Cat Adoption

Help, My Cat Has Shelter Fatigue!


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:

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!

Help, I Found Some Abandoned Kittens!

The world is filled with cats who haven't been spayed or neutered. Some are feral and others are pets. In both cases, mothers can sometimes go missing just when the kittens need them the most. Margaret M. writes:

I found a nest with four kittens in it underneath a shed in our backyard. I didn’t approach them yet, but the kittens are crying and I’ve not been able to find the mother. What should I do?

Margaret, it's important that you confirm whether or not the kittens' mother is still around before you relocate her litter. You can interact with them (your scent will not cause the mother to reject them) and even tend to them but don't move them if you suspect the mother is still around.

Some rescuers will put the kittens into a box that they can't get out of and then scatter flour around the box. If you leave the box for a few hours and come back to find paw prints in the flour, the mother is probably still tending to her babies. Also note the cleanliness of the kittens. Mother cats take care of cleaning their kittens, so the longer they're away, the dirtier the kittens will be.

If you discover that the mother is still around, your best bet is to try and help her to provide for her little ones. You can make an inexpensive shelter like this one and provide food and water without interfering with the family. Once the kittens have been weaned at 4-6 weeks of age, they can be socialized and adopted. Of course, the sooner the socialization takes place, the better. If the mother is friendly, it may be possible to relocate the family and socialize the kittens even earlier.

If you determine that the kittens have indeed been abandoned, it's time to take action. The first thing the babies will need is warmth. A plastic bottle filled with warm water and wrapped in a towel will do in a pinch.

Newborn kittens need constant care. Most shelters won't take them because they simply don't have the resources needed to turn them into adoptable cats. Even if they do take them in, the kittens will probably be euthanized. If you have the time and resources, please, by all means, do what you can to save the kittens' lives. If not, you'll need to try and locate a local rescue that does and get them there as soon as possible.

If you decide to care for them yourself, there are plenty of good online resources. Caring for newborn kittens is quite an undertaking, so we usually refer people to the best resource we know: THE KITTEN LADY. She's been rescuing kittens for years and has kindly provided a wealth of information about all aspects of newborn care on her wonderful web site. All the information you might need is there for the taking, including links to product sources and very specific instructions on kitten care.

Last but not least, please see to it that the kittens and their mother are all spayed or neutered, even if you choose to allow them to remain feral. This includes following up with adopters if the kittens are adopted out before they're old enough to have surgery. 

We certainly thank you for being concerned about these little lives, Margaret. We wish you and the kittens all the best!

How to Help Your New Kitty Adjust

Many cats have great difficulty with change.  When they're first adopted, it can take some time for them to get acclimated to their new surroundings.  Angela G. writes about her new feline friend, Benny:

I just adopted a male cat who’s a year and a half old. He has been hiding since yesterday when I brought him home. I’ve only seen him early at 4:00 this morning by chance. I got up & he was under the kitchen table. He seems to be happy when I pat him, but then I turned my back & he was gone again. He did go to the litter to pee, but he has not eaten at all. They told me if he*s under stress he won*t eat, but he won*t even come out. PLEASE WHAT CAN I DO????

Try not to worry too much, Angela.  This is fairly common behavior for many cats.  Just imagine what an enormous change Benny's going through.  Take a look at your home from his point of view and you'll realize what a vast, unexplored space it is to him; filled with strange smells and sounds.  He's going to be extremely happy there eventually, but the magnitude of this change is just a lot for him to get used to.  He'll need a little time and a lot of patience to get over the hump.  For some cats it can take up to a week or two before they feel at home.  Don't give up on Benny and don't let the process stress you out.  Cats are emotional sponges and they can almost always pick up on the emotional vibes of their friends.  Even new ones.

There are a few things you can do to help Benny today.  First, give him some space.  Don't hover over him and do your best to just let him come to you.  The more aloof and self-assured you are during this process, the more confident Benny will be that you aren't going to harm him.  Cats are not only predators.  They're prey too, so he needs to know he's safe before he can get on with the business of becoming your friend.  Just go about your business and allow him to hide out.  If you can, avoid making any loud sounds or eye contact.  If you do catch his eye, slowly blink both your eyes at him.  That's universal cat sign language for "I love you".

Make sure Benny knows where his litterbox, food and water are.  We normally recommend that food and water dishes be kept far away from the litter box, but in this case, it's okay to place them all in the room where Benny currently feels most secure.  The fact that he's already used the litter box is a very good sign.  Don't clear the litter box right away, as the scent of his deposit can help to make him feel at home. 

The stress of the adoption may also make Benny have loose stools.  This too will pass.  Just be sure to start him off on the same food he was getting before you adopted him.  You'll probably want to switch him to a high-quality wet food if that's not what he's currently on now, but all in due time.  You need to help him get over the big change before working on smaller ones.

If you have some small boxes, make them available to Benny.  Put one in a closet and another under the bed.  Wherever he's hiding.  Just don't bother him when he's there.  He needs to establish his own territory and scent-mark things by rubbing against them.  The more things he marks, the more his scent will be distributed throughout your home and the better he'll feel.  Once he ventures out of his hiding places, you can relocate the boxes to help him find his scent in the other rooms in your home.

