Cat Behavior

Help, My Cat Has Shelter Fatigue!

cat-stare.jpg

Most shelters are awful places for cats to be. They get locked in a tiny box with lots of scary sounds and bad smells that keep them from ever feeling safe. But what if a cat becomes accustomed to life in the shelter? Stephanie writes:

I adopted a cat from a local shelter at the end of July. The problem is that he spent six years there. He was dumped there with his siblings at about three months old. It was suggested that I keep him in a single room until he’s comfortable in his surroundings. There is a chair in the room that he hides under if any human is around. I moved it once and he nearly ran up the wall. I don’t know what to do. He eats well, uses the litter box and appears healthy. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Stephanie, thank you for adopting Alfie and giving him a forever home despite his fears. It's people like you who make the work we do so worthwhile!

The first thing to do is relax. If you're stressed by the situation, Alfie will certainly pick up on your feelings and react accordingly. At this point, it's best to treat Alfie as if he were a feral cat. Let him set the pace for your interaction and he'll come out of his shell gradually over time. 

We have a post on taming ferals. If you have a moment, please take a look at it here:  http://kittyhelpdesk.com/help-desk/-taming-feral-cat

There are a couple of things you can do to help him along. The first is related to the chair you mentioned. In his six years at the shelter, Alfie put up a number of defenses to protect himself. One of those was the need to retreat and hide in a safe place with close walls. He saw the area under the chair as his safe zone until you moved the chair and he realized that it wasn't safe at all. You need to give him his own little spot where, when he's there, you never interact with him. It can be a small cat cube or just a box with some holes cut in it. You might just crack a closet door so he can go in and out. But whatever you do, when he's there, you should never try to touch him or move him. He needs his safe hidey hole in order to gain the confidence to come out. Just knowing that he can retreat there can make a big difference for him.

Be careful to only use your closed hand when offering contact to Alfie. To a human, a fist means the threat of violence, but to a cat, it looks more like a paw. An open hand looks more like a paw with claws extended and is much more threatening to a cat. Add to that the fact that Alfie was very likely handled a lot at the shelter and you end up with a cat who may actually have developed a fear of grabby human hands.

One exercise that we've found to be very effective is to sit on the floor of the room where Alfie is and read quietly to him. Let him get used to your voice and your presence while you're focused on the book. Don't look at him or reach out to him, even if he initiates contact. This is how cats in the wild indicate their trustworthiness. It may take many sessions, but Alfie should eventually reach out to you. 

Stephanie, we hope you won't give up on Alfie. He has six years of confinement to overcome. It may take a long time, and he needs to take it at his own pace. He's still in a fight or flight panic mode based on his experience being confined for so long. Much like a human prisoner, the close confinement can actually become comforting.

It will always be two steps forward and one step back for Alfie until he finally overcomes his psychological hurdles. In order for you to be successful, you need to detach yourself from any particular outcome. If you're disappointed at Alfie's reaction, he will sense that. Try and be positive and take it as it comes. 

After six years in jail, he developed tools that helped him to survive. Please don't confuse survival with thriving. Yes, he survived, but he will never thrive in a cage. He can eventually thrive in your home and under your care but it will take a long time. He knows that. he's just working from the toolkit he has and that toolkit was built from fear.

One additional thing that may help is to add another, very low-key and friendly cat to the mix. A second cat can often help assuage these situations by being a buffer for the frightened feline. A kitten may have too much energy for Alfie, but a young, laid-back cat could be just the thing. It just has to be the RIGHT cat. A domineering cat certainly wouldn't do him any good right now.

I encourage you to try and be nonchalant about his situation when he's hiding. Just go about your business and try your best to be optimistic, especially when you're around him. Believe me when I say that Alfie will pick up on that. These things often require a lot of time--sometimes a year or more for significant progress, and you've already seen some good progress from Alfie already. Relax and enjoy the process. With a lot of patience and a relaxed attitude, you can work wonders with Alfie. We wish both of you all the best!

How Can I Help My Cat to Understand My Vacation?

 Mary's feline friend - Ms. Kitty

Mary's feline friend - Ms. Kitty

We all need a break now and then--a getaway from the routine. But cats LOVE their routines. How can we help them to understand that we'll be gone for a short time while a stranger cares for them? Mary V. writes:

I’ve never had a cat before. A lady moved from our Senior Park & left her cat behind. The cat ended up on our car & she looked skinny, so we fed her. For 6-7 months, she was only there for two meals a day with dry food available all the time (always outside). She eventually started to make up to us & came around more often. About five months ago, she came inside. She still goes out & runs the park with her other kitty friends but is always back. Some days she is in all day. The problem is, we are going on vacation for nine or ten days in July. We don’t know what to do with her. If we get someone to feed her outside here at our house, without going into the house, will she still be here & be our friend when we get back? I keep thinking she might think we are abandoning her like the other lady did. This weighs heavily on my heart. Ms. Kitty has become very close to me & I love this little girl. She is three years old. I just keep thinking about her rejecting us when we get back. HELP PLEASE! There isn’t anyone that will take her in, they have their own pets but someone will feed her.

