Socializing the Semi-Feral Cat.

By Russell Neyman. The origins of William Shakespeare’s playful phrase, “The Taming of the Shrew,” are unknown to me but it comes to mind with this cat. I suppose the noun has a double meaning for which I am not familiar, the secondary one describing a temperamental, anti-social individual who, seemingly, wants to disagree with everyone. Teaser was once that way but, I’m happy to say, has become quite the companion. She has very little shrew left in her.

Take note of the fact that I consider myself a dog person, and have not really spent much time in a close relationship with a cat. All the neighborhood dogs know I’m a dog person, and they visit me often. I can figure out what makes a dog tick in a minute, understand their barks, and get them to behave.  Yes, our family had cats when I was a boy, but I never really paid attention to them. Teaser has taught me much about her species. It’s been a rewarding, learning experience.

For those of you who don’t know the back story, let’s recap: Teaser was a stray kitten my brother found when he lived in Saudi Arabia. At that time, Roy was going through a difficult divorce, and it occurred to him that he and this street-wise cat were both alone, so he adopted her. That was about fourteen years ago. He brought her back to the United States, and she has lived aboard his 42-foot sailboat ever since, sometimes at dockside but also when the boat was moored. The point is that the cat has spent much of her time alone.

Over the course of her stay on MABROUKA, she developed shrew-like behaviors. One was she would hide from strangers by holing up in a small crevice between sail bags or under stored gear. She was hardly ever seen, and when she was the encounters were unpleasant. Those of us who visited the boat learned very quickly that we should not attempt to pet or befriend Teaser; if we were lucky she’s give us a rattlesnake-like warning hiss, but often we’d just get clawed or bitten without provocation. Yes, she’d come walk around the room if she knew the humans on board, but no one could pick her up. She’d dart away or, if you did succeed in grabbing her, there could be an unhappy result.

In a word, this cat was nasty! Yes, blood was shed.  Picking her up or having a lap sit was absolutely out of the question.  This was not the sort of cat that curled next to you and purred.  Her outbursts were legendary and visitors to MABROUKA walked on pins and needles. Roy’s three daughters and all the cousins learned to steer clear.

It’s impossible to tell what turned her into this sort of beast. Perhaps she was abused by some cat-hating Saudi, or it might just be that a fear of humans is instinctive with her. In any case, she was not pleasant to be around.

This spring Roy had enough. “That cat gives me nothing—no affection, no entertainment, no companionship at all. I’m thinking about taking her to the pound.”

I was surprised. “Aw, Roy, Teaser has been your cat for fourteen years,” I replied. “You’ve been through a lot together, traveled halfway around the world together, and lived in several places. That’s got to count for something.”

“Other than a bit of warmth she provides when she climbs into my bed at night, she’s worthless,” he added firmly.

I had to pause and think for a moment before I responded with an offer. I lived in a fairly large house, with dogs visiting all the time – I am frequently asked to dog sit, and all the local hounds know I’m good for a steak bone so they simply drop in – and my lifestyle is such that I try to avoid encumbrances. But, I thought, maybe….

“Tell you what,” I said, “I’ll take a stab at having her live with me. I am absolutely not interested in having a cat that hides in a closet all day, but if I can coax her into being more social she can stay with me. The deal is, if we can’t co-exist after a month, you’ll take her back.”

*  *  *

Roy showed up with Teaser in a cat carrier two weeks later, along with her dishes, a scratching post, two combs, a very large litter box, and a supply of food. Once we released her from the carrier, she did what I expected her to do– she nervously ran off to a far corner of the house and hid under a bed.  We didn’t see her for several days other than a quick glimpse of a tail as she snuck to the food.

My plan was to allow her to get acclimated to the new environment for a week or two, let her see that I wasn’t a threat, and make it impossible for her to hide. All the essentials she needed – the food and stuff—were to be kept downstairs.  I was going to force her to be out and about. I knew that she was accustomed to living outside and dealing with other animals – Roy told me that she had confronted dockside raccoons in the past and held her own – and she certainly could deal with lousy weather. I was determined to get her to interact with the world. And with me.

Our first encounters around my house were, well, strained, to say the least. Mostly, she hid, and I’ll be darned if I ever found out where. Left alone, she eventually came out to find food or a more comfortable place to nap.

