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June 20, 2019 11:26 AM   Subscribe

My partner and I adopted two youngish bonded cats. They are relatively skittish - I am looking for tips on bonding with them, in the hopes of future snuggles. Further snowflakes and cat tax inside.

Fil (18 months old, full name Fillmore) and Uli (10 months old, full name Ulysses) are two bonded cats who originally lived in a hoarding situation with 100+ cats. Cat Tax (four photos, I cannot contain myself). They were in a lovely foster home from March - June 2019, then we adopted them. They are perfect, of course, I would just like to get closer to them.

Fil is very skittish, hides under the couch a lot, has let me pet him only 3 times since he arrived two weeks ago. Very food motivated.

Uli is much more outgoing: sits in the middle of the room, lets extensive petting and brushing occur. Definitely still have many skittish moments (including after I tried to push it by picking him up briefly - my mistake). He is not food motivated.

Things I want: to pet them, have them sit on my lap or beside me on the couch or in bed, have them not be scared of me, etc.

Things I am doing: playing with them a lot (they love the wand), I am the one who feeds them (including hand feeding wet food - the only times Fil has let me pet him), not invading their space when they are skittish. I got Feliway but there is no discernable difference.

What are best practices for raising an outgoing and friendly cat? Am I doing the right thing re: Fil by feeding him and using that as an opportunity for petting and rewarding him for sitting for pets?
posted by hepta to Pets & Animals (34 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you haven't had them for very long! It also sounds like you're doing well. I think the biggest mistake is to try to push affection onto skittish cats, which can make them more nervous because you're invading their space. It's threatening. But you're not really doing that, except perhaps when you pet him when he eats. What is his body language like? Is he recoiling from you, but just food motivated enough to keep eating even though he doesn't like it? Or does he seem comfortable?

Cats can take a long time to adjust. Some will never be that friendly, and others will take time to realize that they're safe.

I would say try to hang out on their level a lot, too. Sitting on the floor so you're not towering over them when you're playing with the wand, for example.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:33 AM on June 20, 2019 [5 favorites]

It's been 2 weeks? Just give it some time. I would definitely reward Fil for allowing pets, but I wouldn't use feeding as opportunity for pets. Not to use too charged of a word, but from his perspective it could be coercive. Any living being will put up with uncomfortable situations if it was the only way they were going to get food. Other than that it seems like you're going about the transition in the right way. Behavior can take months to change, and that can be frustrating, but it's definitely not time yet to assume that this is permanent behavior.

Also keep in mind that when cats hide it's not always necessarily about being scared, and it's definitely not always necessarily about being scared of you. I had a rescue who retained his hiding tendencies even after becoming a love bug. We'd cuddle, we'd sometimes nap together, he became very affectionate. But sometimes I'd be busy, or in a chair he couldn't cuddle, or hell, if he just felt like it, he'd find some sort of cave-like space to be in. I'd find him in shelves, under furniture, inside boxes and bags and wedged between things. It was always cute.
posted by FirstMateKate at 11:48 AM on June 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Yeah, you are doing the right things but you are going to need a lot more time. I adopted a skittish cat from the shelter who would barely let me touch her the first few months. She turned into the world's cuddliest cuddle bug - but it took 18 months for her to climb into my lap voluntarily.
posted by shiny blue object at 11:50 AM on June 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

We recently adopted a pair of kittens with similar temperaments, and the food-motivated one is now my wife's devoted lap cat, because my wife always has treats around and will trade them for pets. (The other one decided I was HERS and she doesn't share. I had nearly nothing to do with it.)
posted by restless_nomad at 11:51 AM on June 20, 2019

The best thing you can do is ignore them and let them get completely comfortable on their own terms. It can take a long time! I took in a friend's two cats in July 2016. For the first few months, one of them stared at us suspiciously from an Amazon box in the middle of the living room floor, but now when our alarm clock goes off he's right there in our faces purring his head off and wanting cuddles.
posted by something something at 11:52 AM on June 20, 2019 [6 favorites]

Skittish cats can be a long process. You're doing fine! I agree that if you are able to sit on the floor with them that might help. Also, if you're not already, spend time just *near* them, not interacting with them, but doing something calm and quiet and non-threatening. Reading a book, whatever. Just something where they can observe you from wherever they're comfortable, and come closer to you when/as they feel safe doing so.

If they don't have access to somewhere high up - a cat tree, shelves, whatever - it would be a kindness to provide such a place for them. Some cats feel safer when they can scoot up high and watch you from there.

