How much will this traumatized cat bounce back?
February 1, 2014 12:36 AM   Subscribe

We are both experienced cat owners. In November, our beloved Tigger passed away; in December, we got three black cats from a shelter. Two of them are socialised and friendly, the third is not. (We knew this and we were willing to take the chance.) Third cat was raised in the house of a pet hoarder, who let them inbreed; he lived there with 65 cats (!) for 6 months to a year, and was then seized and brought to the shelter, where he stayed for a year and a half. How normal and happy can we expect this cat to turn out over time?

The cats are getting along reasonably well, there is playing and mutual earwashing and the occasional snarl. No actual fighting and no one gets hurt. All three cats are around 2 - 3 years old and spayed/neutered.
Everyone eats and uses the litter box; everyone seems healthy. There are two males and a female. The female is tiny and dominant.

Scaredy cat spent the first three weeks in a closet, then started coming out when we began using Feliway. He's now out and about most of the time, allows us to pet him several times a day, and observes and learns normal cat behaviour from the other two. So things are definitely looking up, and even if this is how it's going to be from now on, that's okay.
However, he is still very very skittish; for example, we've not been able to put a collar on him yet, and I'm wondering in how far he will improve over time.
He's been here for less than two months now. Surely that's pretty short?

Does anyone have anecdotal evidence of cats that are very skittish initially, but keep learning to trust over months or years? Or of cats that don't?
posted by Too-Ticky to Pets & Animals (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Two months is very short and you've done a wonderful job so far. Friends of mine had an adult cat from a similar hoarding situation. They brought this cat into a house with two large dogs, another grown cat, and a small assortment of other pets. The cat apparently took a couple of years to "normalize" but by the time I met him he was a wonderfully cuddly fluffball. Evidently in his earlier years he pretty much exclusively lived in the basement and slowly expanded the areas in which he felt safe. They still fed him in the basement and provided lots of comfortable warm spots for him there throughout the years. He was happy to inspect strangers and once he deemed them acceptable would allow petting, and couch cushion sharing. The large dogs helped him deal with surprise loud noises - if it was a dog-related noise he was entirely nonplussed, and other noises just made him look around with alert. He pretty much picked one of my friends and latched onto them as his human - when he didn't sleep in the basement at night, he slept with him. He was always picky about who was worthy of touching him, but no more than any other cat.

So there's an anecdote for you. Your other cats will help him a lot and you sound like patient cat parents.
posted by Mizu at 1:58 AM on February 1, 2014 [9 favorites]

Some cats never get past the skittishness. I have seven, all rescues. One of them is eleven, has been with us for eight years, and still won't tolerate being picked up or restrained in any way. I have a 4" scar on my arm from last time we moved--there was a lot of blood (mine) involved in getting her in that carrier. She'll let people pet her, occasionally, and then gets scared and runs away after a few seconds.

She's sort of an anomaly, though. Generally speaking, my experience is that cats take anywhere from a few days to a year to get used to a new living arrangement. When I've had any major change with my animals (new animal, new house, new person in house), I anticipate an adjustment period of three to six months, and figure that up to a year is still solidly normal. Sometimes they'll surprise me and come around much faster, but generally speaking, they seem to adjust slowly to things.

For whatever it's worth, I've had more than one cat go from extreme skittishness to lapcat over the course of a year or two--I'm typing this around one of them right now. It sounds like your little guy has been through some pretty intense trauma in his relatively short life, but he's clearly already starting to trust you. My bet is that inside a year, he'll be sleeping on your feet at night and jockeying with the computer for your attention in the day.
posted by MeghanC at 2:11 AM on February 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

I adopted an adult cat from a shelter. She ran to the front of her cage when I approached and was very affectionate, letting me pet her and purring.
When I opened the gate she leaped out of the cage and into the carrier the shelter provided. When I got her to my place, though, she scurried
behind a large bureau and hunkered down for what turned out to be three weeks. She would come out briefly to eat/drink/use the cat box.
I spent time with her every day and didn't attempt to dislodge her.

After a few weeks she started to venture out to play with the other cat, an ancient enormous marmalade.
She didn't like being picked up and was never a lap cat.
But she was very affectionate and especially liked being brushed. She got along really well with the other kitty.