Mary, it's clear that you care very much for Ms. Kitty. Cats certainly love the people that they're bonded to. Those people give them great comfort, but because of the way cats exist in nature's grand scheme, they derive even more comfort from their territory. Cats are intricately linked to their territory. They even develop systems of time-sharing in order to politely allow their territory to overlap with that of neighboring cats with minimal conflict. These social interactions are complex and slight ripples in the status quo can introduce a good deal of stress to a cat.

We tell you all of that to let you know how your absence will be perceived not just as your personal absence, but also as the absence of a big part of Ms. Kitty's territory - your home. Your home has become her safe zone - a place where she needn't worry about predators or other cats. A place where she's cared for. Cats don't understand or like closed doors because they limit their choices. Cats rely on being able to patrol their territory on a very specific schedule.

Our suggestion would be to have someone house sit for you while you're gone to maintain Ms. Kitty's access to your home. If not that, at least someone should open the door for her and allow her to check things out inside according to her usual schedule if possible. This visitor should be introduced to Ms. Kitty beforehand so that she knows you approve of this change. A nearby neighbor would be perfect.

If this isn't practical, and we do understand how it might not be, you could give Ms. Kitty an outdoor shelter to use as a safe space while you're gone. One can easily be made from a Rubbermaid type of container with a hole cut in one end and some bedding placed inside. The best bedding would be something that you've worn that has your scent on it. That way, Ms. Kitty will still be comforted by you even though you aren't there. It would be even better if she were introduced to this shelter inside your home for the time leading up to your departure.

It's important that you explain what's going to happen to Ms. Kitty. While she won't understand all of your words, she'll get the message. Cats are adept at deciphering our body language and facial expressions. That's how they usually communicate with each other. If you feel silly doing this, just do it when no one else is around. Show her the door and how it locks and then explain to her that you will be back. Make sure you introduce her to the person who will feed her as well. She may not give you her full attention so you may have to remind her as your departure date draws near. I know it sounds funny, but cats are as intelligent as a two year old child. She can understand. The longer you know her, the better she'll come to understand you.

When you take responsibility for someone else, especially an animal, it's important that you accept the whole of that responsibility. It sounds like you have, though we doubt the same was true of Ms. Kitty's previous human. We encourage you to make her an indoor-only or indoor-mostly cat. Cats aren't just predators, but prey for larger animals as well. There are also other dangers for them out there in the world, from diseases like FLV that they can pick up from other cats, to the imminent threat of traffic and humans who dislike cats. In the wild, most cats only live for three to five years. Indoor cats often live over 20 years with good nutrition and veterinary care.

We'd urge you to take the next step and make sure that Ms. Kitty gets to see a veterinarian at least once a year. If she hasn't been spayed, she needs that done ASAP. Most areas have groups that offer that service at low or no cost.

Thank you for loving her, Mary. You're making her life better. :)

Help, My New Cat is Afraid of Noises in My House!

We sometimes forget that our homes are unfamiliar places to a newly adopted cat. There are new sights, sounds, and smells that may overwhelm some kitties. Margaret H. writes:

I have a new adult cat named Jack who seems to be terrified of the sound my furnace makes. What can I do?

Margaret, your problem isn't uncommon, especially for new adoptions. Cats simply aren't prepared for a lot of the human things they experience in a new home. The more tentative a cat is to begin with, the more sensitive they are to unexpected sounds, sights, and smells. Sounds such as the one your furnace makes are sporadic and unpredictable, making them even more difficult to accept, but most cats will eventually come to accept them.

In most cases, it just takes time for a cat like Jack to become accustomed to the strange sound. As they hear it more and more frequently, they slowly come to realize that nothing bad happens to them after they hear it. There are a couple of things you can do to help speed along this acceptance.

First, you need to remain calm when Jack reacts to the sound. Nothing will reassure him more than your own casual acceptance of this horrifying noise. Don't even react to his reaction. Don't chase after him or even frown. If you choose to do anything, an offhanded statement of "It's okay - you're safe" will be enough. Then go back to whatever you were doing and allow Jack the time he needs to feel safe again. He has the hard work of realizing there's nothing to be afraid of. You need to allow him the time and space to do it. Just make sure you aren't adding to his stress. Give him an enclosed space in a place where he feels safe. That can be a place he retreats to and where you NEVER encroach upon him. Not even to pull him out to go to the vet. He needs to feel that he has a place where nothing can touch him, not even you. Then let him come out on his own.

