebrate her progress instead of getting angry that she’s not IN the bed yet. Help your pet understand that they can rely on you to love them and have their backs no matter what. They would do the same for you.
Whether you’ve had your pet for three days or thirteen years, we’re happy to be part of their routine! Did you know our dog walkers and pet sitters can send you dazzling photos of your beloved babies while you’re away? We understand that separation anxiety goes both ways! Check out OUR SERVICES.
Janie founded 4-Legged Kids, Inc in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1997 and provides education through her PetBizHIVE podcast and her PetBizMBA membership and courses. She is a Certified Professional Animal Care Operator, Fear Free certified and a Certified Professional Pet Sitter. Learn more about the Founder, Janie Budnick.