I have been involved with an array of animal rescue projects in a variety of countries. When I’ve worked abroad it has, for the most part, been for a program that aims to release animals from the bonds of extortion, offering freedom from abuse at the very least, and sometimes with the goal of rehabilitating the animals back into the wild. These projects cater for each individual animal’s personality, quirks, health issues, etc. For example, at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehablitation Centre in Borneo a particularly ill primate will be given intensive care with a rehabilitation plan tailored for its every requirement. At the White Wolf Sanctuary in the USA if a particular wolf feels threatened by human males it will not be forced to interact with them. These projects adapt to suit each animal they work with, rather than requiring the individual animal to suit the program’s parameters.
Not every rescue organisation has this ability. For example, a cat rescue & rehoming charity I work with in New Zealand, Lonely Miaow, aims for the succinct but ambitious goal of “no more strays” in its area of operation. We rescue stray cats and kittens (including those abandoned by previous owners) with the ultimate goal of finding new homes for them. A cat or kitten’s chance of finding a new home depends greatly on its temperament. An ‘aggressive’ or otherwise fearful cat may never be adopted by a member of the public. Thus, it is our job to socialise them as best we can. This can be incredibly tough, and in this post I am going to outline the general five-step process I use for ‘taming’ timid kitties.
The first step is creating a safe, confined area for your fearful feline. I use crates as a starting point. I prefer crates because they are smaller and more secure than a whole room. Plus, cats and kittens are adept at squishing themselves into impossibly tiny hidey-spaces. You don’t want your kitty to be able to escape you completely. In a crate you can provide them with a dark box to hide in, but ultimately they are within your easy grasp if you do need to handle them for any reason. You don’t want to be chasing your feline around a room because this stresses both you and kitty out, and means that they will associate you with a negative experience. A crate is a safe, small, secure area that you can control.
Give your kitty a day or two to get used to its new environment and settle.
2. Tasty Food
Cats are opportunistic carnivores, built to eat 12-24 small meals over a 24-hour period of time. They should have some food and fresh water available at all times. I feed my rescue cats standard dry food provided by the charity. Once or twice a day, however, I find something super tasty for them to eat. My preference is Jimbo’s pet food – a New Zealand-made raw meat range suitable for cats. I find that many rescue cats who have had to catch food on their own are crazy about good quality raw meat. It’s extremely nutritious for them, and I always notice an improvement in the condition of their coats once they have decent raw food in the diet.
For those kitties I’ve encountered who don’t give the raw meat the reaction I like to see, I trial a couple of other things. Fussy Cat grainfree is a brand of pet food in Australasia that offers a variety of wet foods. One of these tends to be a winner, and I love the fact that they have a whole range of grainfree products (cats don’t have any nutritional requirement for grains).
A main point of offering this tasty food is to get kitty associating you with something positive. My strategy is to provide the standard dry food at all times, but once or twice a day offer something super tasty. I start with just popping the tasty food in the crate and walking away (you want kitty to have an opportunity to eat it properly and get hooked!), and over time I will hang around the crate while kitty eats, or even sit at the door. Depending on how confident you think kitty is you can even trial giving them a stroke or two while they eat. If all goes well you’ll eventually find that your furry friend will anticipate the meal and may start to call for you to visit them in their crate, and even approach you when you do so. Using tasty food is how I’ve broken the ‘no touch’ barrier with many of my rescues.
One case study is my own boy, Louis. Louis was found as an unneutered adult male. He was very timid when he came into my care. I popped him in a crate and he lived in my kitchen for several weeks while I tried to get him used to me. It was a real breakthrough when he let me hand- and spoon-feed him food. I didn’t have any other cats at this point – often you find that having confident cats around really speeds up the progress of socialisation. For Louis and I it was just us two getting through things alone.
