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.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Why Do I Have to Socialize?

Dear Greyce, As you can see from my photo, I am a Bulgarian beauty and I am in search both of a name by which humans can address me and a permanent residence. About a month ago, I was humanely trapped and spayed and then went to live with my rescuer. Unfortunately the large dog who lives with her gave me a hard time. I solved the problem by staying in the basement and roaming the yard. You can imagine what my life had been like on the streets, for I never went outside that yard.

I am not a social cat. I prefurr to stay by myself. However this did not meet with her approval. “How will you ever get adopted if you continue to behave that way?” she would say to me. Frankly I didn’t care. Life was fine as it was.

In the hopes of preparing me for adoption, she placed me for fostering in an apartment with a young couple. I’ve been here about three weeks and I have it just the way I like it.

I live in the bedroom. When they return in the evening, I hide. Then at night when they are asleep, I start to play.

I’m fed wet and dry food and have come to enjoy both. Sometimes when Herself serves my dinner, I let her touch me on the head. And sometimes I will watch Themselves lie on the bed or sleep, until one of them moves – when I leave immediately.

I am not aggressive but I fear noise and movement that is unexpected (or loud), and I do NOT like to be touched. I have a litter box which I use faithfully.

In other words, I am not much trouble at all. So why do I have to become more able to interact with human beings? I like things as they are. Nameless Beauty

Dear Beauty, When you were rescued, it was with human intent. Humans who rescue cats do so because they want them to lead safe and long lives. To them, this usually means living in a household with human beings (and sometimes with other animals as well). In such households, the humans agree to look after you (that is, to provide you with food and water, a clean litter box and safe shelter). If you are very lucky, you will also have toys and some ways to keep yourself mentally and physically active. (I consider this essential but you’d be surprised that some people do not.) And if you are exceptionally lucky, one or more of these humans will grow to love you for the wonderful being you are.

Such care is not without a price, however. Most humans expect some show of interest in them, in return. And what they usually expect is one or both of the following: 1) that you are entertaining, that is, willing to engage in games or other activities that they find amusing; and/or 2) that you will allow physical contact, because touch is seen as an expression of affection but also offers humans a sense of comfort. Only the most exceptional human will accept an animal as a pet who does not offer at least one of these.

Yes such people exist but they are very rare indeed. And usually their homes are already filled with what are termed special-needs animals – animals who cannot be adopted into the usual homes because they have physical conditions or disabilities, behavioural problems, or just cannot tolerate human presence. The problem, you see, is that there are very, very few such places where you can go. Most of the limited places available (and not every place wants a cat or would provide a good home for one) are ones in which the humans living there expect a cat to reciprocate – to show that they care for the humans, too. That is why ‘they’ say you must become social.

Reasons for Being Shy

Your hesitancy to engage with human beings can be the result of many things:

1. Genetics – Your mother or your father may have a temperament that is less inclined to seek the company of others and you inherited that disposition. We cats tend to be solitary creatures under normal circumstances; and some of use are more solitary than others.

2. Early Experience – Cats are most likely to adapt to the presence of non-cats when they are exposed to them at a very young age. It doesn’t mean you cannot learn to tolerate them when you are older, but it does mean that it will take a lot longer to do so. And it could mean that you will never become as adept or comfortable with humans as your colleagues who had the advantage of early experience. (The level of tolerance you already exhibits suggests, thank goodness, that you have not had prolonged exposure to a lot of mean people and thus fear all human beings.)

3. Environment – The kind of home in which you are placed and the expectations of the humans who reside there. At present you are probably in what would be termed a low-stress home: no children chasing your tail, no loud people, no strangers coming in and out, no people trying to hold or carry you against your will, no mean dogs, etc.

Given your history, you need to consider the following when you are choosing a permanent home. First, the humans living there should be patient and understanding so that they let you adapt at a speed with which you are comfortable. Second, they should have a relatively quiet and predictably lifestyle so you can quickly learn the routine. Third, you MAY benefit from the presence of another pet with whom you could bond – possibly a cat or an accommodating dog, as long as you are introduced to this pet SLOWLY. (Just click on my labels for Introducing a Cat and Introducing a Dog for further information).

Getting You Used to Human Presence

Your daily schedule suggests that you are still on your normal cycle (the schedule that cats use when they are in the wild). The normal cat in the wild sleeps during the day, hunts at dawn and dusk and is active during the night. Many pet cats also behave this way, more or less. But a cat who is bonded to his or her human tends to operate on the same schedule as that human does.

At this point I don’t think there is much we can do to alter you schedule, especially since your foster caregivers are away during the day. So let’s focus on three things: your physical environment, your schedule when they are at home, and your behaviour when they are in the apartment themselves.

Environmental Changes to Help You Adapt to Human Presence

Do you stay in the bedroom all the time because of choice or because you are too afraid to go beyond it or because they would prefurr that you stay there? And if they prefurr that you stay only in the bedroom, can you tell me why? These are important questions and if you can give me a reply, I can give you better advice.

In the meantime, we already know that you are shy in human company. So we need to alter your environment so that you get used to the presence of humans.

During the day when you are alone, it would be a kindness if your people could leave a radio on tuned to a station that has human voices. Better still if the voices do NOT shout but rather just conduct regular conversation. Start with it at a low volume and over the course of a couple of weeks; turn the volume up to normal (for human) listening level. This will get you used to the sound of a variety of human voices, as long as the radio is properly tuned so that you don’t hear a lot of static.

