Why does my cat only love me when she's in jail?
September 12, 2015 6:47 PM   Subscribe

I have a kitten that was feral until I got her at about four months. In her quarantine pen she gradually came to trust us and became very affectionate. When we let her join the rest of the household cats she fit right in with them but was totally skittish with us. She wouldn't let us pet her or even approach too close. I recently had to put her back in quarantine and she's right back to her old, lovey ways.

I guess what is happening is that when she's isolated she depends on people for companionship, but she'd really prefer to be around other cats. Should I try to find her a home where she's the only cat? How can I encourage her affectionate behavior toward people when there are other cats around?

Difficulty: rehoming a seven month old semi-feral kitten -vs- continuing indoor socialization around six other cats -vs- releasing her back to the colony she came from (We only brought her inside because she seemed potentially adopt-out-able.)

pics on request
posted by irisclara to Pets & Animals (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If she trusts and loves you when alone with you, and loves being around the other cats, is there a real problem?

P.S. Please send a pic of the cat :)
posted by salvia at 6:53 PM on September 12, 2015

Response by poster: She doesn't trust and love us when there are other cats around. She's more feral then. Also, we didn't take her in with the intention of keeping her. If she's ready for it we'd like to find her a forever home.
Here's Connie
posted by irisclara at 7:04 PM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

You gotta give her time! Cats are little alien creatures who don't always have consistent behavior. If you let her be her skittish self with the other cats for a few weeks/months, I think she'll probably relax eventually.

ps: so pretty! she looks more like an otter or a seal than a cat IMO. maybe she's a selkie!
posted by Hermione Granger at 7:04 PM on September 12, 2015 [6 favorites]

Some cats need time. My boy Zak was from a "crowding" situation (read: cat hoarder) and it took a long while before he understood how to behave with people. We have one other cat, and she wasn't interested in him at all, so even with humans as his only source of affection it still took a long time. I think now he thinks we're ridiculously ugly cats, but he sits on us and purrs and so forth. It's been almost 3 years.

It's possible cutie Connie will never be like your other cats, but as long as she's happy and healthy and you have other kitties to keep you company, does it matter? You did a good thing taking her in.
posted by clone boulevard at 7:11 PM on September 12, 2015

Sorry, missed the follow-up. If she's intended to be adopted out and not stay with you, maybe a one-cat home would be good (at least at first). Once she's a bit older and used to people more, her new home could bring in more kitties if they wanted and see how that goes. Please don't bring her back to the colony after three months inside, however. It would be much harder for her.
posted by clone boulevard at 7:14 PM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wonder if it's a territorial thing. In her pen it's clear what her territory is, and she can relax and be more social. Dropped into an environment with all those other cats however, who have already worked out their own territories among them, she's on guard because she hasn't established her territory yet.

I have one cat who is I swear two different cats depending on what floor she's on. Upstairs, which is clearly her territory, she's talkative and friendly. Downstairs, which is clearly owned by one of my other cats, she's skittish and timid and completely different.
posted by cgg at 7:28 PM on September 12, 2015 [14 favorites]

She is being nice to her jailer so she can get let out. She is a cat. When she is out and does not need you to let her out, she ignores you. When she needs you to open the cage, she is all lovey. Simple.
posted by AugustWest at 7:42 PM on September 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm with cgg. Some of the behavior that cats display to show affection to humans also indicate submission and vulnerability. How big is your quarantine pen? Is it more of a box or more of a room? Has she been run-away skittish, or display-aggression skittish?

I don't know how much time you have to give to this cat, but I think changing this behavior would be doable if you pulled out all the stops, which to me means persistent clicker training. That said, I don't think returning the cat to a feral colony is necessary, or that it's unusual to require an adopter to have a no-other-cats household.
posted by dee lee at 8:28 PM on September 12, 2015

Response by poster: Sorry to thread-sit.

Quarantine is my foyer or a 50" circular nylon mesh pen in my living room.