3. Forced Snuggles
Anything ‘forced’ may not sound very positive, but this is something you are going to want to trial with your timids once you feel they have gotten used to your presence around the crate more. I find it works best with multiple kittens. For example, there’s always one kitten in a litter who seems a bit more confident than the others. This is the cat I focus on for snuggle time. My process is not to pick them up, but to pat them where they are in their crate. Often they will run into their hiding box – that’s fine, but I still go ahead and pat them. You don’t want them to learn that they can run away from you; you want them to get used to being petted. If you have focused on the most confident one you’ll find that after a few times of giving them pats they should start to purr. Once you have one purring it’s much easier to get the others to settle into the pats, too.
This is a situation you definitely want to judge properly. I have had some incredibly flighty cats that would go nuts the first few times I patted them. In these instances I kept it very brief; I made sure to pat them before leaving (because I didn’t want them to learn that if they ran away they would be left alone – this may sound harsh, but it does work) and then popped a portion of their favourite food down once I was done.
There are always going to be cats who are impossible to ‘tame’. I wouldn’t force-cuddle any cat who is going to be a danger to you or itself if you try and initiate contact.
One week after being able to hand-feed Louis he let me stroke him properly for the first time. He wasn’t sure at first, but he settled into purrs quite quickly (and I had to document it with a photo, of course). Most cats do want to be loved, it’s just helping them get to the point where they feel safe enough to relax.
Playtime is an incredibly helpful tool for bonding with your cat. It releases endorphins and is another way in which kitty will associate you with a positive experience. I particularly like the ‘fishing rod’ (or, magic wands, as I call them) type toys; a rod with a dangly fluffy or feathery toy at the end of it. These give you control over where the toy goes, and you can even use them to stroke the kitty every now and then. Cats are natural predators, and their drive is to investigate any little movements, so if you have them immersed enough in your play session they will almost forget that they’re nervous around you!
You may want to swap the Forced Snuggles and Play steps depending on how comfortable you think kitty is with you.
5. More Space to Roam
My final step is to see how kitty goes being given more room to explore. In my current home the living room and kitchen are connected openly, so once kitties are let out of their crates they have quite the space to run around in. This is a big test, and I only let it happen once I’m confident that kitty will come back to the crate if I lure it with food or a toy. I begin my playing with their favourite toy outside the crate door. They will timidly step outside, and enjoy some playtime. I usually get them back into the crate after a few minutes of this. Next time they will be more confident, and I’ll encourage them to venture a bit further.
You want them to learn that when the crate door opens to let them out, they have to interact with you. Sometimes when I have multiple kittens in a crate I’ll be happy for only one or two to come out, but more will try and escape. You do not want the really shy ones to get out into the rest of the house, because that will eventually lead to a chase (and a negative experience for them). So the rule is: kitties can only come out when they get involved in some comfortable playtime or let you give them some cuddles.
Dragon was a beautiful boy I had from a litter of four. He has been the most difficult kitten I’ve had to handle to date. I began by needing bite-proof gloves to handle him with, and he would get incredibly stressed. Even when his siblings were out of the crate and happily roaming around the house he would have to stay confined because I knew he would simply hide from me if I let him out. He took time and patience, and a mixture of food bribes, carefully introduced playtime and pats when I could get them. When I did eventually let him out to the rest of the house he became quite timid again – this is not uncommon when the kitty is exploring a new environment, and you just have to use their favourite bribe (food/playtime/cuddles) as you see fit to assist them with getting more confident in different areas. Dragon would shy away from me if I went to pat him in the larger rooms, but once I did manage to stroke him he would turn straight back into a cuddly baby. By giving him lots of cuddles as he was wandering around he eventually became relatively confident, and was adopted by a lovely guy who tells me that he now gets drooled on every night because Dragon is such a smooch! It’s all about finding the right tool for the individual animal, as they all deserve to find loving homes that they feel safe in.
As for Louis, my partner and I officially adopted him after several months of having him in our care. Adult cats are certainly more difficult to rehome than kittens are, and he wasn’t getting too many hits from potential adopters. We realised that things just wouldn’t be the same without him around, so we took that step ourselves. He is now our “number one son” and helps us to bring other rescue kitties out of their shells.