An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Oil & Water - Introductions Gone Wrong

Humans can be exasperating, even with the best of intentions. Take my friend, Molly, for instance, who wrote as follows:

I am over five years old with light blue eyes and a coat that goes from white to tanny rust. I have a lovely round face with perfect small ears, long slim legs, and small dainty paws. Regardless of how beautiful I am (and I AM beautiful), I've had a very hard life. First, the people I used to live with had me declawed on all four paws. Most of my teeth are missing (though, thank goodness, I can still eat quite well). Second, I was abandoned -- found on the streets in winter. Third, after being rescued I was put in a small room of a sanctuary with five other cats who left me alone until I ventured off my perch to go and eat; then they'd attack me! My nose got scratched several times. The good news is that I was adopted about 18 months ago into a loving home. There, my feline companion was a laid-back Persian who I liked very much. Unfortunately he died almost a year ago, from a heart condition.

The difficulty started because my purrsons have big hearts. And because they have the space, they decided to open MY home to another cat. So about six months after the Persian died, an interloper joined the household. Her name is Ivy and she is an energetic, three-year-old. She, too, spent time in a sanctuary after being found wandering around. I have to admit that she is quite pretty: large ears with moon-like markings nearby, perched atop a small, triangular face, a black and grey ringed tail, and a snow white body. She has only eye and it is blue.

When she arrived at MY home, she stayed in the basement for two days. Don't worry, she got good care: there was lot of food, water, even a litterbox. And my purrsons made sure to keep her company as well. They soon learned that she is a lap cat.

After two days they let Ivy venture upstairs. Like any respectful cat, I ignored her at first. My folks thought I wasn't curious. They didn't know that I was sizing her up.

Now she is permanently upstairs and I wish she would keep her distance. When she passes by me, I hiss to tell her to back off. I will also howl. I've retreated to the bedroom and spend most of my time there (even though I would like to be in the main room -- perhaps on the dining room chair where I can be somewhat hidden).  

Ivy scares me. I've even peed a few times when I'm afraid to go down and use the litterbox for fear of running into her. (Also when my folks have gone on holidays, but that's another story.) When I venture out of the bedroom, I do so in a crouching posture, like I am hunting. Guess why? And yes, I admit to using the few teeth that remain and giving Ivy a good bite or two. Ivy also likes to go outside and spend a lot of time on the front deck. As far a I concerned, she could live out there!

I really like my purrsons -- even the human kittens. I liked it best when my folks took Ivy to stay with relatives who have three dogs while they took a vacation (the folks, not the dogs, that is). Ivy became the pack leader and I was left blissfully on my own (with a housesitter)!

So Greyce, the bottom line is this: I am anxious all the time. I never know when Ivy will come around me. And considering the life I've had, I think I have every reason to be scared. I didn't ask for this interloper and she won't leave me alone. I've tried to get her to back off, but she persists. I'm very vulnerable and have few defenses -- no claws, a few teeth and my growl. I fear that Ivy is here to stay. And now I hear talk of putting me on drugs! Help me, Greyce, I'm scared!!!

Dear Molly, my heart goes out to you. I can only imagine how frightened you must be. When I heard that all four of your paws had been declawed, I almost fell out of my cat tree! But never fear, The Cat Advisor will help.

It seems to me that we have three things to take into consideration: 1) your basic catsonality (fearful) and history of trauma which make it difficult for you to adapt to strange situations, especially those involving other cats; 2) Ivy's catsonality -- energetic, precocious -- which lead her to seek interaction and possibly dominance, along with her disability (one eye) which may make it difficult to catch some of the nonverbal social signals you send her (depending on which way she is facing); and 3) the introduction process which, in my opinion, went forward at the speed of light -- in spite of human intent.

Of course Ivy is the interloper (through no fault of her own). You were there first and it is YOUR home. That being the case (and with very few exceptions), a proper introduction to a newcomer is one that goes at YOUR pace. Now here is the problem. Your folks think they did everything right by sequestering Ivy and keeping you apart for two days. In human time, two days would be a very long time to have two people in a household who have not been introduced. What they fail to realize is that it is a very short time for cats -- even with two, well-adjusted adult cats -- let alone cats with special needs as both of you obviously are. Now don't point your tail at them in blame because it will serve no purpose. They meant well -- and now they will have a chance to do better by the both of you.