They'll likely each find their own boundaries over the coming months. I had a very skittish pair that grew up into less-but-still-somewhat skittish adults. One of them grew to *love* belly rubs, and cuddling if she initiates it, but she will never in her whole life like being picked up, and that's just who she is, and mostly she would rather be the one to initiate snuggles. The other is now totally fine with being picked up and carried around, and you can definitely initiate snuggles with him, but also he absolutely never wants to meet another human who is not us ever and will go under the bed until they go away, whereas the girl will pretty cheerfully come out and meet new people as long as it's only a couple of new people at a time. We raised them both the same, but they're each comfortable with slightly different things, and I don't think anything we could have done would have made her like being picked up, or him interested in new people.
posted by Stacey at 11:53 AM on June 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Two weeks is just so short, don't worry! As you'll find out if you've never had cats in your life before, every cat is different. We've had cats who were snuggly and lapbound from day one, and we currently have one who took five years to get comfortable with snuggles - and we've had him since kittenhood!

Just keep providing consistent and predictable love, and they'll come around. Maybe both of them will be lap cats, maybe only one will consent to on-demand pets, but eventually they'll settle in comfortably and happily.
posted by cooker girl at 12:00 PM on June 20, 2019

Our adopted kitty prefers to sit on us by way of fleece blankets. If there's a blanket they like, try to place yourself under it.
posted by Dashy at 12:05 PM on June 20, 2019 [5 favorites]

Spend time near them but not looking at them. This can be working on the computer, reading (the best -- you can do it on the couch and they might come sniff you), or talking on the phone.

Looking directly at cats can read to them as semi-predatory; silently staring at prey is what cats do. So, if you can be near them, demonstrably not hunting, and not looking at them, this can help them see you as potentially friendly.

Another thing that's worked extremely well for me with skittish cats: playing with them using just a short ribbon or shoelace on the floor. Most cats cannot resist the motion of the shoelace "snaking" along the floor, and your hand, and you, are very close in this scenario. Plus, you can start with a longish ribbon, then gradually shorten it as the cat becomes more bold.

Note: if the cat accidentally claws you while playing, just make a squeak (like another kitten, indignant) so they know they've crossed a boundary. If they've been raised with other kittens, though, they probably won't hurt you.
posted by amtho at 12:22 PM on June 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

Just go to the room they're in and ignore them. If you can lay down, that's nice. Or when they're out and about, go into a new room. Do cats magically appear but ignore you? They like you.

They just need some time to express it.

To properly pet a cat, you should reach out your hand palm down, fingers relaxed and let them smell it. They'll smell it for awhile probably. They might then rub their face or body against it. That's them showing you how they'd like to be petted.

I've had my girl since she fit in the palm of my hand. I know how to bring her to me reliably... a blanket will do it. Or sitting in my recliner. Or in my bed on my back, I tap my belly three times. She won't just normally lay on me that much, but if I do one of the signals she likes, she'll probably be there very shortly.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:24 PM on June 20, 2019 [5 favorites]

N'thing that you need more time, and that each cat will respond differently. Two of our (non-bonded) cats came from feral cat colonies around 6 months of age. One (we've had about 9 years) settled in pretty quickly. While she resisted being held/picked up, I could sit on the ground and she'd climb into my lap and suckle on my shirt within the first week of living with us. After about 6 months she was OK with being picked up. After 2 years, none of her behaviors really seemed to speak at all of "ex-feral" cat.

The other (we've had about 7 years) was significantly more skittish. He still will claw me to pieces if I pick him up and don't put him down within 1 second (which isn't enough to carry him up stairs uninjured!). He's always loved to play, and would take treats from our hands (yay for his foster!). After about a year he hesitantly would let me pet him, *and* stick around for a few pets. After about 4-5 years, I can sit on the ground and if he's close to me he'll usually be fine with being moved to my lap, so long as I don't try to keep him on my lap. He'll stay standing on my lap for a minute or two, while looking unsure of what he's doing. He might even start to knead a leg. But if you pet him while he's on your lap he'll disappear fast.

Over the last year lately he's started rubbing his face/scent up against my, or my wife's legs while we're standing. And immediately after he does that he looks content for about 0.5 seconds, and then his face changes in a "what did I do" sort of fashion and he'll step away, glaring at us. And then come back 10 seconds later for another leg rub! Which is to say that even after 7 years he's still making progress in his expressions of affection and tolerance of human touch.

