Five day cat charm offensive
July 5, 2016 3:39 AM   Subscribe

Last week I adopted two 12 year old cats, Mungo and Rum. They have been settling in well in all practical ways apart from the fact they are scared of me, hiss at me and won't be in the same room as me unless they can help it. I've taken three days off work next week, so with the weekend that's five consecutive days where I plan to be home so they can get used to me. How can I make the most of it?

They've taken well to their new home (eating well, using the litter box) but not to their new owner. I was prepared for this - their last owned died tragically and they were trapped in the house with her body for a week. They are understandably traumatised.

Mungo (black, male) has been hiding in the wardrobe. When I approach him he hisses at me, but then will happily take strokes and scritches for as long as I can do it, purring loudly and butting my hand when I stop. He also seems to like it when I sing to him. However, whenever he does venture into the living room (where the food is) and sees me, he bolts.

Rum (grey & white with tabby face and tail, female) has been less hiding and more waiting for me to not be there. The moment I get into bed she trots out and spends the rest of the night having an excellent time in the rest of the flat. I haven't been able to stroke her since the first day she got here. (She also won't let me get a photo so the first one will have to do for the Mefi cat photo debt). She hides behind the fridge a fair amount.

My plan is to go about my days as much as possible and just hope that they'll get used to me. However, if you have any tips for at least reaching the point where they don't panic and run at the sight of me would be really appreciated. I have toys and treats, and a scratching post for them has been delivered today.

Just to point out, I'm not expecting them to love me yet. I understand with traumatised cats it takes time for them to create a bond. I'd just like to know if there's any way I can get them to be as comfortable with me as possible. Feel free to tell me they just need time, I'm totally prepared to wait as long as it takes, I just want reassurance that I'm doing okay.
Thanks in advance.
posted by litereally to Pets & Animals (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You are so awesome giving them a home. How sad for them losing their human like that. I'm hugging one of mine right now with hopes she never has to experience that.

Have you tried feliway? My vet uses it and it helps calm my kitties on vet visits.

Also maybe transferring their scent to you.. is there something they sleep on that you could rub on you? Mine also find me intriguing when I rub my hands in kibble. I'd imagine if I put my hands in tuna oil and sat really still I'd be very popular.

Do you wear perfume? My cats hate perfume and I've stopped altogether since adopting them. One in particular is quite sensitive to scents.

These are just some random thoughts. I think you're doing great. Be there, be a calm and still person in their lives (try to avoid being the hooman who drops things and scares the kitties). My little one acts like strangers are going to eat her but if they sit quietly on the sofa after a few days she's sitting next to them. They'll settle in eventually.

Thank you for being the person I wish for my kitties if anything happened to me.
posted by kitten magic at 3:56 AM on July 5, 2016 [11 favorites]

Do you have Feliway? Get Feliway! We use it whenever we move house to help our cat settle in.

Aside from that, you're doing great. Just keep respecting those cat boundaries. Having you around will help them realize that you're not a big scary predator. Try not to let it get to you when they bolt and hide - they're still adjusting to a new environment and a new person, but they'll settle in soon enough.
posted by nerdfish at 3:57 AM on July 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just bought some Feliway diffusers for the house which are being delivered tomorrow!
posted by litereally at 3:57 AM on July 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Because they are both eating, restrict their food to only food that is eaten from your hands. Really stinky delicious food at first, then their regular food, treats etc. Water should be freely given. It's ok for them to go 12 hours without eating, so give in, only then, and repeat as long as necessary, adding petting as they get more comfortable.
posted by txtwinkletoes at 4:06 AM on July 5, 2016

Oh, poor babies! :(

This will just take time and patience and not trying to force it. It's good that they're exploring it and that Mungo will let you pet him a little bit. I don't know if you're free-feeding them, but if you put them on an actual food schedule (put the food down, pick it up after an hour or so) then that will encourage them to see you as the food-giver and they'll be more likely to approach as you're prepping it for them. I would be concerned about restricting them to only eating from your hand since at that age you really don't want them to go anorexic. Well, you don't want cats at any age to go anorexic, but older cats are more susceptible. If they don't go for eating from your hand within one meal, then I'd let them eat from a bowl and hang around or in the next room while they do so.

