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.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Cat Hides When Moved to New Home: Friday's Trauma

Dear Greyce,

I am a 10 month old, spayed, female kitten with a mainly black, short-haired coat. I lived happily with my three siblings until two weeks ago. Apparently our purrson was moving into a condominium and was only allowed to take 2 kittens, so the others of us have been placed elsewhere. 

Greyce, if you can believe it we weren't told what would happen to us! One day I was put into a crate, carried into a car and driven to another destination. Before the ride was over, I threw up. Upon arriving at the new destination, I was dropped off into the basement, removed from my crate and left alone.

My new purrsons thought I would have a chance to adjust to my new surroundings by being confined in one area with all of my equipment: I have a litter box with clumping litter. I have a water dish and I have a bowl of my regular kibble.

The basement is large and unfinished. Things are stored there and it is all one big place. There is a machine which sometimes makes noise when a purrson puts clothes into it; they come out wet. The purrsons live upstairs.

Since then I have been hiding out near the ceiling in the rafters beside the air ducts where it is warm. I come down to eat at night when it is very quiet. No one sees me. The purrsons are getting anxious because they understand that I was a friendly kitten in my former home.

I am eating, drinking water, peeing and pooping. But I have yet to play with my catnip mouse. I just hang out in the rafters for most of the day, and come down to eat, drink and use the toilet in the night.

At first my food and water were a distance apart from the litter box. But they have now been moved into another part of the basement in an attempt to get me nearer the stairs, so I can be enticed upstairs. 

I remain terrified. Do I have to live like this for the rest of my nine lives?


Dearest Friday,

My heart goes out to you for you are indeed terrified. Right now you are in survival mode - hardly the time you would be interested in playing with your toys. I am sure your purrsons are very concerned. So let's start at the beginning.

You were dropped off, already traumatized by the car ride and without the security of one of your other feline companions. Then you were placed in a large, strange area - albeit it with the necessary supplies. This is a HUGE area for someone your size and you must be overwhelmed by the need to deal with it.

If I were you, my first order of business would be to find safety. And that is exactly what you did. High up and out of sight. No predator could get you there. Good job!

The next order of business has been to come to terms with your territory. You have laid down scent trails with your paw pads so you can find your way to the litter box and to food and water in the dark. You have marked key protrusions (like furnishings or boxes enroute to your hiding place) with the pheromones in your cheek pads in order to give yourself a sense of comfort. And you will refresh these periodically, since scent decays over time. Well done!

But while you are in the process of doing this at night to form a cognitive map of your space, changes are made to your territory! Some kindhearted soul - in an attempt to hasten your adjustment - moved your food and water! Let me guess. I bet it is further out in the open (probably nearer the stairs) which is exactly the last place a frightened cat would want to have it.

Your purrsons don't understand how unprotected you are and how much you need secure territory. We cats  don't advertise where we eat, drink or toilet because we are sitting ducks when we use these facilities. We prefurr to have them a bit out of the way or at least somewhat sheltered. And we need to have two escape routes because we never want to be cornered. So protection will be very much in order.

Of course there is one good thing about your litter box location - it is away from your food and drink. And thank goodness you are still using the litter box well, and are eating and drinking. These are good signs.

Now we need to have you become more comfortable with your surroundings, especially your new purrsons.

So here is my plan for you:

1. Demand that some privacy be established around your food and water bowls. Make sure they are not in the unprotected, clear middle of the basement area where you have no way of hiding.  Even a small row of boxes or the placement of a chair can make a privacy screen, for example. And you shouldn't have to be in the unprotected open area in order to have access to them. Whatever is established, make sure you have two different escape routes from it (so don't close it off in a corner). Now if establishing this is just too much hassle or too difficult to accomplish without a lot of noise, movement and re-arrangement (which can be even more disturbing for you), then just start at Item 2, below.

2. Encourage one (or at maximum two) of these new purrsons to set up camp. Camp should be some distance away from your key areas (food, water, litter and your hideout). Sorry but I cannot estimate what 'some distance' means since I do not know the dimensions or layout of your basement. But establish it as far away from where you hang out as is possible, while still in viewing distance of where you are.