As you know in cat society, a proper introduction is always done by smell first. That is why cats being introduced to one another are sequestered. During the sequestration (that's a fancy word for keeping you two apart), humans are often advised to take a towel and rub it along each of you; that way you can exchange scents and incorporate that new scent into your territory. Scent incorporation is an important part of allowing you the chance to include that scent as something familiar to you and part of your home, rather than viewing it as a threat.

Because of your past traumatic history, chances are that you were never properly introduced to another of your species when humans were involved. It sounds like you were just put into a room with your five room-mates at the sanctuary; space considerations likely made this necessary. But ideally, you should have been given the opportunity for visual contact (without physical contact) first, for increasingly longer periods of time, until everyone was comfortable. So I'm going to take these principles and develop a purrsonal re-introduction plan for Ivy and yourself that will be based on the following rules:

Rule #1: The plan should proceed only at a pace at which YOU are comfortable. (The longest resident calls this shot.)  If you give the least sign that it is moving too fast (big pupils, bushy tail, ears back, crouch position, hissing, yowling, etc.) then that will tell your folks to go back to the previous step in the plan and let it take a bit longer -- a bit longer being measured by days and more importantly, by the signals you give.

Rule #2: While this plan is in operation, AT NO TIME should you and Ivy be allowed to be in contact unless completely supervised by a responsible human. I will talk more about exactly the kind of contact the two of you should have, a bit later.

Rule #3: You MUST have a safe area to which you can retreat, where you KNOW you will not be disturbed. Ivy will also need a safe retreat for sequestration, because you, as the longer-term resident, should be given the favour of having as much unrestricted access to the house as you wish (and as is feasible -- if these two are not the same).

Since you seem to enjoy the bedroom so much, why not declare it to be your safe place? For now, place your food and water dishes there. And get a separate litterbox and put it somewhere in the bedroom (though not near where you eat). (Under no circumstances should you have to run the gauntlet to use the litterbox. Even when you and Ivy are on good terms -- and this will take a while, your household needs two litterboxes; and given your history, they should be in two, different parts of the house -- so you will feel safe in using them. For now, keep the litterbox in your safe place.) When Ivy is at large, the door to this room should be shut so that you know that you are safe. Similarly, it seems like the basement (or a room in it) could be Ivy's safe place (complete with water and litterbox, too. I understand she is fed set meals, so she doesn't need a free-feed station.) This way each of you has a place you can be sequestered that feels good to be in.

To be extra careful in alleviating your anxiety (and you anxiety levels sound high if your folks are considering drugs), request the purchase of a Feliway diffuser. Feliway is the synthetic version of that facial pheromone in your cheeks that you rub on corners, objects and people, to mark your territory and give you a sense of comfort. The diffuser is plugged into an electrical outlet and has a container of pheromone that lasts at least one month. It will waft through the air. Your folks won't be able to smell it but you will. And it will give you a great sense of comfort. I recommend this for any cat who has to get used to a new environment or for any cat who is under stress. Feliway is available from your veterinarian. Having to buy the diffuser (which you only have to do once -- after that you only need refills that fit into the diffuser) is a bit pricey -- so don't expect any toys from Santa this Xmas. Just make sure they buy the diffuser and not the spray bottle -- which serves other purposes. (If your folks are feeling rich, they can purchase a Feliway diffuser for Ivy's safe place, too.)

The First Step: You should have the run of the main floor when you wish but this may not always be feasible. At the very least, you should be able to spend more time, unrestricted, on the main floor than Ivy. (Consistent with the rule that the longest residing cat gets precedence.) When you are about on the main floor, Ivy should be in her safe room with the door closed so she cannot visit you. When you retire to your safe area, Ivy can be allowed on the main floor. But if you show no sign of wanting to leave the main area and your folks think Ivy should have a turn, then they can take you to the bedroom and close the door. So the bottom line is this: you and Ivy will be time-sharing the space, for now. When one of you is using it, the other needs to be sequestered so that there is no possibility of coming into contact.