On the note of ignoring cats, they're not allowed in our bedroom (allergies). So when I'm sick and coughing I'll sleep on the couch so my wife can sleep. And when I do, the cat I can't hold, will jump up on me, and spend most of the night alternately sleeping on me, or standing on me kneading, with all 4 paws. He definitely makes a distinction between tablet/gaming human-not-moving and under-blanket-human-not-moving.
posted by nobeagle at 12:32 PM on June 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Do you know how to make a cat face with your hand? Make a closed fist and then extend your middle finger slightly out to make a nose bump. Cats will rub your cat face hand like they would other cats. Works wonders on skittish but cat friendly cats. All of the advice upthread still applies Jackson Galaxy has a bunch of videos whose principles can be applied.
posted by edbles at 12:33 PM on June 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

You can clicker-train cats, and that might be a way to bond with Fil. Start by training them to look at you at all, then you can start associating their name and working on "sit".

I've also had success with having a "you have to headbutt my hand to get your kibble" rule with a skittish cat, but that was a standoff that lasted maybe ten seconds, it's not like he was suffering. His snuggly bonded-cat was modeling "yep, touching you, kibble me", which helped, too. The association between touch human -> food was good, but the cat has to initiate touch.

Don't do anything that encourages the cat to pounce close to your hand, like a short ribbon. They have tiny walnut brains, do everything you can not to confuse them.
posted by momus_window at 12:36 PM on June 20, 2019

Patience and time. Lots and lots of patience and time.
One of ours that we got as a kitten did not initially seem skittish, but then we realized was VERY scaredy-cat. She took a liking to my (now-ex) partner, and she'd occasionally climb onto his lap. (It started during a time when he was grieving the death of a close relative, and I think she picked up on something.) No one else was allowed to hold her or pick her up, she hid if any strangers came in the house, and you were lucky if she (rarely) allowed pets.

Two years later, we split, and he couldn't take her with him. She was sad and even more DON'T TOUCH ME, if possible. Another year, a move, then another year, another move. Very, very slowly allowing more contact.

After the last move, about a year and a half ago, she changed. She "cats" people - determinedly decides they are for sits, and does so, even when they're sleeping. She gets in your face and "kisses". She meows for pets, pushes her way under your hand or into you lap... in all honestly, she can be an absolute pest at times. She'll even just plain JUMP onto you from a table or chair.

She'll still spook if you do something that startles her, and she still hides from guests, but she forgives and warms back up much more quickly. I wouldn't believe it was the same cat if I didn't know it. It's only take six years, lol.

A few things that might have been factors... we're down to just three very quiet people in the household. We lost our elderly but dominant cat last summer. And my daughter gives LOTS of treats and has somehow convinced both cats to come when she clicks at them. (Is there a name for that noise?)
posted by stormyteal at 12:39 PM on June 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Two visual signals that you can use to tell a skittish cat that you're friendly:
- a very slow two-eyes wink
- a yawn (doesn't have to be real)

And maybe you'd like to read about our own skittish cat from a hoarding situation?
This cat is now definitely friendly, happy, and as much at ease as he'll ever be; he sometimes sleeps on our bed (with us in it), sits in my lap several times a week, and very rarely when I'm not home he sits in my partner's lap too. He definitely enjoys spending time with us, and likes being brushed and petted. He doesn't like it when there are guests and he is still pretty jumpy, but he will also roll on the floor at our feet, fluffy belly up, asking to be petted. He doesn't like being held, but he'll allow it if need be. We can't give him pills, but we can put flea drops in his neck.
When he's in pain or needs something, he'll come to us and meow at us.

It's very possible that you'll see a lot of change in a year or so. And it will probably continue after that.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:48 PM on June 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I adopted a cat many years ago who spent several weeks hiding in the bathroom behind the toilet or under my bed, never to be seen during the day.

I knew he was eating and using the litter box, but only when I was asleep or at work. Soon as I came home, he'd vanish. I didn't push it. I just let him hide for as long as he needed to.

Then one day it was like a switch flipped. He decided I was cool and suddenly he was snuggling with me at night and waiting by the door for me when I got home from work. He was my shadow from that point on. If I left one room he'd follow me. He didn't want to be snuggled all the time, but he definitely wanted to hang out and be acknowledged. He got more snuggly as he got older, but he was never cool with being picked up.

It sounds like you're doing the right things. Give those adorable kitties some time, let them lead on affection, and you'll have a couple of lovely feline companions who trust you!
posted by burntflowers at 1:12 PM on June 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Do they react to catnip? Regular catnip sessions can help them relax and there are catnip bubbles you can get now.

I would try to take some naps in the living room where they will see you sleeping and vulnerable. Ours may ignore us for a time but always come around for bedtime and usually for naptime.
posted by soelo at 1:13 PM on June 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Avoid eye contact. If they catch you looking at them, do a long slow blink and then causually yawn and look away. Direct eye contact is a threat, but the long blink and yawning are signs that you don’t mean harm. Let the cats approach you on their time.