It sounds like scaredy cat is recovering from the trauma of the hoarder house and the 18 months in the shelter: he's affectionate toward you and integrating with the other two cats.
He's had a rough life. He's made a lot of progress in two months, though. Hang in with the patience. Give him the space he needs and all should be well.
posted by Pudhoho at 2:37 AM on February 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

Socks, our dearly departed rescue cat, was inbred to an almost impossible degree (cue "I'm My Own Grandpa"). He had allergies but other than that lived in our house for 13 years until he developed an inoperable jaw tumor and we had him put down. So yes, thy can survive and thrive.
posted by brownrd at 4:45 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Different cats have different personalities. I don't think we can truly predict how Scaredy will end up, but if he is getting along with the other cats and he consents to being petted, that's highly promising. It is also a very good sign that he is showing his (beautiful!) belly in that photo you posted... that is very trusting, relaxed behavior!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:45 AM on February 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

My parents took in a feral cat 12 years ago. He was skittish, but liked their food and enjoyed snoozing in the same room as them. He also seemed to really like their other cats and definitely mimicked their house cat behavior. After 6 months or so, he tolerated head rubbing. After a year or so, he began asking for rubs. 5 or 6 years later, he suddenly started playing with cat toys belonging to the other cats. This year, he has decided that he loves sleeping in my dad's lap. In other words, it does take time, and I think all cats do change over time.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:37 AM on February 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Our current kitty is originally from a hoarding situation. Over the year and a half we've had her she has grown and changed so much, from very scared to sweet and confident.

Each day for the first maybe 6-12 months we would see her improve in some little way. For example, she used to walk in super slow motion to approach her food or walk around corners (presumably she was afraid another cat would attack in those situations). Now she is perfectly confident with food and races around corners at top speed. She didn't know how to play with toys at first, but now she loves them and makes up her own games. She just didn't even look happy or comfortable much of the time, never seemed truly relaxed when cat napping, and now she is content as can be.

She does still have some fears. Though she adores us, we cannot ever hold her. She goes crazy if she is gripped or held in any way, by anyone (picture horrendous vet visits, no nail clipping ever, etc.). She never rolls on her back and shows her belly. She is afraid of piles of laundry and the bottom of the bed, again probably because cats used to attack her from there.

Yours can definitely continue improving and will be happy! He may always have some things he's scared about, but he'll start to understand the security he has with you and will learn a lot from the other two!
posted by dayintoday at 6:15 AM on February 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree that two months is very short, especially since he lived in the shelter for so long and in the hoarder situation before that. When I adopted my Princess from the shelter six months ago, she was pretty shy and wouldn't tolerate being petted or picked up, and ducked under the furniture every time I walked through the room. She learned quickly how to be a house cat from Jack but was still on the shy side.

Unfortunately, as of two weeks ago, Princess is an only cat -- Jack succumbed to a respiratory infection at age 15. But the silver lining has been that she has positively blossomed! She loves getting all my attention (and all the treats), and is much more confident and vocal. She's still not a fan of the feather-on-a-stick toy swooping down from above, but she doesn't hide from it anymore.

So my advice would be to give Scaredy some one-on-one time and see what he thinks of it. If he's out in "public" and lets you pet him now, I think he'll respond well to it.
posted by shiny blue object at 6:49 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've had two cats who started out withdrawn because of (we assume) prior trauma - both shelter cats who came to us as adults. One of them was aloof for the first two years with me, or so. She gradually progressed from sitting on the sofa at the same time as me, to sitting beside me, to sitting on my lap, to sleeping at the foot of my bed, then to sleeping next to me in my bed. She became a wonderful, very attached cat over a time span of about 3 years.

Our other aloof cat has been a harder case. He had some health issues, and was also bullied by another cat we owned before that cat passed away, so it's been hard for him to settle down. His steps are much more gradual. He does show affection, and will occasionally come to us for extended petting/scratching, and he trusts us and is generally calm. But he's just not especially cuddly, not a lap sitter, and not a co-sleeper. We accept him as he is, though I'm always trying to make sure he gets enough attention/affection, and he does warm up by small degrees over time. But I don't think he'll ever be as relaxed and attached as my first cat, which has to be OK. If there's one thing I've learned over a lifetime of cat ownership, it's that no two cats are alike. We feel great that we can give this guy a good, loving home, and he is making as much of that as he's able to, and we appreciate having him.
posted by Miko at 6:53 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

One of my cats was found homeless and rescued by a former coworker who has like 10 other cats, including one who was quite aggressive toward her. She's been with me for about two years and I'm still aware periodically that she's decompressing from that and from whatever insecurities her earlier life had.