By setting up camp I mean s/he should pick a chair or something else to comfortably sit on. And if the area is dark, then s/he should rig up some lighting nearby (without lighting up on the whole place, if possible). This will be a place where said purrson(s) can read or knit or just sit quietly. Sitting quietly is the order of the day.

3a. Establish a routine that you can get used to, between you and this purrson(s).  Have the purrson come down for one or more periods each day at around the same time, if possible. You will start getting used to when this occurs and not be taken by surprise.

As s/he descends the stairs s/he should warn you with more that footsteps by saying something like, "Hello, Friday,"  in a soft voice. S/he can continue making a bit a conversation if s/he chooses, saying your name slowly and repeatedly. And then /she should settle down to some task that does not involve you, like reading a magazine.

Sorry, cellphones are not recommended because that involves a lot of talking and likely raised voices. The use of noise machines or equipment is banned during this time. And if the purrson is at all anxious, insist s/he takes some slow, deep breaths to lower her respiratory rate (to which you are sensitive).
 The basic rule is: NO loud voices, NO fast speech and NO sudden movements - everything slow and gentle.

And yes, during the beginning or the end of one of these daily periods, s/he can replenish your food, change your water and/or clean out your litter box.

At the end of the period, s/he should say, "I'm going now Friday. I will see you later." And then slowly leave. Said purrson should leave a dirty sock (meaning one they have worn for a day or so) on the sitting area, so you can sniff it and incorporate it into your territorial smell repertoire. That sock can be changed a couple of times a week.

At some point you may be tempted to come from your hiding place for a closer look.

Fine points of this process:

Start with a 15 minute session. In three days' time, increase it by 5 minutes. And then increase it by 5 minutes each day up to an hour per session (or more) depending upon convenience. They can do this at a slower pace but should never do it at a faster pace.

After the first week, the purrson should move the sitting area toward where you hang out by 15 cm (6 inches) per day. Yes, only 6 inches and no more. This is a large distance in territorial change for us (even though humans thing of it as small). They can do this at a slower pace but should never do it at a faster pace.

When the sitting area is around 2 metres (6 feet) from where you hang out, do NOT move it any closer. At some point, you will decide to come down from your hiding spot while your purrson is present. S/he should make a habit of not looking at you directly or even acknowledging your existence. Everything should be under your control. 

When the sitting area is at this distance, treats and/or a special game can be offered.

For example, your purrson could take a package of treats and offer you one small treat. S/he can hold out her hand with a small treat and offer it to you. Of course you are not going to come up and get it. But then s/he can gently throw it in your direction.

If you choose not to eat it then, it should be left for you to eat later. Meanwhile, the purrson should go about doing whatever it is s/he was doing - talking softly to you but also focusing his/her gaze elsewhere (like on a book, or a few feet to your left or right (because staring is a very aggressive act, as is eye contact).

When you are at the point of eating a treat that is thrown near you in the presence of your purrson, you will be well on the way to making a new friend. And then slowly you both can work on getting your comfortable with taking a treat from a closer distance. And then treats can be used to entice you upstairs.

Not every cat likes treats. And sometimes getting less dependent on treats is a great idea. Here is where a gentle game comes in: Break into your catnip allowance and purchase a package of three peacock feathers from Dollarama. (I mention this place because I know where you live and these kinds of stores are available and the feathers don't cost much here.) I suggest this rather than a wand or fishing-pole type toy because is its movement can be made so slowly and gently. And that is what you need to start out. Have the purrson gently and slowly wave such a feather on the floor to catch your attention and arouse your predatory instincts - and thus set the grounds for play.

Again, when you are able to engage in and enjoy such a game, the feather can be use to slowly close the distance between the two of your and then, s-l-o-w-l-y, to entice you up the stairs. Remind them, however, that they should help you get used to one room at a time, by closing off doors to other spaces so you can adjust to the upstairs at your own pace.

Friday, your purrsons will probably find this a slow process but it is better to go slowly than leave your current situation as it is. If they can follow these instructions carefully, I have every reason to believe that you will be comfortably leaving your hiding place and joining the rest of the household in due time.

If you need more tips, click on 'moving' in my labels list and look for the following entries:
On the Move (1/22/10) and Moving On (11/28/09)

With purrs of good wishes to a very brave kitten,