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.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Kitten Scared of Humans: Parker Tries to Fit In

Dear Greyce,

I am having trouble adjusting to my new home. I am afraid . . . very afraid.

I am 15-week-old Burmese male who came (via airplane) to my new home a few weeks ago. When I arrived, Herself took me to a bedroom that she uses as her closet/library, opened my kennel door and left the room. About an hour later, she came in to check on me.

That was too soon for me because I was just coming out of the kennel. So when she opened the door I bolted out and hid. The next day she had to get me out of my hiding spot so we could go to the vet and get my check up. But now I'm getting used to my room. And only my room. While I live in a three-bedroom house, I have not been outside my room because Themselves are afraid that I will hide somewhere else and they will not be able to find me.

I have a well-established routine. Every morning Herself comes in with my wet food; she stays for about 45 minutes. Then she checks on me again just before leaving for work. When I am alone, I have access to dry food via a timed feeder. As soon as she gets home, she brings my second bowl of wet food and stays with me for about 30 to 60 minutes. She returns later and spends another one or two hours sitting on the floor in my room, either watching movies and playing with me. Just before bed, she comes in to say good night.

Himself comes in from time to time and gives me treats. He plays with me, usually later in the night.

I am eating and drinking well. I am brave enough to eat beside Herself's leg when she brings my meal(s).

And I have no problems peeing or pooping. I got a bigger litter box than the one I started out with because I shovel litter on to the floor. I also like to bring my teddy bear and one of my toy in there.

I love being perched on a box on top of the desk so I can look outside. I have a cave bed that I cuddle in, with a towel and my teddy bear.  And toys  . . . lots of toys: jingle balls and mice and an s-shaped track with a ball in it that I hit and chase back and forth. And I like to play with Themselves using anything on a string. My hiding place is under a chair.

So what is the problem? I hiss at my purrsons. And I run away and hide when they move even the littlest bit.  Even though I will eat next to Herself's leg or let Themselves give me treats, I will run away right after that.

Herself  tried to hold me a couple of times, but I resisted and cried until she let me go. Now she is afraid to touch me. In the hope of helping me relax, she installed a Feliway diffuser in my room last week.

It bothers her a great deal because she has had cats before, but never one like me. Can you explain why I behave this way? And what we can do about it?


Dear Parker,

You are an adorable kitten who has had a rough start. I know you came from a breeder and flew a great distance. Your difficulty in adapting to your new home and in particular, to your new purrsons, could stem from one of more of the following:  

1. Your parentage. It could be that one of your biological folks was also on the shy or fearful side. And in that case you have come by your purrsonality honestly (though why a breeder would purposely breed someone of that character . . . well, don't get me started). In your case I don't know. So this is a 'maybe.'

2. Your purrsonality. Kittens seem to belong to one of two groups: a) some of us our touch junkies who adore being petted, cuddled and carried about; and b) some of us are play jockeys who enjoy a good game or two or three) - at least according to Peter Neville and Clarie Bessant, authors of The Perfect Kitten . And who am I to argue with purrsons of credentials such as Dr. Neville - arguably the premier cat behaviourist on the planet and Ms. Bessant who heads up International Cat Care (formerly The Feline Advisory Bureau) in the United Kingdom?

3. Your experience with purrsons in very early life. Any kitten who is destined for a human household, must not only have instruction from his or her mother and the opportunity to interact with siblings, but also must have contact and frequent handling from purrsons. There is a very particular time window in which this must occur - between the ages of 2 and 8 weeks. This time window is very particular: If you did not receive this kind and amount of experience during this time, you will always have difficulties in dealing with purrsons.

During that time a purrson should have been spending about 40 minutes a day handling you - that is, stroking your fur, petting you, carrying you about, cuddling, touching your paw pads - the whole nine yards. And you should have had experience in being handled by at least four different purrsons (preferably some of each gender). This is what would enable you to confidently interact with purrsons.

My best guess, is that you missed getting enough, proper human handing during this critical period.

Now it doesn't mean that we cannot work on this and improve your relationship with your humans. But it does mean that you are at a significant disadvantage. It won't be easy. It will take time. And you will likely never been as relaxed about this as those who had such early experience. But you CAN change for the better.

In fact, it is essential. You need to get used to human company including being petted, carried and groomed. You may need help keeping your fur in order, or your pawdicure at its best, or in receiving medication - all of which depend on human handling.