Once, she stalked and attacked me. For whatever reason, I grabbed her and tried to comb her hair. She strenuously objected, and broke free. Believing that encounter had ended (in failure) I began to walk away. Suddenly, she was on the back of my legs, biting and scratching like a lion taking down a wildebeest. And when I began to walk off a second time, I saw that she was aggressively following, crouched to attack. She was after me! This ten-pound ball of fluff was going to chase me down and pick a fight. It was, I suppose, because I had grabbed her earlier.

I read someplace that the best way to win a cat over is to allow the animal to pet you, so from that day on, that was the strategy I employed. No more picking her up; I would get this nasty cat to come to me.

I would find her sleeping on the guest bedroom bed, and seeing me approach, she’d skedaddle. Occasionally, she’d stay put and I would reach for her, getting a warning hiss and, once, a nasty scratch. One thing I did not do was react. I sucked up the pain, held my ground, and left my bleeding hand in place.  I wanted her to understand that I was not intimidated. She began to stay put, watching me suspiciously but letting down her guard slightly. Finally, I decided to go and sit on the bed with her (she certainly wasn’t going to come to me) lying down a few inches from where she was snoozing. She eyed me, blinked, and decided I was not a threat. The third or fourth time I went through this exercise she finally reached out to touch me, stretching and yawning, allowing her hind foot to come in contact with my leg and leaving it there.

First contact!

Still, Teaser kept her distance. Our interaction consisted of a cat-and-mouse dance that took place when I was sitting on the porch or the couch. She’d act like she wanted to be petted, but she’d stay out of reach, racing past me just close enough to lightly rub against my leg, bumping the top of her head against the back of my thigh. If I were stupid enough to try to grab her – I only made that mistake once – damage would be done.

I began to close off her hiding places during the day. “A teenage girl should be out and about,” I admonished her. “Staying in bed all day is simply hiding from life, so I’m closing all the bedroom doors.” It was a pretty simple matter to shoo her out and force her into the rest of the house.

While I closed some doors, I opened the ones to the yard. She began to explore, walking out onto the porch and venturing a few feet past the steps, racing back into the house at the first sign of a stranger.  Every day she’d explore a little further, until finally she learned that she could go out the front door and return through the back door and, even, circumnavigate the house. The funny thing about this phase of her new life was that she’d hide from humans, but stand her ground against other animals. Lily, the wandering Labradoodle, came into the house, hoping to sort through my trash or pick a fresh chicken off of the kitchen counter, and had an unpleasant encounter with a ten-pound ball of orange fur and sharp claws. She hasn’t been back since. The Australian Shepherd mix, Bluebelle, came to visit, too, greeted by a growl from the top of the stairs. Belle declined to engage.

Teaser certainly is a curious cat, and seems to want to know what is going on around the house and yard. If I go to my car or walk up the hill to my wood shop, she is inclined to follow. At first, she kept her distance, but as the weeks passed, she occasionally stayed close by, watching me as I worked in my wood shop. Having lived on a boat for so long, amid motors and engines, she isn’t fearful of machinery.

Then, things suddenly changed. She hopped up on the sofa one afternoon, sat down, and stayed close. I guess she finally decided I was an okay human. No, she still did not fully want cuddling or physical contact, but she wanted my company.

Most of the daylight hours she explores the yard, sniffing the flowers and chasing bugs. Another past time is to torment the neighbor’s cat, Sir William, who heretofore claimed my yard as his. Well, now there’s this frisky interloper, and he’s not happy about sharing. He has swatted and growled at her on occasion, but she’s completely un-intimidated and, in fact, seems to mock him. If it’s sunny, Teaser will stretch out and lay on the walkway, looking very much like road kill.

This cat is one of the better sleeping partners I have experienced. Things began slowly, as she preferred to sleep in a corner of the room, but soon she hopped up on the bed, seeking the warmth of my body as the days grew cool. At first she slept near my feet, but eventually she moved up to sleep near my midsection, sometimes lying on top of me. During the night I reach down and pet her, and have discovered that, while she doesn’t enjoy having her belly rubbed as much as most cats do, he loves to have her head touched. If I gently stroke the top of her head, she will almost instantly go to sleep.