If he faces the terrifying noise and chooses not to run away, or even not to run so far, reward him. One or two treats will help him to feel better about his courageous decision to face the horrifying noise. 

Given enough time, Jack will probably learn to be less afraid of your furnace, but he may never shed the fear entirely. Allow him that. I know you want him to feel safe and happy in his new home. Rest assured, even with the noises, you're home may be the safest place he's ever been. He needs time and patience in order to learn how to feel safe again.

Wishing you and Jack all of the best!

How to Get Cats to Tolerate One Another

A lot of us humans live in a comfortable fantasy world when it comes to our feline friends. We think of them as children and we imagine we can just throw them together and they'll get along. This isn't usually the case. Michele S. writes:

Precious is a feral I’ve had for 11 years. Abigail and Alice are rescues I’ve had for 3 years. Mr. Snuggles is a dump that we have had for only a few months. We have had them all spayed/neutered. We have not been able to get them not to hiss, growl and stalk each other so they are in separate rooms and taken out in shifts to play and be with us. We love them all but this situation has taken over our schedule completely. The shifts begin at 6 AM and don’t end until 10 PM. How do we get all of these cats to at least tolerate each other as we are truly exhausted and have no time for us anymore. Thank you.

Michele, it sounds like you're really trying hard to make things work. Hopefully, we can help you get out of your current routine so you can spend more time enjoying your feline friends and less time managing them.

Since you're currently separating them, the best way to start the process of integrating your household is to treat them as new introductions. Yes, some bad feelings have already developed between them but the process of bringing in a newcomer can be effective in an instance such as yours. See our post on new introductions here: http://kittyhelpdesk.com/help-desk/introducing-a-new-cat . 

Resources are key as you begin the integration process. Cats will time-share limited resources and they feel most comfortable when there's plenty to go around. Make sure each has a feeding station that's not viewable from the others' stations. Make sure you have one more litter box than you have cats, so you'd need five boxes placed in different locations for four felines. Also make sure there is plenty of vertical space for the cats to share. They need to be able to get away from one another when need be.

We answered one reader's question about bullying behavior, but it goes into great depth about the interactions between cats. You may find it helpful, especially the part about different cat personalities and the valiance levels of different cats. You can find that post here: http://kittyhelpdesk.com/help-desk/cat-bully .

Michele, with some planning and perseverance, you can at least get your cats to tolerate one another. Don't expect them to become best friends overnight. There will certainly be setbacks and all hisses aren't bad. They're just a way a cat communicates that his or her perceived boundaries have been crossed. With plenty of resources, there should certainly be less hissiness, but it will take time. You also have to calm yourself in those situations and not inflate them with too much emotional intensity. At a certain point, the cats need to be allowed to work it out for themselves.

We wish you and your kitty friends all the best!

Should I bring My Cat to College?

Increasing numbers of universities are allowing students to bring pets to school with them. But should those policies include cats? Christine R. writes:

My daughter, Mazy, is going off to college for the first time and she wants to bring her tom cat, Specks, with her. I don’t think it’s a very good idea. We agreed to ask you and to go by whatever you say. Should Specks go off with Mazy to get educated? :)

Christine and Mazy, every situation is different, as is every cat, but generally speaking, we're against temporarily transplanting a cat unless it's absolutely necessary. We can hear Mazy whining already, so allow us to outline our reasoning.

Cats are very territory-centric. They are more comforted by their own territory with their own scents than they are even by those of us who feed, pamper and adore them. Relocating a cat isn't a trivial change for them. In fact, it can be quite distressing. It can take a cat a very long time to adjust to such a move. That's a big deal because it will happen again and again at each and every break from school. We see no need to put a cat through all of that stress if you don't have to.

Cats also prefer being on a regular schedule. What happens when Mazy goes on a rafting trip one weekend, and a football trip the next and back home the next. What about when you audition for a big play or end up in the computer lab every night before a big project is due? Who will care for Specks during those times, and will he be well cared for? No offense, Mazy, but college students aren't always the most reliable people. They have a lot on their minds. A cat needs to be a priority, not an afterthought.

There are also some unique dangers associated with campus life. We won't be too graphic, but where there are drunken frat boys, there are potential dangers to everyone! Specks may not have as much fun being there for you as you think he will.

One thing you should definitely do is to leave things with your scent on them at home whenever you visit. A pair of sweatpants or an old t-shirt left in one of Specks' prime sleeping spots will comfort him in your absence. Yes, he'll miss you when you're gone, but he'll still be happier at home. And he'll thoroughly enjoy your visits, even if he sometimes pretends not to. That's just how cats are. They don't like change, but Specks will always be your special friend.

Mazy, going off to college is about growing up, and a big part of growing up is learning to put others needs before your own sometimes. Think about what's best for Specks and we think you'll conclude, as we have, that he'll be better off at home with your mom. We wish you all the best in your college career!