So let's review the good points of your situation, as a point from which to begin.

1. You have a stable routine: You have two adult purrsons in the household. No children or other pets are there to distract their attention or ability to work with you. Besides, it appears that your household is a relatively quiet one. And you have a set routine with generous time periods set aside for human contact. Being confined to one room is probably wise at this stage, because the house could overwhelm you (especially if your previous experience to household environments was limited, say to a crate or cage).

2. You love interactive play: You enjoy string games with your purrsons. This is already an important element in building your bond with them. And this is also important, because we know that there are some sudden movements you enjoy (with the string toy), even though unexpected human movement (without the toy) frightens you.

3. You respond to food and to treats. Already Themselves are using these as motivators for human contact. Yippee! We will just refine it a bit.

4. You clearly communicate when you are in distress. We know that when you find yourself in difficulty you will hiss (a reaction of defensive aggression meaning 'back off because you are threatening me') or run away and hide.

5. You have a Feliway diffuser in your room and that should help give you a sense of comfort. Later on, when you are ready to explore other parts of the house (one room at a time - all other doors except to your safe room shut, please) I will suggest that the diffuser be installed in the room-to-be-explored, before you are left out into it.

So let's first work on play.

1. There is plenty on the page Interactive Play Therapy at the top of my blog to help Themselves refine their technique. I would encourage them to enrich your hunting environment so that play can become even more interesting.

2. I strongly recommend that you not have string toy play in your litter box. Should you go to the box to play, have Himself take the toy a very short distance away and then even a bit further. I do know that some of us like to put our toys in the box (and we don't need to deal with that here); but deliberately setting your box as a play area, just because you think it is a good idea, should be discouraged. We want you to pee and poop there. So use other areas of the room for recreation. (I assume your food bowl, feeder and water dish are kept well away from the box as well. I also assume all string toys are kept in a safe place (like a drawer you cannot open) when play sessions are over, for your own safety.)

3. Have Themselves read a copy of Playtime for Cats: Activities and Games for Felines. It is an excellent book that I'm about to review on this blog but want to advise you of now. It has all sorts of games, especially ones you can play when Themselves are away. These will keep you intellectually stimulated which is as important as a good physical workout. Better still, the games can be made from stuff around the house rather than having to buy toys all the time.

4. Since unexpected human movement scares you, remind Themselves to move s-l-o-w-l-y (except, of course, during string games) and to talk relatively softly in your presence. I also recommend that when, say, Herself watches movies with you, that she keep a wand toy (like feathers on a stick) beside her and start to wave it when she has to shift position. The feathers should get your attention and a short round of play will take your mind off the fact that she is moving.

5. And do remind your purrsons not to stare (IF they are doing so.) They are probably entranced by your handsome-ness and may not realize that direct stares are a form of aggression in feline society. In fact, suggest a quick refresher on basic cat talk.

And now to food - as a motivator

You will come near for treats (or a bowl of food) but as soon as you are done, you scamper away.

With treats, have Themselves try the following:

Offer you a treat at a distance of 1 metre (3 feet American) from them. Shorten this distance slightly with each treat in a single session. There will be a distance that you will no longer tolerate, that is, it will be too close for comfort. So stop the session there. Res for at least an hour. Begin the next session  just a bit further away than the last tolerated distance. Keep at this, slowly closing the distance between the two of you over the course of many sessions. Purrhaps they are doing this already.

Distance isn't a problem? Then try this: Treat #1 is given just in front of the purrson (on floor or palm). Treat two is given at the same distance from the purrson but in another direction (say on the right side), etc. In other words, vary the directions from which you receive the treat. The idea is to get you used to sticking around the purrson for more than one treat. By changing directions, you probably stick around longer and so start to get more used to it.

Okay, so you are at the stage where you will come right up for a treat (regardless of direction) but scamper as soon as you get it. Assuming you are already beside your purrson when this happens, have him/her try giving a treat to you on a very steady, outstretched palm. In very slow steps over many days, the purrson can sit on the floor and put the palm closer to his/her body (getting to the point where it is, say, resting on the knee). Again, one treat at a time to keep you near him/her as long as possible. Words of praise and saying your name repeatedly in slow, soft tones will be most welcome.

