Using a Safe Room Can Help Your Cat Adjust to Big Changes

Change is very stressful for most cats. This often makes transitioning cats to new spaces challenging. And if it’s not done well, it can cause lasting problems.

In this article, you’ll learn why you need a safe room (or “sanctuary room”) for your cat, how to set it up, and how to use it effectively to:

  • acclimate a new cat to your home
  • acclimate a cat when you’ve moved to a new home

Whether you’re getting a new cat, or moving your cat to a new home, this article is for you.

A dedicated safe room for your cat helps by minimizing overwhelm, providing a sense of security, and reducing stress. As you gradually introduce your cat to additional spaces in your home, the safe room will serve as an anchor, safe haven, and home base to retreat to.

And if you’ve just adopted your cat, the safe room will help you bond with each other in those critical first days and weeks together.

Brown tabby cat with green eyes, looking out calmly from inside a dark cardboard box tipped on its side

Why Set Up a Safe Room for Your Cat?

Most cats simply don’t like change, so a transition to any new environment will probably be an inherently stressful experience.

In fact, the sensory overload of being introduced to a new home can leave many cats feeling terrified. The result is often an unhappy cat, behaving very unlike their usual self.

This can be alarming to new cat owners, who naturally hope the cat will be comfortable in their new home right away. It can be confusing and unsettling for experienced cat owners, too.

I’ve moved with my cats several times, and it is always a bit jarring to see them so stressed out each time. They act scared and even hiss at each other as if they’ve only just met. It seems so odd, but it helps me to know that it is natural and what I should expect for the first few days.

If introductions to new spaces are done poorly, you can end up with cat behavior problems and a pet that feels unsafe and nervous in their own home.

Good news is, there are many things you can do to make acclimation less stressful and more successful for your cat.

In short, here’s what you need to do:

  • Expect that your cat will act weird and withdrawn at first
  • Know how to look for signs that your cat is adjusting well, and when to be concerned
  • Set up a dedicated safe room in advance to help ease the transition
  • Follow the steps outlined below for using the safe room

When to prepare the safe room

It’s best to prepare the safe room ahead of time, before you move your cat. But if you’ve already made the move and you’re here because you want to help reduce your cat’s stress, setting up a safe room now may still be helpful to ease the acclimation process.

Select the Right Room:

  • A small room is best, if possible. A small bedroom, bathroom, or even a large closet tend to work well.
  • A room with a door. In order for the safe room to be effective, it needs to have a door that can remain securely closed. The safe room strategy won’t work if your cat can escape.
  • A quiet room, free from frequent disruptions and traffic.

Cat proof the safe room

Make sure the room is safe for your cat. This means providing for some basic needs, and removing hazards.

There should be hiding spots available, but not ones you can’t reach or that might be dangerous.

So examine the room and make sure you eliminate or block any places the cat may hide and get stuck out of your reach. This includes gaps behind or under heavy furniture. It also includes cluttered closets and uncovered heating ducts.

Other things to secure ahead of time:

  • Windows: Make sure window screens are secure and can’t be pushed out. Make sure an open window frame can’t slam shut by itself. It’s best to keep any windows closed to play it safe.
  • Draw cords: Cats can easily become tangled in draw cords on curtains or blinds, and can cause strangulation. Secure them by tying them or fastening up high and completely out of reach.
  • Toxic chemicals: Secure them completely or remove them.
  • Plants that are toxic to cats.
  • Plastic and paper bags: Get rid of all plastic bags. Paper bags, on the other hand, can make good hiding/play spots, but remove the handles first. Cats can easily get a bag handle stuck around their neck, which can cause a panicked reaction and injury as they try to free themselves.

Get Things In Place

Add a Cat Tree

Cats need vertical space to help them feel safe and survey their environment from a secure location up high off the ground. A cat tree meets this need very well, and can also provide cozy hiding spots if you choose one with a tunnel or cubby/nook.

The other great thing about a cat tree is that it can help prevent cats from trying to climb things they shouldn’t, like curtains or shelves.

But your cat will want to explore every surface eventually, so make sure you secure things that might tumble to the floor if your cat attempts to jump up. You can also block surfaces so that they aren’t tempting to jump up on.

Other Essential Items for the Safe Room

Be sure to grab our new cat essentials checklist for a complete list of supplies needed for your new cat. Here are the basics of what you’ll need to put in your cat’s safe room:

  • Litter box
  • A cozy cat bed or two
  • Food and water dishes
  • At least one scratching post or scratcher
  • A few toys (make sure they are safe to leave in there without supervision – not all cat toys are)

Place the litter box in a spot separate from the food and water dishes. Scoop the litter every day. And make sure you know the basics of how to train your cat to use the litter box.