If you are spending a long time in a single room--working, reading, watching television--you could also put out some stinky wet food nearby you. Don't try to pet them, but again, they'll associate you with food and get used to you a bit faster.

I suggest putting out some catnip toys, too. I really like Cosmic Catnip ones.

Feliway is a good idea, though the one downside is that it is easily sucked out of a room via drafts and windows. I have used these collars with great success. Like Feliway, they don't work on all cats, but when they do they're very effective. Each lasts about a month. As a bonus, they're also on the cats all the time.
posted by schroedinger at 4:14 AM on July 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

Also if they like your singing you could also read aloud to them. I do that when I run out of songs. I also tell mine what is happening in advance of a big change ("next week you're going to kitty boarding school! And it will be weird and maybe a bit scary but it's all good! I love you and they will feed you and I will come back for you!").

Maybe you could tell them stories about what happened to them? How you knew they loved their home and their hooman and she loved them very much but now they live with you and you realise it must be so strange and a bit scary but you love them and will look after them always). I get this sounds super daft to some but even if mine understand nothing of it at all, I think they find my voice soothing.
posted by kitten magic at 4:18 AM on July 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

Try lying on the floor with your eyes closed and giving them treats. Sometimes cats find people too big and intimidating at first, so get as small and low as you can. They might come up. Maybe take a nap on the floor in the room where they're probably hiding.
posted by blnkfrnk at 4:22 AM on July 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

- Spend as much time as possible in the same room with them. Avoid loud activities, but do find quiet activities: focus on things that aren't them -- demonstrating that you trust them and are not interested in chasing them. Working on the computer, doing laundry, reading, eating, etc. are good activities.

- Focus on things that aren't the cat; don't look directly at a cat who doesn't trust you. If a cat looks steadily at another animal, it's probably thinking about eating it; so, cats may not interpret your own gaze as friendly. If you can look at something near the cat, so that you're presenting the side of your face and body, that's probably helpful.

- Video games with explosions or other sudden noises might not be the best activity for this phase of your relationship.

- background noise: I personally think it's probably important to make sure there's _some_ ambient noise most of the time: bird song, traffic, soft radio, music. Cats aren't made for endless sterile silences any more than humans, and they can't read novels to fill those silences. Too much sterile silence is crazy-making. I don't know of other sources recommending this (except for when an owner goes away for long periods), but I think it makes a lot of sense.

- Make it possible for them to be up at your shoulder level, or at least a bit up off the floor, so they can observe your face and posture easily.

- Make it possible for them to see most of their new domain - including you - from a safe space. They will feel safer if they can be assured that predators are not approaching.

- Make safe retreats available: a high shelf with easy access, a protected area on a dresser with large items on either side, a hideaway under a piece of furniture, a smaller space within a closet. Make sure the cat feels he can always get to a safe spot if he ever feels uncomfortable.

- Try to assure that the safe spots have easy access to food and water. Cats are territorial in order to assure access to food; they think about this and care about it.

- When you play with an untrusting cat, find ways to keep him close to your hands and body. A shoelace or other short ribbon drawn across the floor is great for this. Cats generally find toys that skitter across the ground irresistible: try moving them slooowly across the ground, pausing every once in a while, like a clueless mouse, snake, or bug. Once the cat pursues, move the toy more quickly.

- With a ribbon or shoelace, you can start with a long length which will feel safer for the cat, then gradually decrease the length as the cat becomes more comfortable.

- Feed the cat from your hand as much as possible. Treats are good, individual kibbles are good, any food the cat likes. If you have an extra difficult case, you can try chicken baby food (but be _sure_ it's not a "chicken dinner" variety which contains onion or garlic or other foods poisonous to cats).

