On Their Terms


Whether you’re a cat person to the core, an animal lover in general, an adamant dog person, or even somebody who prefers the company of humans only, you probably have some idea, based on the title, what this article is going to be about.  Cats, after all, are known by people all across the land for having that certain special trait, that universal preference for having 100% control over everything from the placement of their water dish to the circumstances and freqency in which they interact with humans.  I say this trait is universal because I’ve yet to observe one exception, even taking into account the unique and complex personalities of individual cats.  Make no mistake.  Even if your cat follows you everywhere, greets you at the door, curls up in your lap the moment you sit down, and sleeps right next to your head every single night, he’s doing all of that because he feels inclined to, not because you want him to.

This feline quirk, more often than not, enters our minds as nothing more than the popular internet meme, “Dogs have owners.  Cats have staff.”  We roll our eyes and chuckle over the matter, and then we get on with our day.  We don’t take it too seriously, and in general, there’s no need to, as long as your cat is adjusted to her environment and bonds well with at least some of the people living in it.  But never is our understanding of the universal on-their-terms code more critical than when encountered with cats who, unlike the one described above, are aloof, skittish, and distrustful of humans.  The extent to which a cat’s trust can be gained, after all, determines whether she will be happy living with you, whether you will enjoy her as a companion, and in the case of a feline rescuer, whether you will be successful in finding her a suitable home.

Cats that flee when humans approach, and spend the majority of their time hiding, may do so for a variety of reasons.  In many cases, it’s as simple as not having been adequately socialized during the age when cats will most readily bond with humans (2-12 weeks old, according to the NYC Feral Cat Initiative http://www.nycferalcat.org/newsletter/2009-02/shycat.htm).  In other cases, the cat may have had bad experiences with humans.  Cats that roamed the streets for any length of time might have been chased down, had rocks thrown at them, or suffered any manner of unfriendly human encounters. Even cats that were kept safe indoors might have been taunted too frequently by unruly children, or lived with well-intended, but ignorant people, who simply didn’t understand the proper way to interact with their cats.

Regardless of the source of a cat’s anxiety, the way you begin to repair the damage is the same, and it all comes down to the three words in bold print at the top of this page.  It’s not a matter of training the cat to be friendly.  It’s a matter of tuning into your cat’s personality, getting to know his likes and dislikes, understanding what he needs in order to develop a secure bond with you, and adjusting your behavior toward him accordingly.

In the past year, I’ve been fortunate to cross paths with two different cats that each presented me with a unique socialization challenge.  Both stories ended well, and in both cases, the most likely reason for their shyness was the age at which they came in contact with humans.  I have no reason to think they were ever abused or mistreated.  They simply came to the domestic world a little bit too late, and therefore, it took them longer to adjust.  The first of these elusive felines was my quirky, spicy-as-cumin little girl Farrah (pictured above), who I took in when she was about 11 weeks old.

Farrah (aka Miss Kittenface) had been born and raised in a dilapidated, leaky shed that was attached to a small, privately owned community bar.  She came from a litter of three, and it was my original intent to bring all three kittens and their mother to the refuge, before the shed, which had been condemned by the city, would be torn down.  Unfortunately, there were many complications that prevented me from doing this, and Farrah was the only one I was able to get.  The kittens’ mother, thankfully, was eventually taken by a local rescue, but the other two kittens remain at large, one having disappeared entirely, and the other, a beautiful black and white tuxedo male, still wanders over to my friend Donna’s house every day for food.  Perhaps one day, Donna will be able to employ her highly imaginative cat whispering skills to lure him into a carrier or live trap so that I can get him vetted and find him a home.

Farrah was one terrified little kitten on her first day among the two-legged folk.  Prior to then, I didn’t even know it was possible for shrieks at such high decibles to radiate from the mouth of a 2.5-pound critter! While at the vet, she literally scaled the walls to get away, and the tech had to throw a towel over her in order to subdue her.  Once wrapped in the towel, however, she quieted down and remained still, allowing the doctor to look her over for fleas, determine her sex, draw her blood, and administer her first shots.

After getting a clean bill of health, I brought Farrah home, where my training as her faithful servant would begin.  Farrah made her terms abundantly clear from the very first week, and those terms, omitting, of course, the one that says “Never take me to the vet ever again,” are outlined as follows:

Term# 1: Leave me in my hiding spot.