I've also known cats who were never in any kind of messed up situation and who just don't like being picked up or sitting in laps, or who were always nervous and skittish. Two months is not a lot of time. It sounds like you're doing great.
posted by bile and syntax at 7:18 AM on February 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I agree that it sounds like you're doing great! The following is taken from My Cat From Hell, and I have no idea if the guy's well-respected or considered a hack, so take it with a grain of salt, but: There was an episode with a couple that had rescued a feral cat. IIRC, his advice was to do a couple of 15 minute interactive play sessions (like with a kitty tease or dabird) a day every day. At first the feral cat just watched while their other cat played, then started to join in. After a few weeks of this, one of the owners could pet the cat without it bolting. He also often recommends making high perches available to skittish cats to help them feel more secure. In fact, my partner and I joke that the most dangerous thing about the show (aside from the fact that people who watch it start dispensing what may be crap advice on the internet) is that it makes it seem completely reasonable to do something like this.
posted by amarynth at 7:44 AM on February 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also, if months and months pass with no progress, kitty Prozac can be an option. Just talk to your vet about it.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:45 AM on February 1, 2014

Definitely 2 months is pretty short, but it's also very dependant on the cat's personality. For example, one of mine, who had a completely non-tragic upbringing given she's been with me since birth, still only allows a few pets a day. Things requiring capture like collars, nail clips and vet trips are an excersise in trying to outsmart a cat who's much faster than me. That's just who she is, she's never going to change, and I love her for it anyway -- she has a bunch of other super sweet personality traits in addition to the neurotic ones. It took her until she was 2 years old to even allow me to really pet her (and only on her terms!). I know if life were to change drastically for her, it would like much, much longer than 2 months for her to come out from under the bed. I think you and your new fuzzhead are doing extremely well on the path of bringing out the happy, friendly outgoing cat you're hoping for.

Also -- thank you for (a) adopting and (b) adopting black kitties!! They are, statistically speaking, only half as likely to ever get adapted simply because of the colour of their fur, so you've done black cats in general a great service by rescuing all of them!
posted by cgg at 8:35 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

More anecdotes! The stray cat (also black) that lived at the bottom of my garden has taken three and a half years to go from bolting from the garden the moment I appeared to sitting on the back of the sofa leaning on my head. I admit, the current state of affairs is not one I'm entirely comfortable with, but it's world's away from where we were. I have two other cats (also adopted as adults from a hoarder), stray cat gets on well with my 5 year old cat, but swaps low level agro with my 15 year old matriarch.

I think she would thrive if she was moved to a new environment, away from other cats. She was less stressy about food at my parents house over Christmas. But she is quite old, and probably has health problems, and she would need to move in with experienced owners who could cope with her skittishness. So we continue to rub along together.

Some cats don't like it if you put your hand towards their head when go to stroke them. It a major breakthrough when I figured this out, and she let me stroke her for the first time on her body.

I agree you need to give him places to feel safe, that he can retreat to. And a few others have hinted at this, but like my cat, you may have to consider if he would be better in another home on his own (although, I think cats bonding with their feline housemates is probably more important for happy cats than bonding with their owners, I would swap the head leaning for no dinner time scrapping any day!). But this is a long game, I would see where you are once you've had him for at least 6 months.
posted by Helga-woo at 9:26 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I watch a lot of Jackson Galaxy / My Cat from Hell, and he talks about 'cat mojo' which is 'cat confidence.' He has LOTS of shows where he taught scaredy cats to become confident. Watch the episode of "Bitten and Chompy" where one cat was abused and hiding under the bed all the time and he transformed into a friendly confident cat who was no longer getting beats from the other cat.

For a cat to feel confident, they need to know that they can hunt, that the territory is Theirs and that they can defend themselves or run away if they need to.

By the way, your picture of your cat is of him sleeping on his back - so he definitely feels comfortable. He may just have a stronger startle response. I have one cat who startles easily and runs away. When he's calm he's super cuddly. That's just his personality.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:26 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in this book. I'm only halfway through but have just finished the chapter on socialization in kittens and its implications for their potential as pets. It's interesting stuff.
posted by something something at 10:47 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's very hard to judge a cats personality without interacting with the cat, but if scaredy cat is sleeping like that, I'd imagine that your war is won and you've just got to keep fighting the leftover battles. That is a very relaxed cat.

