My formerly feral cat wants attention but won't accept it.
July 9, 2010 9:18 PM   Subscribe

Formerly feral catfilter: I can't tell if I'm making progress or if the cat is just neurotic.

Last August, we adopted two feral cats. They were captured at 8 weeks, and were at a shelter for a month before coming home with us. Ostensibly, one cat, Ariel, was for my daughter, and the other, Gatsby, for my husband and me. Oddly enough, that's exactly the way it's worked out. Gatsby has adapted quite well - she sleeps with us, gets aggressively affectionate, and has particularly bonded with me. Ariel, on the other hand, has only bonded with the kid, and runs almost every time Mr. Ruki or I approach her. That's fine, except she acts like she's desperate for attention when the kid's not around. On the rare occasion that she lets me near her, she gets ecstatic when I brush her, and will at times purr happily when I pick her up and pet her on my lap for a short time (if she's not into it, I let her go). Lately, she won't let me pet her unless she's at the food bowl. She'll cry loudly for my attention, then run to the bowl and wait for me there. If I pet her there, she starts purring and kneading the floor, and will headbutt me if I stop. This has become a daily thing. I've never owned feral cats before, but I have had a neurotic cat, and honestly, I can't tell the difference here. Is this a sign that she's warming to me, part of the socialization process, or is this the best it gets? What else can I do to make her feel less skittish? I've always made time to play with stick toys and laser pointers with her, and been generous with treats and the occasional scraps of leftover meat, which she loves.
posted by Ruki to Pets & Animals (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
She's training you to trade food for affection. Cats are rotters like that. Mine are also very affectionate at the food bowl to the point of absolute hamminess. My perception is that they are offering to pay me in currency that I like - happy cat love - for currency that they like - food and maybe even some happy human love.

It's a good thing imo. She's happy to let you get your smell all over her, which is a big step with a feral cat. There's no knowing how your relationship will play out, but it's a good sign for the long term.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 9:38 PM on July 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

She's warming up to you. And training you. Awww! That's a big sign of affection and trust.

You might try settling on the floor in a relaxed fashion and reading (newspapers and magazines are particularly inviting) and letting her come investigate you in that posture. Holding your hand out for her to pass a cheek or flank along is nice, but just letting her walk around on the reading material (and you) is really the goal. The more she gets used to a human of your size being a bit more manageable to approach, the more she'll likely relax around you. That's my experience with that flavour of neuroses OR skittishness in kitties, anyway.
posted by batmonkey at 9:56 PM on July 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

She loves you or is close to it. I have a bunch of feral cats (no I am not a crazy cat lady, honest) and this is normal behavior for some of them.
posted by fifilaru at 10:04 PM on July 9, 2010

There's a simple one question test to determine if your cat is neurotic.

Q: Is your cat a cat?

If yes, than yes, you are caring for a neurotic beast for your own amusement and edification. Most feral cats have a very rough life and there's a fair chance one or more humans were pointlessly cruel to them in their prior experience - confusion and mixed signals are completely normal. You are giving your cats a very wonderful life compared to what they had out of doors and there's no need to over think how you treat them, just keep being nice and don't overdo the people food.
posted by nanojath at 10:30 PM on July 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nthing neuroses in cats. It's a well-known fact that neurosis is written into the feline genetic code. You're hosed, buddy, there's nothing you can do.

Every cat has their particular neuroses. My girlcat will chew on my hand if I don't pet her when she wants me to, and she wakes me up in the middle of the night by crawling under the covers and yowling (ONLY under the covers, wtf). Apparently, yours likes getting attention at the food bowl. Over time, who knows ... maybe she'll ease up. Sounds like you're already making good progress!
posted by Heretical at 10:41 PM on July 9, 2010

FWIW, we got 2 4-month-old kittens that had been in a hoarder situation in their early lives (I'm not sure how old they were when they were rescued) and had lived in a foster situation after being rescued. One has turned out "fairly normal for a cat", and has bonded with my daughter, despite the fact that my daughter is not great at respecting pets' boundaries.

The other is still really skittish and neurotic in the way she interacts with people.

She full-on blisses out if you pet her while she's at her food bowl and/or eating and will yowl and yowl and dash up to the food bowl every time you walk by. There are a handful of other perching spots she eventually deemed to be "safe" places where you can touch her, but she cannot stand to be picked up, ever, and if you try to approach her when she's in a "not safe spot" she just slinks off.