Include a couple options for your cat to have a cozy hiding place that is secure and accessible by you. Your cat tree may have one already built in.

You can also purchase an individual cat bed from the pet store or online, but I find that homemade beds work just fine using a blanket inside a basket or cardboard box.

How to Use the Safe Room to Help Your Cat Get Settled

When you first arrive home with your new cat, bring them gently into your already-prepared safe room and close the door. It’s normal if they seem fearful or try to hide at first.

Let the cat dictate the terms – don’t force any interactions. If they come to you and seek affection, you can engage.

But don’t worry if your cat is aloof, or is only interested in exploring or even hiding. Your job in this moment is just to provide a calm presence. All you need to do is sit calmly on the floor and quietly observe.

You can provide reassurance by speaking in a soft, soothing tone to help them feel secure. After a short period, leave them be and close the door so they can explore the room independently or rest.

Key Takeaways for Using the Safe Room Effectively

-> Sit in the room and simply observe quietly

-> Speak to your cat in a soothing tone

-> Don’t force interactions – let the cat come to you if they choose

-> It’s normal for the cat to only want to explore or simply hide at first

-> Check in on your cat every hour or two

-> Don’t let the cat explore other parts of the home until they have really adjusted fully to the safe room

-> Introduce the rest of the house gradually in stages

Check in on your cat regularly – at least every hour or two. If they aren’t extremely stressed, you can gently try engaging them by offering treats or a toy. A wand toy lets you do this from a distance, which can feel less threatening to a stressed cat.

It’s ok if they aren’t ready, just let them set their own pace here. Once they’ve adjusted to the safe room completely, you can move on to introductions of other rooms in the home.

Gradually Introduce Your Cat to the rest of Your Home

If you don’t have other pets, once your cat is showing the signs of adjustment to the safe room, you can begin doing sessions allowing your cat to explore outside of the room. There’s no need to rush, and you’re better off taking things slower than you may need to, rather than doing things too fast.

You need to cat-proof things first, and choose quiet times in your home for these first exploration sessions. Then simply open the door and, just like you’ve been doing, don’t force anything and let your cat explore on their own terms.

Be sure to supervise these sessions closely. Offer your calm presence and reassuring voice. You can also try adding some treats to the experience. Leave the safe room door open and allow the cat to retreat to that space whenever they want to.

Do a few short sessions at first (maybe 10-20 minutes), and return the cat gently to the safe room again with a closed door. You can make the sessions gradually longer, according to the cat’s comfort or stress level.

If possible, limit the space that is available to explore at first by leaving doors to some other rooms shut. If you can, take these explorations one room at a time.

Once your cat seems pretty comfortable with the rest of the home, you can let them spend the entire day with full access. You may want to be home at first in order to supervise. During this phase, consider keeping the cat closed in the safe room overnight.

Finally, your cat can progress to whatever the permanent arrangement will be for your home. Some people choose to give their cats full access to their entire home around the clock, and some close them into a designated cat room for parts of the day or overnight.

If possible based on the particular house or apartment layout, I have always used my initial safe room permanently in my home setup. I close my cats in that room every night until morning.

Here is an example of a basic cat safe room setup.  Pictured is the litter box next to a 3-level cat tree.

Here’s my cat safe room, located just off the kitchen. I close my cats in here every night.

When to Introduce Other Pets (Cats or Dogs)

If you have other cats or dogs at home already, avoid the temptation of introducing them right away. The acclimation process is likely to be much smoother if they have a chance to smell the new cat under the closed door for at least the first few days.

Don’t worry if resident cats hiss or growl – this is normal territorial behavior, and it may last a while even once the cats have met face to face.

Wait to let the new cat explore other parts of the house until the new cat is feeling comfortable and confident in the safe room.

At first, close the other pets in another room so that you can let the new cat have exploration sessions without meeting the other animals. Do this several times a day for several days before allowing face to face introductions.

When you do let them meet, keep initial sessions short, and return the new cat to the safe room with the door closed. It may take weeks or months for them to be more at ease with each other, so take it slow and supervise closely.

I once added a puppy to a household with two resident cats, and it took a couple of years for one of the cats to become comfortable enough with the dog to snuggle up next to him on the dog bed.

The other cat never did reach that level of comfort. It definitely requires patience and they may never become best buds, but it’s a sweet bonus if they do!

Read Next: Do You Know How to Tell if Your Cat is Adjusting?

Now that you know how to set up and use a safe room for your cat, make sure you know how to recognize the signs your cat is adjusting well to the new environment. This will help you decide when to begin letting your cat explore beyond the safe room.

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The information provided here is not meant to replace professional guidance from your own veterinarian or cat behavior specialist.

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