If they have a telephone that has an answering machine (NOT voicemail) they could make sure the volume of the machine is turned up (again starting low and slowly raising it over the course of several weeks) and call and leave you a message you could hear. They should start with once a day and then purrhaps more frequently (if it is convenient for them to do so). But to be successful, they really should name you so that you can start to recognize the name by which you they call you and then know that the message is for you.

Beauty would be a lovely name for you. Even if you go to another home and your adopters wish to re-name you, they should then keep Beauty as part of your name; that will make it easy for you to make the transition. For example when my colleague Cathryn Twinkletoes had arrived at her final residence, her name was Ginger. But she was such a dignified feline that Ginger did not seem to do her justice. Her purrsons decided to call her Cathryn. And to get her used to the name, they’d start by calling her Cathryn Ginger. By pairing the two names, she became used to the new one by which they wished to call her.

You need to have safe, convenient places to which to escape when the possibility of human contact is just too much for you. The usual places of escape are under furniture (especially beds) and in closets.

I would suggest they expand your choices to include one of more of the following:

- a box turned on its side so that it provides a roof over your head; make sure it has escape hole at the back, as well as an entrance at the front; this can be placed in a closet or elsewhere.

- an open box, that is, a low-sided box whose sides are still high enough to hide you when you are lying inside it, placed in a location where you can escape if you need to; this can be in a closet or elsewhere.

- a shelf (or table) above the ground with a non-slip surface, free of breakable objects.

Such options would be even more important if you are allowed into other rooms in the apartment because those areas will be new to you and your safety needs will thus rise until you get really used to them.

I’d love to suggest a cat tree with an enclosed portion, but that would be too expensive an option for your present situation.

Scheduling to Get Used to Human Presence

A shy cat, such as yourself, will operate best in a home where there is a defined schedule. That is, it will be easier for you if people are not coming in and leaving at all hours of the day and night in ways that are not easy to predict. At the present time, it seems like there is a reasonably set schedule – one that is easy for you to predict.

To enhance you sense of security, it will help if the times when the people attempt to interact with you are predictable as well. They don't have to be exact (as per a human watch) but they should happen in the relatively same order every day, if possible. For example: Are you fed at specific times of the day (if so, when and how often)? Is food left out for you during the day and/or night that you can eat when you wish to (if so, is it wet or dry or both)? Do they play with you at specific times? What kinds of games and/or toys do you prefurr? Let me know so I can be more helpful.

It is very important that your purrsons NOT try to pick you up or approach you (unless it is absolutely necessary, such as taking you to the vet or to a safe place). Cats like you will be much more comfortable if they can choose when to approach their people and can select the distance  at which they feel best, when they interact. Nevertheless, we must get you more used to people than you are now.

So let’s build on what you already will allow: You will allow some contact when you are given food. This is a good sign. Often cats who are leery of being touched will allow some contact when they are occupied with the important (and delicious) business of eating. So here is what I recommend:

Level 1: A brief period of gentle stroking using one or two fingers confined to the head (from the back of your ears to your neck only), upon being presented with food and commencement of eating. Gradually extending that period from a few seconds to a good, solid minute.

When you are fine with that - and it may take many days or even many weekes, your repertoire can be extended such that you are stroked for a slightly longer period and the stroking extends beyond your neck to your upper back. I do NOT recommend stroking the lower back at this point; that is often an area of tension for stressed cats and might scare you.

The basic principles involved in this level are similar to my recommendations for dealing with Petting Aggression (when a cat just doesn’t like to be touched and swats or nips the purrson instead). Now I know you are not aggressive. But since the same principles apply, have your purrson also read the blog entry, Biting The Hand That Feeds You (10/19/09).
Level 2: Offering a food treat (rather than your regular meal) at floor level. To begin with, your human might toss a treat to the area near where you are. Coming over to eat it will be a good sign. Then she can toss another, but a little closer to where she is so you have to travel a bit to get it. Once you eat that one, she can try to see if you will come to a treat that is closer to her still. Every time you accept the treat, you should get another chance for one - up to a total of five (so you don't get tired of them).

There will be a point when you no longer feel comfortable. She should remember this general distance and start again another time, roughly at that distance.

Level 3: Once you get close enough that she can lean over, she should try to give you a gentle stroke with one finger - just on the back of your head, as you are eating the treat. IF you accept the stroking, you get rewarded with another treat. Again work up to a series of 5 treat rewards in a row.

Level 4: At this stage she will offer you a food treat elsewhere such as when you are seated on a shelf or when Herself is seated on the sofa and you need to jump up beside her, in order to get the treat. Same idea and schedule as Level 2.

The other way to extend your tolerance of touch is to have you interact directly with your human.

Level 1: Human lies down quietly. No movement but she talks to you slowly in low tones, addressing you by name. There is a treat either beside her or in her open hand. It will be yours when you have the courage to take it. And when you do so, she should not make a sudden move or a fuss but just say something – again slowly in a low tone – such as “Good, Beauty. You are a wonderful cat.”

Level 2: Human sits very quietly. No movement. No eye contact or attempt to engage you other than talking to you slowly in low tones. There is a treat beside her that is yours for the taking. And when you do so, she slowly reaches over to stroke the top of your head.

In the meantime, interactive play sessions will help release normal day-to-day tensions and get you used to dealing with humans in a different way. Consult my entry, Only On My Terms (12/20/09) for further hints.

And since you are on your own much of the day, I hope you have some toys to keep you interested.

When you are able to respond to the questions I’ve posed, I will try to provide further details. In the meantime, also encourage Herself to read ……… if she has not done so already.

Do let me know how it goes, Beauty. Just remember to be patient with yourself. To a human, these steps seems minor. But to a cat such are yourself, they are major steps requiring bravery and confidence. I will keep my paws crossed for you: You can do it!