We have settled into a nightly routine. When I decide to retire, I pick Teaser up from the couch where she sleeps in the late evening, and carry her upstairs. Held just so, with all feet fully supported, she relaxes and seems to enjoy being carried. If she’s out and about, I call her and she comes running to the house, leading me up to the bedroom. She asks to go downstairs once a night, presumably to use the cat box or have a midnight snack. On some occasions I join her, and then we both go back to bed.

As the cold months roll in, keeping warm is a priority with this cat. I put her favorite pillow near a space heater so that she can curl up near the dining room table during the day, but at night she’s with me, tucking herself into any nook my body provides. If I’m sleeping on one side, she wedges into the space formed by my bent knees; if I’m the other way, she fits into my waistline. Her adjustments are automatic, designed to afford her the maximum use of my warmth.

I have made a point to give her frequent physical contact, carrying her around when she will allow it. My normal morning routine is to get dressed, then pick her up and take her on a mourning tour, stopping at the windows on the stair landings so she can look out. She seems to enjoy that and is less inclined to complain about being carried. Our last stop is the sofa or her favorite chair, where I put her down. She offers a mild complaint, but accepts the fact that she will be spending the remainder of the day downstairs or outside. It has gotten to the point where she beats me to it; she knows when I am dressed and ready to go, so she parks herself near the bedroom door, ready to start a day of exploration. Now, she asks to go outside first thing in the morning.

*  *  *

I am learning her signals. She has at least five distinctive vocalizations, all variations of the basic cat meow. The most common one is “nee-OW,” which means she wants her food dish filled or a door opened. She also has a deeper “brrr-OH” which seems to be some sort of recognition call. It sounds like a growl but there’s no anger in it. I usually hear that when I come home and meet her on the front steps or when I wake up and find her sitting on the bed, waiting for me to wake up. She has a short chirp-like sound – nothing more than a “YA” — which is her sign of approval, as when she likes a snack of smoked salmon or cheese. When it’s only a minor complaint, I hear a very brief “Yow.” And there’s the one we have always heard, a “RAK, RAK, RAK,” which is her complaint about being picked up or forced to do something she doesn’t want to do, like being combed. Those are less frequent nowadays, although she always mutters it when I pick her up. Old habits are hard to kick, I guess. And, there’s always purring, which Teaser does more these days.

So an encounter might go like this:

“Hello, Little Girl,” I might say as I come up the steps.

“Brrr-OH.” (Hello to you, Human) Then, leading me through the kitchen toward the cat feeding station, “Nee-OW, nee-OW, nee-OW” (My cat dish is empty; will you please fill it?)

I reply, “Sure. I bought some new fish and chicken flavored Yams. Here, try it.”

She sits at the dish and snacks, chirping, “YA.” (Ummm, good.)

And if I reach down to pet her at this moment, “YOW!” (Not now, I’m eating.)

There are other signals. Besides the aforementioned welcoming guttural sound, she stomps her feet when greeting me. The stomp is part of a rapid back-and-forth dance she does when we encounter each other after being apart. Tail swishing, she paces back and forth in the area where I’m standing, casually rubbing against my leg, then moving away quickly, only to make another pass a few seconds later, stomping the whole time. It’s pretty subtle, but Teaser clearly strikes the hardwood floor with more force with her paws during these times, while the rest of the time it’s impossible to hear her move about. I’ve never witnessed this animal activity before, and it surprises me.

When our partnership first began, she’d aggressively bite my hand if she didn’t want to be petted. I mean, she’d really bite me. (This may be a feminine thing rather than a feline thing, because my experience with women is similar. I have learned that it is wise to approach them carefully, measuring the disposition of the contact-ee. On many an occasion I have reached out to offer what I intended to be affection, only to encounter an unwelcome growl.) The strange thing about her bites – yes, blood was let – is that she began to re-approach me and, occasionally, even lick the wound, as if to say that she really didn’t mean to do harm. Now, that method of communication has evolved to a point when she will only mouth me, a polite “no thank you,” followed by a tender lick. Yes, Teaser, I get the message.

She certainly has her ways of learning what I’m up to. Besides watching whatever I’m doing, she is quite attentive to my bathroom activities. My hunch is she wants to smell what I have been up to, and sniffing around when I’m on the throne in the morning is the best way to do that. “Tuna? When did you eat tuna fish? I didn’t get any!” she meows.   I absolutely cannot attend to this daily routine without a cat at my feet!