- Don't pick up the cat. That comes later, after you have established a trusting relationship.

- If you have success with the cat and he learns to come to you for petting, you can start laying the groundwork for later handling: lightly petting his sides near the belly, putting both hands on the back at one time, and especially touching and handling the paws and mouth area.
posted by amtho at 4:38 AM on July 5, 2016 [9 favorites]

You could also try waving around a wand toy, not like you're trying to get them to play, just like it's something that you do when you have the time. They may only watch you, but that's still a positive interaction!
posted by amarynth at 4:39 AM on July 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

I agree with everyone else here that it's just going to take some time for kitties to warm up, but having you around a lot more over the next few days should definitely help. I have a young, shy, semi-feral kitty and she always seems to be more present after I spend a weekend at home.

I tried those Sentry collars with my aggressive male cat and he chewed through the thing within an hour -- after the fight it took to put it on him. It may be okay for your cats but I wanted to warn you about it -- if you don't think you can touch kitty without a fight, it may not be the best choice. Maybe yes for Mungo, no for Rum.

I also wouldn't count on them both warming up to you together, which you've already noticed, but it could be quite a huge difference. I've had my shy kitty for almost two years and only in recent months has she allowed me to pet her at all. But she's the most skittish cat I've ever met and I doubt it will take that long for these cats to like you.
posted by possibilityleft at 4:42 AM on July 5, 2016

N'thing time.

My uncle had this pretty little cat that he doted on like a baby and the two were inseparable. The cat had nothing to do with my aunt (aka the nicest person who ever lived). When my uncle died, the cat lashed out at my aunt -- she'd scratch her when she was folding up my uncle's old clothes, she'd hiss, she'd disappear and glare at her from her vantage under the couch. The story among family was that the cat assumed my aunt had murdered my uncle and the cat wanted revenge!

Skip to a six very patient months later and the cat is completely in love with with my aunt. Always by her side, always getting pettings, always following her from room to room. They've become great friends and I've never seen a cat so loving.
posted by mochapickle at 5:25 AM on July 5, 2016 [6 favorites]

I think you're doing just the right things and your instincts are sound.

I would not necessarily restrict food to hand-only, mainly because of their specific case – this could REALLY trigger trauma for them. Cats have very long memories. My fluffy cat's first best friend was an older grey cat I adopted who died just a year later. He mourned for several months, until I got a kitten, but even after coming out of his funk to be Big Best Pal To Kitten, he would still go to grey cat's favorite spots, sniff them and just sit sadly for a minute or two. Years later! I can only imagine what it must be like for poor dears to lose their beloved human, especially under those circumstances.

Time and patience, being trustworthy and kind. The tip to avoid loud noises is great. I've had the most success with skittish cats by just sitting and reading or knitting – a quiet activity, basically. They see you're non-threatening, also there's an object they can pounce on (book/knitting/etc.), and it gives them a sort of triangular way to explore you, as opposed to more demanding one-on-one.

It may take months. My two cats hated moving plain and simple, so they are dealing with that too. I've moved twice in the past two years, and both times it took them months to really get settled. The first time, they never really took to the place (to be fair neither did I), but now we're in a space where they're delighted. It took them months to get to delight though!
posted by fraula at 5:41 AM on July 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't want to stop free feeding them, I just feel that because of what happened they should be allowed to eat when they want to allay the anxiety I'm sure they have around food. They were being free fed at the shelter, and I don't have a reliable schedule so they'd never get fed at the same time in the evening or on weekends. They also seem pretty good at portion control compared to cats I've had before, my old cat could not deal with free feeding as he'd gorge himself and be immediately sick. They get a sachet each of Felix morning and evening plus a bowl of dry food and a big bowl of water.

Thanks for all the great tips! I'll try Feliway from tomorrow evening. I don't think I'd be able to get a collar on them yet, but I'll keep them in mind! My flat has natural ventilation so I can control the pheromone dispersal.