Ready for the big time? Try the Hidden Hand

Have the purrson have a set of treats ready - say 6. You get offered one at a time and the purrson says your name over and over while praising you. While you are busy chomping and listening to how wonderful you are, the purrson takes ONE finger from the hand that is NOT delivering the treats and briefly and gently touches it to your head (somewhere between yours ears and your neck). Start with one stroke during a chomp of up to 6 treats. Then stop the session. Your purrson could always have a wand toy handy for a short play session right after, to keep you from scampering away. With or without the play session, repeat the 'one stroke during a 6-treat chomp' until you are comfortable with it for at least three sessions in a row.

The next session you get two such strokes. Repeat as before - until you are okay with receiving two strokes for at least three sessions in a row. And in this way, work up to as many slow strokes as can be delivered within the chomping time.

The idea is to have you s-l-o-w-l-y get used to the feeling of being touched. They must go at a pace with which you are comfortable (which will seem like a snail's pace to them. They must pay careful attention to not go too quickly. And they must distract you with something you love, while you are receiving something that scares you.

It may take some thinking on the purrson's part of how to be positioned so this can happen without the appearance of sudden movement. Sometimes being seated (say on the floor) with the petting hand 'hidden' behind a cardboard screen slightly higher than you are, Parker, will prevent you from seeing its movement - and thus will be less scary. The idea here is to have you concentrate on doing something you enjoy (eating treats) while at the same time receiving a small bit of touch with a 'hidden' finger/hand. You get rewarded in this way, for doing something you usually fear.

Once you are well-adapted to this, the height of the screen can be lowered about an inch (2.5 cm) at a time (I'd keep it at the new height for several sessions before cutting it down). And in this way, over a period of time you can lower it to the point that you can tolerate the hand movement without feeling the need to run away.

Oh, almost forgot. Since the screen would be a new item, it would be worthwhile introducing it in the room first for a day or so, so you can sniff it and get used to it before you begin your screen-related sessions.

NOTE: I don't recommend them giving you bunches and bunches of treats in one sitting. They could resort to a portion of your kibble. Or they will just have to take this slow. 

Alternatives to the Hidden Hand

Okay, you are used to coming VERY close to the purrson, even taking food from his/her hand. Now what. I suggest trying a Lickety Stik which is a low-calorie treat delivered from a roller ball attached to a small bottle. And while you are licking it, one finger (only one) from the other hand could slowly, briefly and very gently touch the side of your cheek. If that area isn't convenient, try (with one finger) a spot just behind one ear. I talking one brief, gentle touch. If that is okay, then work up (over several licks) to two, and so on. Again this is one way to keep you occupied doing something you love (eating treats) while experiencing a gentle pet.

I know cats who best tolerate being petted while eating their food. Using the same principle above, you can try receiving strokes will eating wet food (starting with one stroke), assuming your purrson is seated low or on the floor (bending over you could be threatening).

Last but not least, you might consider getting a cat tree so that you can be situated somewhat higher - just like on the box looking out the window. Some of us really enjoy being so situated, say with a view to the bedroom door so you can keep an eye on things; that helps give you confidence and lowers your anxiety. Given your enjoyment of tents and hiding places, a stable one with a hidey-hole or a tent-house at the top might be ideal in the longer run. But since you are still a kitten and may not be able to manage a big tree, consider a cat condo - which looks like a carpetted tube which stands on end and has several levels, each with a hidey hole.

Here are some previous blog entries that might provide further tips or just give you some inspiration:
Beauty, a very shy rescued cat who was afraid of people. Entry: Why do I have to socialize?(dated 05/26/10). An aloof Tabby that disliked human handling. Entry: Only on My Terms (dated 12/20/09). Molly, a painfully shy cat trying to adjust to a very assertive on: Entries Oil and Water (11/10/09), Molly's Update (12/28/09) and Molly's Good News (02/22/10). And Friday's tribulations at being moved in Cat Hides When Moved to a New Home (03/09/13).

Okay, you have your work cut out for all of you! Do let me know how it goes. I look forward to hearing that you have gotten to the point where receiving a few strokes with a finger is quite fine. (Then we can work on getting you used to being lifted up.)

By the way, why not tell your purrson that when you are about to approach, s/he extend one finger toward you (at cat height, of course) - without attempting to touch you. That way you are in control; you get to decide whether or not you wish to rub your cheek along that finger in a time-honoured cat greeting.  I think it is only a matter of time before you extend the privilege of feline salutations to the purrsons who have given you a home.

Sending you whisker wisps of confidence,