She runs and/or hides. She's only attacked me once, when I cornered her in the house to give her flea drops.
posted by irisclara at 8:42 PM on September 12, 2015

I think cgg is right. Cats prefer to be in small, enclosed spaces when they feel insecure. She probably is on edge when she's out, and feels more secure when she's in the pen. In the pen, she knows what's what; outside in the rest of the house there are lots of other unknown variables.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:56 PM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Maybe try keeping her in a single room, like a bedroom, without other cats -- a larger area where she's in charge (and maybe a little lonely). Then you can see how she does with a person in that area.
posted by amtho at 6:45 AM on September 13, 2015

Best answer: I observed this phenomenon when I was working with feral cats. Cats who acted completely wild outside would let me pet them in a cage. I also used to tame feral kittens in my (very small) bathroom. The difference is that the kittens stayed tame if they were socialized young enough and the adults seemed to go wild again as soon as they were released. My theory is they are submissive in the cage because they can't hide from you.
posted by Violet Hour at 7:36 AM on September 13, 2015

Mammals like constriction and reduction of choice.

Babies like being swaddled. It comforts them.
Children like being tucked in - literally.
Adults like being hugged (generalizing here - your individual tastes may vary).
The great Dr. Temple Grandin invented a "hugging machine" that basically does a full-body-press, as a relaxant for autistic people.
I can't tell you the number of times a girlfriend has shown irritation as I tried to coax out of her exactly where she wanted to go to eat - until I realized sometimes people just want someone else to make the decision. Not all the time, but sometimes it's nice to not have to decide anything.
Being a sexual "bottom"/submissive can be like that, too. AFAICT bottoms are more common than tops.
Speaking of sexual "tops" - even they tend towards restrictive clothing. Tight rubber, corsets, leather waspies, laced boots... when you think of "S&M Mistress", flowing skirts and flip-flops don't spring to mind.


A feral animal has to be afraid (unless it is clearly the top predator in its environs, which is rare). When is the next meal? Can this injure me? Is that a bigger predator? Will some other animal take my stored kill before I return for my next meal? Will I be attacked by another if I attempt to mate? Can I mate, or does this other one mean me harm? WTF I WAS JUST TRYING TO SLEEP HERE! OMGOMGOMGit was nothing back to sleep.

Intelligent animals are curious, and the choices are interesting - but a lack of choice is reassuring, assuming all needs are being met. My last cat had two fear issues in life:
When are you coming back?
Are you going to let my see-through food dispenser run low?
Pretty reassuring life.

When your cat has a less feral, more restrained life, it has less anxiety-provoking issues, less to fear, and can relax and act domesticated.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:46 AM on September 13, 2015

I think you have two variables here, which you need to unwind to tell what's going on:

1) The cat could be more comfortable in a smaller space, and uncomfortable in the bigger house;
2) The cat could be uncomfortable around other cats.

I don't think it's probably a good idea to drop the cat into the small pen with another cat to test out theory #2, because that could ruin that pen as a "safe space". But it would be interesting to give the cat the run of a larger room or a whole floor of your house (or someone else's house?) for a while, and see how it behaves.

It could be that the cat just wants to be in a house by itself with humans and no other cats, and when it's in that situation it's friendly. (I guess you could make the argument that this isn't what it wants, in some manner of speaking, and that maybe the cat is only friendly because it's lonely or trying to manipulate you, but ... down that road lies madness. It's a cat.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:23 PM on September 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: In a larger room she runs and hides. She loves my other cats and they like her well enough so she has some friends. I'm going to try feeding her in the foyer and then having extended social time before letting her out. Perhaps an hour or two of regular lovies in the foyer every day will help her not run from us when she's out and about. She is a little alien and I won't kick her out in the cold, but I'm looking forward to the day she rubs against my ankles. Thanks everybody.
posted by irisclara at 7:44 PM on September 13, 2015

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