I took in an ex alley cat at two years of age, who had been around people for a while, but was still largely feral. For me the two keys to training him are that he quickly bonded with one of my cats and looked to all of them to get a sense of what is and isn't safe, and that he's very food motivated.

I started him out in his own small room, which I had prepared so that there were several cubbies he could curl up in, but none so deep that he could avoid interacting with me if I wanted to spend time training him. Once he'd acclimated for a few days, I started putting down his food closer and closer to me, and hung out in the room while he ate. Once he was close enough, I started petting, and once he was comfortable with being petted while eating that he wasn't going to starve, I made it a condition of mealtime that he accept it. By that point almost a month had passed and he was finally comfortable enough with his space that he wanted to explore outside of his space, so I let him out of his room.

I feed meals with all my cats (and if they don't eat it all promptly, another one will - so that makes sure everyone gets fed). For the first year or so I kept the requirement that Slima accept petting in exchange for food, until he started soliciting petting without being prompted.

It took about a year before he was totally comfortable being in the same space as me. After two years he was starting to nap in sunbeams the way your cat is pictured doing (rather than being more of a loaf when he didn't have his buddy cat around to watch out for him).

Just after we moved across country (three days almost straight in a car - no idea how I got him in the cage to go) he started really, really cuddling with me up close in bed, another year for him to start experimenting with sitting on my lap, and six or eight months before those experiments coalesced into him deciding - fuck it, I'm a lap cat (just before this past Christmas).

I still have yet to pick him up (I have to use food and quick moves to get him in to a carrier, and only put him in the carrier if I must). He's still too skittish to clip his nails, and he's somehow a thin, muscular 14 lbs. So picking him up is pretty Freightening for both of us.

Your scaredy cat is a lot tamer, so you shouldn't have the same sort of project ahead of you. But Slim also has the right personality to train - while he's pretty skeptical about people, he is otherwise super brave to the degree that he's comfortable within hours of moving house. He likes and trusts other cats, so they could help teach him how to behave around people. And he's motivated enough by food that he will even come out for a new cat sitter without too much trouble.

And it's been very worth it. The love of a cat who doesn't take love for granted can be pretty heart melting. And because he's been a colony cat of one sort or another all his life, living in some group, he helps the other cats get along. One of his first concerted forays into my lap was while another cat who had come bad cat experiences and never quite trusts other cats was already there. Slim's cat skills are scpuch that he managed to get in to my lap with a sufficiently non threatening, not touching you way, and ended up snuggled out full length against a cat who never snuggles with other cats. He's not quite in whole hog right now, but I do have three cats in a continuous pile on my lap and spilling on to the couch - which is about as cool as it comes.
posted by wotsac at 10:49 AM on February 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thank you all very much, it sounds like we're on the right track!
With regards to the picture: this is the very first time I saw him lie on that chair, another small milestone. He didn't sleep there, but yes, he felt relaxed enough to lie on his back for a couple of minutes. Long enough for me to snap a picture.

Wodan (that's his name) seems to learn a lot from the other cats. He also seems comfortable around them. I think he would take more time to learn to trust us if he were alone; the others are showing him how to cat, I think.

I'm happy to read that some cats keep improving over months and months, or even years. We'll see what's in store for our skittish furry friend.
If we can get that collar on him then he could venture outside if he wants to (it's a good place for indoor/outdoor cats and the other two go for short walks, and then come back in).

Thanks for the stories and the tips. We may try some of them. We will definitely continue to allow him to take his time and hide when he feels like it.

Bonus pic taken at the shelter.
posted by Too-Ticky at 11:54 AM on February 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

PS marking of best answers is pretty random here because almost all of them seem so helpful. Don't pay too much atention.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:04 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

My rescue cat has been with me for several years now. She was found as a stray kitten living in the bushes of a local park, and then spent a stretch of time at a no-kill shelter. For the first six months she lived with me, she rarely ventured out from under my bed, except to eat or use the litter box. She started exploring more and more after that, and started becoming playful and affectionate with me, though she never warmed up to my roommate*. She still won't tolerate being picked up unless she absolutely can't help it, and she won't sit on my lap, ever. But she'll curl up next to me on the couch or the bed, and get up in my face for attention if she wants it. Unfamiliar people drive her into hiding pretty much as soon as they step in the door. She's curious and tentative with her two current feline roommates.