Angela, in no time, Benny will start to feel more safe and secure with you.  We just know that you two will have a wonderful time together once he adjusts!  We wish you both all the best!

Introducing a New Cat

Bryan F. writes in asking if his single cat of many years would be able to handle the addition of a new cat friend to the household.  Well, Bryan, that depends.  If your current feline roommate is used to having her run of the place, it may be difficult for her to learn to share.  She could do so, but it would likely be through gritted teeth and the two cats will never be the best buds you might hope for.  You need to take an objective look at your cat's purrsonality and determine whether or not you think she will accept a new friend. 

It helps to understand how cats live in the wild.  They're much more social than many people assume, but not as social as dogs.  Why?  Because they're stealth hunters.  They live or die based on their ninja skills when stalking prey, and if there's one thing that cramps a ninja's style, it's another ninja.  Dogs are pack hunters who coordinate their hunts and enjoy their kills together based on their social status.  This is why dogs usually have a noticeable scent and cats do not.  It's also why cats often bury their waste.  If most cats had their way, they'd be invisible except for those times when they crave social interactions.

You see, cats are social in a different way.  We've seen it described by some as a lower social IQ.  That's unfortunate because it presumes that a higher score is better.  Cats have the social skills needed to be successful cats.  No more, no less.  Some breeds and individuals may be more social, but cats as a species occupy their perfect place in nature, and that includes their social skills.

But back to the cats in the wild.  Cats devise elaborate means to timeshare territory.  For example, if a female tabby patrols a particular spot at noon every day, most other cats will avoid the area during that time.  They may claim it at another time of day, but they'll be careful to never be seen by the tabby around noon.  When she moves on, a black tomcat may move in, claiming the spot as well, but the tabby will be careful not to return and challenge him unless a chase or similar inadvertent encroachment occurs.  This is how each cat can have enough territory in an area that really isn't big enough for them.  The same thing can happen in your home.

Most cat guardians want their little friends to become pals, but that's not always possible.  If your present day cat is a senior, she may not appreciate the energy of a youngster.  Try to pick a cat whose purrsonality complements that of your resident cat.  Think of your home as an ecosystem wherein each animal can occupy his or her own niche.  If your present day cat likes to snuggle and sleep high on a shelf, find a companion that's not so snuggly who likes stalking around on the floor.  And remember that an only cat is much more likely to bond to humans first.  Second cats often bond to other cats first.  Whoever you choose, remember that your present day cat will be asked to surrender a large chunk of what she perceives to be her territory.  You need to be extra kind to her during the transition because it will be very stressful for her.

An introduction sets the tone for cats for a very long time, so do your best to make it a good one.  Almost everyone recommends a gradual introduction, first sharing smells by trading bedding back and forth, then allowing interaction through a barrier, then supervised interaction, and finally cohabitation.  This works for cats who are predisposed to accept one another, but it takes several weeks and a living space that's large enough to allow for two areas for the cats to be separated into.  This is usually achieved by putting the newcomer in a bathroom while the resident cat keeps the rest of the house.  Once the pair have "met" under the bathroom door, a protective screen can be used to separate them for further supervised visits.  Only after they've proven to at least tolerate one another under supervision should they be allowed to cohabitate.

There is another method that is espoused by Anitra Frazier in her book, The Natural Cat.  It's a faster process but it's not any easier.  She suggests having a family friend that your cat doesn't know show up with the new cat in a carrier.  You ignore the new cat as if it weren't there while your friend holds the carrier and you discuss other things.  Then, when it's firmly established who the new cat belongs with, the friend puts the carrier down on the floor.  This goes on for a while, with you ignoring the new cat at every stage.  Eventually, the carrier is opened and you go into another room with your friend while your cat is allowed to investigate the newcomer.  If things go well, with little more than some hisses, then you can leave the house for a half hour and come back to see how they're doing.  The idea is to get your current cat to accept the newcomer without any prodding from you.  As time goes on, you may feed the newcomer, but you may not give him any attention.  It must be made clear that you really don't want the new cat around and it's up to your current cat to convince you to include him.  At that point, you still must put your original cat first in all things to keep the peace, but both cats will usually accept the new social order.  The trick is not to give in and snuggle with the new cat before those roles are firmly established.  If the new cat jumps onto your lap, you have to be strong and put him down with a scowl.  Your first cat must perceive your indifference to the newcomer so that he isn't threatened by him.  Of course, both cats must be spayed or neutered.

To keep your new multi-cat household settled, you'll need to make sure you have at least one more litter box than there are cats, and each cat must not be able to see the other when eating.  You can also help them by adding new cat trees to insure that there are plenty of prime real estate spots for each cat to claim.  Vertical space is especially important.

Bryan, you obviously care for your cat very much.  We're sure you'll make the right decision for your household, and if you choose to adopt a second cat, we know you'll make the best of it!