Good points about the noise, I live on a private road so there isn't much traffic but it is next to a railway line, so the noise can be quite explosive as the trains thunder past. I'll leave the radio on for them tomorrow. There's a good number of birds but I have double glazing so not sure how much they can hear (I am excited for them to meet the London parrots).

I'll concentrate on being a calm presence next week, I have a lot of reading to catch up on! Thanks again everyone :)
posted by litereally at 6:04 AM on July 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

re: the feeding: I understand your reticence to go away from free feeding, but to be fair, free feeding can get problematic for animals because they will over eat and get fat. I had to stop free feeding my cat because of that. So, it's not necessarily a universal good to free feed, but it IS a good thing to associate you with feeding and the regularity of its appearance. Just food for thought. You are doing a very good thing here, and I can only hope that my furry little freak will find someone as sweet as you are if something terrible happens to me. Thank you. The world needs more of this.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:19 AM on July 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

We lost a cat last year, and his companion was so anxious afterwards; it was heartbreaking. So we got a rescue cat; good idea, but it turned out he had been restricted to a cage for 3 YEARS before we got him. Once he realized we had no cages, we barely saw him for months. We renamed him The Blur. But it's a year later, and all is well. He wouldn't be out in the same room with us, and then ... he was next to us, purring and butting his head into our hands. So, adding to the chorus: it takes time.

One other specific thing: I imagine those poor guys were very very thirsty before they were found. We've found that all our cats, especially the ones with a traumatic history, really enjoy multiple sources of water rather than just one bowl. So human water glasses filled to the brim on window sills, and a small bowl on the floor next to the computer, and a bowl next to the food....yes, keeping them clean and filled is a bit of trouble, but why does one have cats except to spoil them?
posted by kestralwing at 6:36 AM on July 5, 2016 [6 favorites]

Will you update us in a month and tell us how it went? :)

All awesome advice: just seconding the multiple sources of water.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 6:53 AM on July 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

One other thing:

- Talking to them also helps establish that you're a friend. (If you were hunting them, you'd be silent, after all.)
posted by amtho at 7:36 AM on July 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Time, and peace. Cats really like quiet.

We adopted two just after Christmas. They took about a week before they stopped hiding. They were eating and using the box, so that was enough to know they were safe and getting the necessities.

When they decided to make friends though they were very sudden about it. Finn, who is right now cuddled against my arm, seemed to decide enough was enough and simply appeared one day demanding attention.

It's taken around six months for them to fully relax and accept their new situation, us and the new house. We had a fraught few months of anxiety-driven pee marking and nesting behaviours. Cats love routine. Establishing regular habits helps a lot in the medium-long term. Feliway can be a great help here too. I'd continue to renew it for at least a few months.
posted by bonehead at 8:03 AM on July 5, 2016

One of our cats was full feral when we got her - it took a full three weeks for her to be out from under the bed in our presence and a couple of months before we could pet her regularly (and we're likely never going to be able to pick her up.) Now she chases me around the house looking to cuddle, though.

A few things we did:

1) We fed them first thing in the morning and last thing at night - they had whatever food they did not eat available to them during the day, however they quickly came to associate me with food and as a result became a lot less scared of me;

2) We let them sleep in our room until they were comfortable with us. The cats explored our bed at night while we were asleep, which seemed to really calm the feral one down. On night five, I woke up with her at our feet - she left quickly, however when she returned it was clear she wanted to be part of our "pride."

3) We ignored the feral one as much as possible - we would occasionally stop to see if she'd sniff our hands, but otherwise we tried to let her explore unencumbered.