Farrah was never violent or aggressive toward people, but for the first few days, she would hiss when people approached her in her hidey hole.  She wasn’t ready to explore the room, even when humans were absent, and for a while, it was necessary to bring food, water, and her litter box directly to her so that she didn’t have to venture out of her comfort zone to access them.  It didn’t take long, however, for her to figure out that these strange two-legged beings were the ones bringing her all of this nice stuff, and by the third day, not only had she stopped hissing, but she would even purr when we reached in to pet her.

Term# 2: Sit on the floor and be quiet.

Up against a wall in our foster room are two soft cushions from an old loveseat that had fallen apart.  They provide the perfect place for people to sit comfortably at ground level while foster cats sniff them out, and decide if they’re trustworthy.  As long as I sat there quietly and didn’t make any sudden movements, Farrah would prance around the room and play with her toys.  She still didn’t want to be approached, and she would run and hide as soon as I stood up, but I could sit in the one spot, and drag a string across the floor, and Farrah would happily chase after it.

Term# 3: Bring me lots of canned food.

Farrah always had an abundant supply of dry food that she could dive into any time she wanted, but canned food, as every cat knows, is something truly magical.  Every day, I would bring Farrah a small bowl of canned food, at first, directly to her hiding spot, but once her curiosity instincts kicked in, and she began exploring the room, I started moving the bowl closer and closer to where I was seated.  One week after I had brought Farrah home, I set her food bowl upon my leg.  It took a little while, but she cautiously wandered over, and eventually, she crawled up onto my lap and began eating.  She even allowed me to pet her while she ate.  Afterwards, she purred loudly and for the first time, I was able to slowly pick her up.  Tuckered out from lots of play and a protein-induced coma, she plopped down under my chin for a nap that lasted 45 minutes.  Farrah and I have been good buds ever since then.

Unfortunately, though, Farrah decided pretty early on that there are two kinds of people in the world; Mama (that’s me), and cat-flesh-devouring psychopaths.  Guess which category YOU fit into!  Farrah had become a one-person cat, and a tragic event added further challenges to getting her socialized with humans other than myself.  Our own cat, Pepe, had just been diagnosed with FLV, which meant that Farrah would have to remain upstairs, away from Pepe, and for the most part, away from everyone else, since I’m the only one who sleeps up there.  Thus, her socialization opportunities were greatly limited, which in turn, made it difficult to get her adopted.  In the end though, Pepe crossed the Rainbow Bridge and Farrah was able to take his place as our foster failure.  Adoption challenge averted!

The following Healthy Pets article (http://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2015/11/15/socializing-shy-cats.aspx), for me, has become a cat socialization bible of sorts.  I’ve shared it on Facebook once or twice, and recommended it to people I know who have felines that suffer from the scaredy cat syndrome.  It’s a simple, easy read, and has many helpful pointers.  You can read the entire article at your leisure, of course, but there are a couple of tips from the article that I would like to discuss here in more detail.

Tip# 5, along with other valuable advice, mentions, in passing, the following tidbit: “…and don’t stare at her [referring to the cat], because this can be perceived as threatening.” Yes!  The eye contact thing!  In all honesty, I really haven’t decided if cats actually feel threatened by this, or if they just find it awkward and embarrassing.  Even cats that are friendly and well socialized drop plenty of subtle hints that they don’t much care for it when we look at them.  Ever notice that your cat stops playing the moment he notices you watching him, or how he becomes instantly more affectionate when you switch your focus from him to something else (like reading the paper, for example)?

My old black cat Pugsley and I used to play a little game.  I would sit on the recliner, and Pugsley would sit on the floor and look up at me.  If I looked down at him, and beckoned for him to jump up into my lap, he wouldn’t budge.  He would look away, and sit there like he was waiting for me to do something.  If, however, I looked the opposite direction and began singing the I-am-ignoring-the-kitty song, he would immediately jump up on my lap and start headbutting me for attention.  Okay, so the silly song probably wasn’t necessary, but…*shrug*…choice of music nothwithstanding, do keep in mind, for the more timid cats, as well as the affectionate ones, that not staring, or alternatively, making only brief eye contact and then quickly looking away, or even ignoring them altogether for a while, can go a long way toward getting your kitty to seek attention from you.