After you get the hang of this arrangement, pry the bedroom door open just a crack (big enough for a peek but not for a cat to get in - say about an inch and a bit) and SECURE it with a wedge. Then when Ivy is on the main floor, she could try and sneak a peek at you. You can also have a look if you wish (though I think you might be the last to do so). You will not be ready to move to the next step, until both you and Ivy can look at each other and not give off any sense of concern (those signs I mentioned before). A similar arrangement can be made with her safe room.

If your folks find that you are both hanging out near the door (or within a reasonable distance of it), they can give each of you a few treats to reinforce the idea that good things happen in each other's company.
If it is NOT possible to SECURELY fix the door(s), then go directly to the next step.

The Next Step: Have your folks put Ivy in a cat carrier in the main part of the house. Don't jump for joy at this. It doesn't mean that Ivy is going away. It just means that she will be kept secure. Then they can encourage you to come out to that part of the house (maybe treats will help) or they can carry you there (in which case you don't get treats). If they carry you, they should place you WELL AWAY from the cat carrier -- you should be able to see it but be far away enough that you are not threatened AND have an escape route that doesn't require you to go near the crate. It will help you a great deal to see that Ivy is in no position to harm you.

Now Ivy should only stay in this carrier for a few minutes at most. And if she is uncomfortable with this then we will have to think of something else. The point is to start with Ivy in the carrier for a minute, once or twice a day and SLOWLY work up to the point where she can be in the carrier for 10 minutes, twice a day. This may take several days or possibly over a week. Obviously if Ivy is in distress, she has to be released -- but only once you are safe. Obviously if you give any of those signs that you are uncomfortable, then Ivy should be carted away.

When things are going well, you may either be ignoring each other or you may even be comfortable enough to approach the crate. When you get closer (without incident), you both deserve a treat.

The Step After That is to get you used to being in each other's presence for longer periods of time -- but without direct contact. This can be achieved in a number of ways: by putting a harness and leash on the both of you -- or at least on Ivy, attached to a responsible human and again allowing you to spend time in the same room without being able to get up close. I'm not sure that the harness idea is the best but if you want to consider it, write me again and I'll give you more details.

I think it would be a better idea for your folks to put their Xmas toy budget toward the purchase of a medium-to-large, all wire dog crate -- if they can. (All wire is best because it allows you and her full view.) Perhaps those dogs with whom Ivy stayed have such a crate that they can loan. If there is a crate like this in the house, it can be converted into a temporary apartment for Ivy. It can have a litterbox at the back, a water bowl, a blanket or pillow - perhaps even a shelf installed. That way Ivy can participate in the main room while you are there and she will not feel left out. And you can feel secure that she cannot get you.

Again, if you start by ignoring Ivy (either when she is in the carrying case or in the crate), you might get to a point where you are curious enough to go nearer to her. When this happens, your folks could give each of you a small treat to reinforce the idea that good things happen when you are closer together.

The good point about using a large crate is that it doesn't required human supervision of your interactions and it can be used for longer sessions. (Carriers have limits because Ivy can get a bit cramped and doesn't have access to a litterbox). And it allows the both of you to get used to each other, safely. Now I don't expect Ivy to spend her life in the crate, but longer periods of time will help you both get used to each other.

There will come a point when you both are comfortable enough that you can be allowed in each other's presence without the crate. This should still be done with human supervision (and perhaps a harness/leash -- at the very least, for Ivy since she seems to be the curious one). The point is to keep her at a distance that you are still comfortable. If she gets closer and you are uncomfortable, the meeting should end and Ivy should be crated or taken to her safe room. We want all your interactions with each other to be positive.

Even once you have behaved in a completely comfortable manner with each other, if I were your human I'd wait at least a couple of months (or more) before letting you both be completely alone with each other with no one else in the house. In other words, when responsible humans are off-site, at least one of you should be secured in your safe place. It's best to err on the side of caution.

While you are on this plan, your purrsons need to spend time with each of you. Encourage them to give each of you some play sessions (in addition to cuddles, rubs or pets), say with a fishing pole toy or some such, so you can work off any pent up energy.

And if you don't have one already, think about a cat tree. I'll write about how to choose one in a later blog.

Okay Molly you have your work cut out for you. The main ingredients of this plan are patience (lots of it) and time. It may take several months to work because of your special needs. But if your humans are committed to the both of you, I think it has a good chance for success. I'll keep my paws crossed for you both!

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