4) Find a toy with some length to it (like a mouse on a long string) - my wife was able to get the feral cat active and playing from about 8 feet and slowly moved it inward. The cat was nervous but eventually came to realize the goal was not catching her and trusted my wife during play to be close;

Patience is the biggest thing - it is difficult living in a house with an animal you cannot show you love, however once you turn the corner you can make up for it.
posted by scrittore at 8:58 AM on July 5, 2016

When I was trying to calm my feral cat down in a strange hotel room this weekend, I put on Wimbledon for him while I was away. Worked like a charm. When I came back a few hours later, he emerged from some undisclosed location and was actually watching. It ends Sunday, but maybe there is other tennis/golf you can leave on in the background for nice consistent nonthreatening company. Side benefit: also good for human naps. I always leave NPR on for them while I'm at work and I think that works nicely too.

Making some space for them to be up off the ground -- perches, towers, window seats, also might help if you haven't already done that.
posted by *s at 8:58 AM on July 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Those poor cats. :( So glad they have a good home with you.

Is there a time of day when they seem less shy? I've known two shy, formerly traumatized cats who were more bold and accepting of attention in the middle of the night, including the girl we adopted last year. I started getting up around 2 or 3 a.m. just to sit with her in the dark and quiet for half an hour. We'd have conversations; sometimes she wanted pets, sometimes she wanted to just trot around and sniff me. After awhile it was full-on belly rub time.

To give you a timeline, it took about 5 months before she started sleeping on the bed with us, 10 months before she'd let the gent approach her for pets without running away, and 11 months before we could pick her up and pet her without her thinking Bad Things were about to happen.

Also, watch for places where they appear to feel safer. We could see which areas the girl cat had picked as her safe spaces, and how she colonized more over time. If she was in a safe spot, you could pet her. If not, she'd run to her first and safest of all spaces.

She loves her covered cat bed, especially because it's partially hidden behind something. She can still watch what's going on but feel protected.

Good luck, and please keep us posted!
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 9:03 AM on July 5, 2016

One thing that does concern me a bit is Rum hiding behind the fridge. As hiding places go it's got all the components of a great spot for cats, but it is pretty unsafe for caretaking humans. If Rum gets hurt somehow and retreats there, you can't just move the fridge by yourself (unless you're super strong?) to extract her for a vet visit, it is very rarely cleaned so interesting stuff like string and plastic tabs get back there and eaten by cats, and it can actually get too hot and irritate the cat's delicate skin.

Try to make little nests for Rum in different places throughout the house so that she can see you but you can't really see her. Make one of these right next to or maybe on top of the fridge if possible. Some ideas for nests: a cardboard box on its side with the open top a few inches away from the wall and some holes punched in the bottom and sides with rags inside, a folded towel surrounded by throw pillows, a laundry basket with some laundry in the bottom and a blanket draped partially over the top. Of course if you have cat beds use those too, placing them in safe areas like tucked between and under furniture or on high shelves that she can easily climb to.

Once you've kitted the house out like that, stick dry treats in the new hiding spots. At night when Rum goes exploring she will find them and hopefully go there during the day, too.

Cats have preferences for a lot of things, not just food and favorite petting spots. My current cat has a particular thing about textured minky fabric - just a couple fat quarters of the stuff and he is a drooling purring affectionate mess. Your new cats could very well have particular preferences for textures, and it's important for cats to be able to mark their new homes with their scent by rubbing on soft porous surfaces. Gather up old rags and towels and maybe check out the clearance bin of your local fabric store and leave them near the cats' current spots. When they show a preference, get more of that same kind of fabric and stick it in their favorite spots and those nests you've made to make them extra attractive and comforting.
posted by Mizu at 1:04 PM on July 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hi everyone. My 5 day charm offensive has ended and the results are in... it worked! The last few days were excellent - here are pictures of Mungo sitting on my kneeto prove it 1 2. And here's one of him watching Youtube.

I saw results with Feliway almost immediately. Ten minutes after I plugged it in, Mungo was sitting next to it and then came into the living room and ate in front of me. It really was an excellent first step to getting him comfortable.

