Rescue Decompression and the 3-3-3 Rule

“Where are they taking me?”

When you adopt a cat or dog, especially a rescue who has ‘done time’ in a shelter and may also have had a traumatic life, feeling safe is more important than cuddles for a while.

‘Rescue Decompression’ is the term commonly used for the technique to transition a new pet to your home gently, without raising anxiety. It may take as much as three months, but the first three days are especially important, as are the first three weeks, for different reasons. This is why some refer to this transition time as the 3-3-3 Rule. 

No matter how gentle rescuers and shelter caretakers are, animals who come to a shelter have often either been removed from a bad circumstance, or else a happy and comfortable existence. They are suddenly thrust among strangers and other scared animals, perhaps transported long distances, examined by vets, given shots and behavioral evaluations, and then ended up in a cage someplace very noisy, not knowing what will happen next. Pets enjoy routine and personal space. These pets have suddenly been deprived of both. All of this causes high stress. 

When you bring a shelter pet home, note signs of stress which could include panting, pacing, licking lips, ears back, tail tucked between the legs, trying to tuck into a tight ball, crouching or wetting. Your new pet may have an upset stomach. 

A Little Down Time – Three Days
It’s important to give your new pet plenty of space at first, so she can sniff, listen, view and get her bearings, to satisfy herself that this new place is alright. Your pet needs a ‘home base,’ a safe spot that will always be safe and welcoming to go to chill out, even months from now. A separate room with crating opportunity is ideal. Make it comfortable with padding and a light covering such as a tablecloth, and in a quiet part of the house, for feeling more secluded and peaceful. Include some special toys. Add a plug-in continual release calming pheromone spray to the room for a little additional help.

Give your pet individualized care and feeding, and lots of quiet time to recover emotionally in this isolated environment for at least three days. No surprises, just calm and consistency. 

If you have given your pet a new name, make sure to include it often, with a warm tone and a positive message, such as, “Hi Charlotte. You’re a good girl!” 

Introduce your two- and four-footed family members to your new pet one at a time in this safe area, and for only a few minutes at a time, over the course of several days, so she won’t be overwhelmed. Perhaps you should start by introducing other pets first. Sometimes another pet will form an easy friendship and will actually assist your rescue pet in learning the routines. 

Watch carefully for signs of stress. Children’s sudden movements or loud voices can frighten animals, so explain this to your child if possible, and keep the child a safe distance away until they know each other much better.

Welcome to Your New Home – Three Weeks
After a few days, once your pet has gotten to know and trust everyone a little better, gradually introduce your cat or dog to their new household routine, with feeding and exercise times, and household routines of waking, cooking, work time, family time, bedtime, and so on. Pets enjoy following a schedule, so they can anticipate what comes next. This will help your pet to blend into the family faster.

How soon should you pet or cuddle your new cat or dog? When he or she is ready. They will make eye contact, wag or raise their tail, and come to you. Until then, the best way to make friends is to simply sit in the same room and allow your pet to become accustomed to your scent, your voice and your activities. 

The Rules – Three Months
Pets usually learn over the course of about three months what they can and cannot be allowed to do. By this time your pet is relaxed and her true personality is shining. Also, she feels relaxed enough to start testing boundaries. It’s time to teach your new dog especially (and cats to some extent) manners and begin leash-training. When necessary, your pet may have to time-out in her safe space until she understands that these are the rules. The old adage is true: Whatever you don’t change, you choose by allowing the behavior to stay. So what may be cute at first, like stealing a treat from the table, won’t be cute if it continues to happen, or if it becomes your dinner. Nip it in the bud.

So you’ve chosen a pet, and you are so excited to bring her home. Then the first thing she does is pee, go and hide, or tear something to shreds. Please don’t automatically think you have made a mistake. This is just a frightened animal. Sadly, many little guys end up being taken back to the shelter because new pet parents don’t realize they need time to feel safe.

If you are unsure how to handle some aspects of rescue decompression, talk to your rescue group or adoption agency, a qualified trainer or your vet for suggestions. Have patience with your new pet. It will be so rewarding!

Heron’s Crossing provides end-of-life care for pets in the Metro Atlanta area. In-home appointments with compassionate vets are available. If you’d prefer a home-like setting away from your home, our Decatur office is also available by appointment.