I think I've had her for about 4 years now, and she's become very attached to me, but isn't really interested in forming other bonds. But she's come a long, long way from being a scared little cat that's only interested in hiding from everything. She'll even sometimes allow strangers to pet her!

*Said roommate used to have a tradition of making brunch and watching Bundesliga on Sunday mornings. She would come out and sit on the floor at the end of the couch and watch the players move around the screen, and occasionally look up at him and meow, as if looking for attention. But if he made any move towards her to pet her, she would dart back to my bedroom immediately.
posted by cathodeheart at 6:53 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just to throw in some perspective from the other end of the spectrum - a lot of it will have to do with the cat's personality. When I was in middle school, our cat had a litter of kittens. Two of the three were super-social, the other was a scaredy-cat, for no good reason whatsoever. They'd all gotten similar levels of (lots of) attention - she just wasn't into it. At some point, she discovered that I kept my bedroom door only open about 2-4 inches, to discourage the dogs from coming in. (It slid into the wall, and they had trouble opening it more.) It was just the right size for her, though - and she took to sleeping on the very edge of the corner closest to the door. Eventually that turned into anywhere across the foot of the bed, then the middle, then anywhere on the bed... and then she slept on my pillow, if not my head, and did what she pleased. She liked my mom ok, tolerated the rest of the family, but never did warm up to them the way she did me.

The 8-month-old kitten, though she was raised in a super-social home with dogs and kids and lots of cuddles, was lovely and cuddly and on laps the first couple of weeks with us. Then, she decided no one is permitted to pick her up during the daytime except my guy. The kids can occasionally get away with picking her up, but I'm never allowed to, unless it's bedtime and I'm taking her directly to the bedroom to give her to my guy. If she's calm and not in super-hyper mode during the daytime, though, she's almost always near me. She doesn't do laps, and intermittently "shrinks" from petting - other times, she's super lovey, so long as you don't try to pick her up! And not even my mom, who I'd thought all cats loved, can get on her good side. I think my guy said it best - "Cats are weird, anyways - but she's REALLY weird for a cat."
posted by stormyteal at 7:13 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Aww! Looks like my Giles, who spent his first 10 or so months in foster care. He is now going on nine, and despite very VERY specific preferences (NO. PICKING. UP. NO!) he has gone from a stressed out fuzzball hiding in our basement (husband claims this is the first time he saw the entire cat!) to a lover who adores petting, his brother, even his canine sister. So he doesn't like being picked up. Big deal. As long as we respect his boundaries, he's happy. I'm sure Wodan will be the same!
posted by at 2:43 PM on February 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

(Also, for what it's worth, he may never be comfortable with being an indoor/outdoor cat, and that's ok. I can't imagine Giles venturing outside EVER, willingly. Too scary!)
posted by at 2:45 PM on February 2, 2014

In case anyone ever reads this:
Things are certainly going well. Wodan now spends much of his time sitting right beside me, wanting to be petted; sometimes I can pick him up as well. When he fidgets, I put him down and he does not panic.
He is wearing a collar and goes outside if/when he wants, which is not all that much, but he seems to enjoy it when he does, especially when it's sunny out.

He's still more skittish than the other cats, maybe that will never fade away completely, maybe it will; it's fine either way. He seems happy even if his little face still often has that worried look. It may just be the way he looks.

When the first bottle of Feliway ran out, the difference was noticeable; we replaced it quickly. When the second bottle ran out, he did not seem to notice. So we did not bother to replace it.

I think Wodan's going to be just fine.

Extra special bonus pics of Wodan enjoying the company of his feline family!
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:55 AM on March 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

Last comment from me, I promise.

As of yesterday, Wodan has (re-?)gained the ability to purr.

I'm so glad to hear that sweet sound of happiness. It also hurts a bit, because I can't help but wonder... what can scare or scar a cat enough to make him lose his purr? Poor thing, what have you been through?
But yes, he is really going to be fine.

*blows nose*
posted by Too-Ticky at 8:16 AM on March 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

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