(A point aside that seems relevant: I have read stories of cats that can sense illness in hospitals, and I wonder if Teaser comes in to check my state of health. She doesn’t seem too concerned about me, so I guess that’s good. This is just a casual consideration.)

*  *  *

The transformation from an angry stray to a friend is pretty complete. She readily sits with me, allows me to pick her up, pet her, and – yes – she even purrs. She sleeps under the blankets occasionally, and enjoys being petted most of the time. If I call her in from the yard she comes running.  OK, she still prefers to be in control of things most of the time – most cats do – hiding under the table or behind a houseplant when she wants to be left alone, but there are several hours each day when she makes a point to sit with me and be a kittycat.

What do I think has made the difference? Why is she no longer the nasty cat she once was? My thought on that is that she needed more space than life on a boat afforded her and does not feel comfortable when confined. Or, perhaps she was just sea-sick and annoyed by the movement of a boat. There’s so much more here to stimulate her: a huge yard, other wildlife, thousands of smells and places to investigate.  I can relate to that because I’m much the same way. I also think constant company of someone and being forced to be out of hiding has helped socialize her. It has been at least six weeks since I have heard an unkind word from her. No hissing, no clawing, no anti-social behavior.

I have more work to do.  Picking her up and taking her to strangers will require a band-aid or two, I suspect, but I need to help her overcome her fear of humans. And my choice (not hers) is that she will learn to be combed and brushed.

Clearly, we enjoy each other’s companionship and spend a great deal of time together. In fact, I have been hindered during the writing of this essay because she has been sleeping on my lap the entire time, with most of her weight on my right arm.  It makes it difficult to write, but I can’t say I mind. Throughout this time in front of the keyboard she has tolerated my frequent movements to reach the Backspace Key or to remove her tail from the Spacebar, deep in a trusting sleep.

She is adjusting nicely.

________________________________________________________

Postscript.

For those of you who might read this because you are facing a similar challenge, I offer the following tips for dealing with an unfriendly cat:

  • Give the critter the high ground. Cats are small animals and easily intimidated by the size of humans. Allow them access to a dresser or shelf or, in my case, a staircase. They’re less likely to lash out if they aren’t cornered.
  • Wait for them to come to you. In most cases, they will, rubbing against your leg or arm. In the case of a truly feral cat, this may take months. And don’t be above enticing them with a snack or plaything. In the long run the cat will decide the terms of endearment. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is. If they aren’t a lap cat, they aren’t going to sit on your lap.
  • Pay attention to what the cat is trying to say. All of the mannerisms and sounds they make are messages—a complaint or a fear or a request. If you listen carefully, you can usually figure out what is going on. Talk to the cat, too, but believe what you’re saying. The point is that they don’t understand words, but they sense emotion.
  • Be consistent. Cats like a daily routine, and when you begin to gain trust by doing something right, do it again the next day at the same time and place.
  • Read books and watch that show about Cats from Hell.
  • Stimulate them. A laser pointer or ball of tin foil will do, and if you can distract a frightened cat from what it fears, they will calm down.
  • Do not show fear, frustration or anger. They sense these things. If you want to keep this cat, hold it in your heart that this cat will, indeed, be your friend and good companion.

 

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4 thoughts on “Socializing the Semi-Feral Cat.

  1. I’m glad for both of you! Sounds like you approached it just right! I’m curious. Is it only for YOU that she is this changed cat, or does she tolerate other humans now, as well?

    • That’s the next step. I’m going to hold her and carry her outside to meet new people. If I do it often enough with enough strangers (and successfully hold on to her without pissing her off) she may begin to lose her fear of humans.

  2. I’m in the process of taming a shrew right now and just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed this ! I have 2 dogs, but zero cat experience. Mine is a lot younger than yours, but they have similar traits. This was a fabulous read! I’m happy that I randomly found you on a Google search for semi-feral attacks 🙂

  3. Really enjoyed it Russell. I had a similar experience with a feral cat I fed because she seemed to be starving. Very slow, patient offers of friendship led in time to lap sitting, purring, and having a litter of kittens she trusted me to hold and pet from the moment they were born. What an honor to be trusted by a wild animal. Who tames who?
    Thanks for sharing your talented, thoughtful writing.

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