I also have some additional points to make regarding tip# 6.  “Never force anything on your cat.  Don’t pull him from his hiding spot or hold him against his will (unless there’s an emergency of some kind and you need to move him).” I am in 100% agreement about not holding a cat against his will, unless it’s a matter of protecting his health and safety.  On the point about not pulling the cat from his hiding spot, however, while this is generally true, I recently learned that there’s room for some degree of experimentation.

Take the example of my most recent foster cat, a beautiful, brown and white tabby named Jackie (pictured on the Meet the Cats! page).  Jackie didn’t budge from her hiding spot for over a week, other than to eat and do her business, but only when no one was present.  I noticed, however, that when I reached my hand in to pet her, she would purr loudly, and even roll around on her back and allow me to scratch her belly.  Not exactly the kind of behavior you expect from a timid cat, and yet, she was VERY timid, even moreso than Farrah had been in the beginning, and for a much longer period of time.

One day, I decided to lift up the recliner that Jackie was hiding under, and gently pick her up.  She did not protest when I did this.  Furthermore, when I sat on the chair with her, she resumed her purr, curled up in my lap, and napped for about 30 minutes.  In the days that followed, Jackie was much more inclined to explore the room, and hang out on the cat tower rather than under the recliner.  It was as if she just needed somebody to show her that the room was safe, and people aren’t so bad.  On the other hand, when I attempted this same stunt with another person in the room, Jackie just about tore me to ribbons before diving toward the window, causing the shades to come crashing to the floor, and then she scurried back to her hidey hole where she remained for the evening.

Whereas Farrah is a one-person cat, Jackie, it turned out, is more of a one-person-at-a-time cat.  That being said, not all cats are the same, and what’s comfortable in one situation might not be in another.  But trying different things to see how she reacts, even if it goes against the expert advice, can sometimes help you get to know her better, and subsequently learn the most effective ways to interact with her.

After about one month, Jackie was adopted into a quiet home, with no small children, and no other pets.  Just like she had at my place, it took her a long time to come out of her shell, but with lots of patience, and a little bit of coaching from me, Jackie’s new humans ended up with a sweet, lovable, and very happy little kitty, who will probably just never be the life of the party.  Like Farrah, Jackie may never be comfortable around strangers, but she will, in all likelihood, remain closely bonded with the few individuals that are familiar to her, which is enough to make the household happy, and that’s what counts.

Socializing timid cats after they’re adopted, in many ways, is the lesser challenge when compared to the one that comes immediately before that, which is getting them adopted in the first place.  Especially when presented with more appealing options, not many people will open their home to a cat that presents no obvious evidence that he will ever warm up to them, even though he very likely will if given the chance.  It takes time and patience to earn a fearful cat’s trust that not everyone is willing to give, and even some who are willing may not be able to provide the necessary living environment.  Whereas cats that have a friendly and laid back temperament can live practically anywhere, including barns with horses, houses with kids and dogs, and lots of busy people, etc., cats like Jackie and Farrah would find that sort of environment highly stressful. Thus, there’s a limited pool of adoption candidates for shy cats, and shelters are overrun with them.  The Humane Society refers to these cats as forget-me-nots (https://www.animalhumanesociety.org/adoption/forgetmenot?page=1).

If you’re currently on the lookout for a feline companion, and you live in a quiet home with no small children and minimal human activity, please consider, not only which cat you want the most, but also which cat you can help the most.  The cat that immediately takes to you will likely do the same with every adoption prospect.  Let that cat go to the person with the fast-paced, chaotic lifestyle and house full of kids.  You have the perfect home for a special cat, and there are many reason why cats like Farrah and Jackie, who don’t necessarily show well in shelters, are worthy of your time and effort.  For one thing, once you’ve earned their trust, you’ll have a friend like no other.  Farrah still wants nothing to do with anyone other than me, and you know what?  I’m actually rather touched by that.  Just remember that the bond develops on their terms, not yours, and with a little bit of patience and gentle care, they’ll eventually come to decide, on their own accord, that being loved by you is actually kind of a groovy thing.

Best Regards!

Suzie’s Cat Refuge





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