She will also eventually hop up in my husband's lap when he's sitting in a certain chair watching TV, and again--totally bliss out on the petting. There's a little side table between my husband's chair and the one I usually sit on, and she's sit on the side table and let me pet her while she rolls around in ecstasy, but she very rarely will get in my lap (I watch about 2 hours worth of TV a week in that chair, while my husband watches 2+ hours a day from his chair).

Psycho kitty is terrified of my daughter and her disrespectful-of-pet-boundaries ways and pretty much stays out of the parts of the house where my daughter is most likely to be hanging out, except at night.

There's not been any real change in this behavior in the course of the 3 years we've owned her. The food bowl/petting obsession has resulted in her becoming stouter than her sister, although she was the thinner of the two for the first year of their lives.
posted by drlith at 5:25 AM on July 10, 2010

nthing feral cats and "safe places". My rescued cats are both highly affectionate, but there are still places where they aren't comfortable interacting for whatever reason; usually they'll run off to a happy spot and try to get me to follow them there.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 5:53 AM on July 10, 2010

One of our cats behaves much like yours. She doesn't accept casual petting, but has adopted a footstool as her 'petting area'. Every morning she'll yell at you until you go to the stool and pet her, even if you have your shoes on and really have to get the bus. Sometimes if we're watching TV she'll sit on a lap and be petted, but only if the lap is covered with a blanket. But when she does get petted, she's really really into it.

She was raised by us from a kitten, and I'm fairly certain she's never been harmed or mistreated in her life, nor wanted for anything. Yet she's neurotic in such a way that if she did have a feral background, you'd say "Yep, that's definitely why."

Moral: cats is cats. Cats is weird.
posted by Gortuk at 7:08 AM on July 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've got a colony of ferals. We trapped them when kittens were ~8weeks old and had them fixed and vaccinated, then released them and do nothing but feed them and keep an eye on them--occasionally re-trap them for boosters or veterinary attention. Husband is violently allergic to cats so we didn't plan to to tame them or otherwise interact with them.

Each of them has gotten friendly at feeding time. They started off coming to the shelf with the food bowls, ignoring the food, and meyowling for attention. All their idea. They wouldn't let me touch them, but they demanded attention and *tried* to let me touch them. As they'd get more demanding, they'd purr and make biscuits on the shelf even if they couldn't yet be touched.

Over time, if I would stand there holding out my hand and looking away for a few minutes each day, each eventually would come up and sniff, then days/weeks of sniffing the hand later, would rub against it. Then days/weeks later would stand with that arch to the neck that's an invitation to pet--though sometimes they jumped away before I made contact. It was not exactly a linear progression.

Several of them now accept (demand) serious petting; one became a lap-cat. There's still one who's trying her best to stand still when we feed them, but bolting if we get too close. But even she meyowls for attention; she just can't accept it yet. Each cat has his/her own comfort level; all I do is conform to what they're able to handle.

They're taming themselves, basically. I didn't plan to do anything like this, but they're quite demanding. All I'm doing is participating where their comfort level allows.
posted by galadriel at 8:09 AM on July 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

That's pretty funny - sounds like she is doing a bang-up job of training you. Nice work, Ariel!

Obviously the food dish area is the place where she feels it's safe for you to pet her. This makes no sense to us, but we are not cats.

One thing you could do is work to gradually expand the boundaries of the safe zone. Each time you pet her, try to coax her just a little bit farther away from the bowl. Perhaps you can encourage her with some of those Pounce treats.

If she can wrap her head around the idea that "anywhere I am eating a Pounce treat = My Food Dish Safety Zone," you can essentially pet her anywhere in the house. Of course you'll be paying for it with Pounces (which are fattening - adjust her feeding levels accordingly).

The next step would be to start reducing the size of the Pounce treats. Cut them in half, then thirds, and eventually get down to just dispensing a tiny crumb of Pounce. Hopefully by then she will be letting you approach her pretty much anywhere in the house, and the pantomime of Pounces can be eliminated entirely.
posted by ErikaB at 8:43 AM on July 10, 2010

I have a cat I raised from a kitten who will call me to come pet her butt while she eats. Its like she needs me to rev her engine or something so she can eat. There is plenty of food, so its not attention to get me to give her more kibble. I just chalk it up to "weird cat-ness" and humor her occasionally. So while the "safe zone" idea makes a lot of sense, it may just be a personality quirk too.
posted by gilsonal at 9:39 AM on July 10, 2010

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