I used a lot of the tips here. Getting down low and hanging out with them really helped. Oh Monday I spent some quality with Mungo in his MungHole, before he went to get something to eat. I then went back to the living room and he came and meowed at me, as if to say 'I'm really for strokings again now'. It was the first time he had made a noise since he arrived.

Mungo also seems to like Test Match Special (as do I) so we had a good few days lying down listening to the cricket. I also learned the Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser song from Cats, which I think their original owner might have sung for them, they seemed to recognise it.

Anyway, sometime around Thursday (with the help of a lot of Dreamies) something definitely clicked in his head, and he now purrs on sight of me, hangs around with me when I'm in the living room and chirps at me a lot. He's also entirely stopped hiding, apart from when I had the vacuum cleaner out. I'm really happy, it was definitely worth it. The only thing I want to gain with him is for him to sleep on my bed, but there's no rush, especially if there's going to be 30 degree weather this week.

I didn't make much progress with Rum, but I also wanted to stop trying to make progress with her and let her come to me when she's ready. I don't think Feliway works as well on her as it does her brother. However, she's started creeping towards me when I'm on the couch, so I think we are making progress, even if its slow. I'm worried that her brother is eating too much of the wet food, but at the same time, maybe having to eat dry food only might give her some incentives to come out and get some of the jelly before he eats it all.

Thanks everyone for your excellent tips, help and support. Here's a final picture, the favourite of the ones I took, of the first time Mungo climbed up to join me on the couch. I will update this again when I make some progress with my Rum-ball.
posted by litereally at 3:53 AM on July 18, 2016 [8 favorites]

Oh this update made made me so happy for you all! And a little blinky at them recognising the song, sniff. That one of Mungo on the couch is adorable. Look at him all "hello my human, it is time for you to be giving me more snuggles! I am your kitty, human!"

I eagerly await Rum-ball updates. She'll come round when she sees Mungo getting all the snuggles.
posted by kitten magic at 5:04 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


Cats do learn from each other, so I'm certain that your Mungo will help bring Rum around too.

Some cats take longer than others, are a bit more anxious than others, but when (not if) she decides you're safe, you'll be golden.
posted by bonehead at 10:06 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hooray! What fantastic news!

One thing I forgot to add: we tried giving our shy cat long, slow blinks with great success. She started blinking back almost immediately. It was a way that we could show her affection (or at least that we weren't a threat) from across the room, and it's been a good foundation for her settling in as time goes on. We also see her exchange languid blinks with our non-shy cat all the time.
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 10:20 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's a few weeks later and I'm here to repay my photo debt. I have to particularly thank Orange Dinosaur Slide because it was long blinks that really bought Rum around. It took a few weeks of long blinking but now she trusts me, loves being stroked, will come and try and steal my food, and has mostly stopped bolting. She will also let me take pictures that show how incredibly beautiful she is.
The first time she came to me for love after getting high on a catnip chicken.
After claiming my new handbag as her own
A noble beast at rest
I'm considering renaming her Xena as she is a noble warrior princess, and she doesn't recognise her name anyway.

And because I can't help myself, Mungo watching TV on my lap and being photogenic in bed because he is a cute weirdo and I love him. Where his sister mugs me for meat or cheese, so far the human food he goes mad for are gherkins, peaches, and ice pops.

So, just to finish off, the tips that worked best for us coming from traumatised wardrobe demons to family were feliway plug ins, long blinks, water bowls in each room and ignoring them as much as possible. Thanks again for all the tips, I never would have been able to do it without your help!
posted by litereally at 1:52 AM on September 6, 2016 [7 favorites]

Yaaaay! Success! And her eyes are so pretty!
posted by schroedinger at 6:21 AM on September 6, 2016

Rats, I missed your last update. Congrats, litereally! I'm so glad the blinks helped Rum/Xena feel better and they're both happily settled!
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 2:08 PM on January 7, 2017

« Older What is a suitable alternative to Togethera?   |   Searching for a math learning book for children Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.