You’re doing great! Just give them time!
posted by Weeping_angel at 1:26 PM on June 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I had a friend who adopted a skittish stray older kitten (a little under a year) who was a fighter and a scratcher at the beginning, and it took at least a year for that cat to get completely comfortable and sweet with his owner. So yes, time and treats and playing.
posted by greta simone at 1:34 PM on June 20, 2019

As others have said time & patience is your friend here. They will totally come around but think months not days. It's am amazing feeling watching a scared rescue come out of their shell to trust you, but you have to let them come out on their terms not yours. Routine is the best way you can help them feel secure at the moment and have a nice calm energy around them.
posted by wwax at 2:08 PM on June 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Two weeks into my most recent cat adoption the new kitty was still so terrified that he wouldn't eat in front of me and didn't like me seeing him, so I want to let you know - you are doing great! Just give them more time and keep on with what you're doing.
posted by bile and syntax at 3:03 PM on June 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Patience. My cat was extremely skittish when I first got him, hiding under my bed 18 hours a day and running there if I made any loud noises or sudden movements during his time "above ground." After a few months he started sleeping on the edge of my bed; now, at two years, he's right at my hip or between my legs most nights. Likewise, now that it's been two years, he's totally unruffled when I sneeze or shout at the tv or drop things; only the vacuum cleaner remains terrifying (fair enough). When I sit on the sofa he sits right next to me, happily shedding all over one thigh. I'm betting that by year three, he'll be on my tap. Give your cuties more time! I found it helpful to have a routine (ie, I tell myself that vegging on the couch watching netflix for an hour or two in the evenings is "cat bonding/play time") so the cat generally knows where I am when he's in the mood for attention at times that are not 3am.
posted by TwoStride at 3:49 PM on June 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yeah, 2 weeks is nothing! Like some other posters, I have had a cat go from 'hiding all the time' to 'ultra-gregarious and snuggly' and it just takes time and not forcing it. In my case, I knew which chair he hid under, and whenever I walked through that room, I would tilt the chair forward, say hello to the cat as he looked up (resentfully?), and gently let the chair back down. This was our only interaction for weeks.

The part where he would hang around outside, soliciting pats from passing strangers, came later (but within a year).
posted by inexorably_forward at 4:10 PM on June 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Snacks, and more snacks. ALL cats are nuts about Temptations, but of course they are not exactly the healthiest, but they will love you in short order. Or you could try the various healthier snacks like Greenies, bonito flakes, salmon snacks or dried chicken giblets.
posted by nanook at 4:41 PM on June 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I’ve never had the least bit of luck with Feliway.

It’s going to be a matter of time but you also need to know that not all cats are snugglers, even when treated well. I think it’s especially iffy given their background, sorry to say. Just keep being nice to them in a way that doesn’t involve encroaching on their space when their body language says “nope, not yet.” I don’t think this is particularly trainable but I’m not a cat behaviorist or anything, just a cat loon on the internet.

They are absolutely lovely, also.
posted by Smearcase at 4:56 PM on June 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'd like to offer a slightly different suggestion based on experience working with cats like yours and working with people who have experience working with cats like yours.

Forgive me if you know all of this: in shelter and rescue terminology, your cats are "undersocialized." A fully socialized cat is unafraid of humans. Cats from hoarding situations are often undersocialized because they didn't get the one-on-one contact they needed at the right time. Kittens up to about twelve weeks easily lose their instinctive fear of people with intensive handling. After that, it's harder for them (and us).

Cats are territorial. They feel safest when they feel they have control over their territory. One way to make scared cats feel safer is to make their territory smaller. A traditional way of working with undersocialized cats is to confine them to one room. It goes against our instincts, but allowing a cat to patrol and control a smaller territory gives him confidence more quickly. A whole apartment -- a whole house -- is a lot of territory for a nervous cat.

When the cat is in one room, we can also go in and get closer to them easily without making them feel cornered. Do all the things suggested above: read a book or the internet while paying no attention to the cat, read out loud, avoid eye contact, play if the cat wants to play, etc. Here's a one-page explanation about confining an undersocialized cat.

Confining an undersocialized cat is a standard method with lots of good results, but it's not what everyone wants to do. There's nothing wrong with the let-them-come-around method. They will still be fine if you choose not to confine them, but it's worth considering.

You can try sitting and/or lying on the floor (if possible for you) and offering them special tasty food (plain cooked chicken in small cubes, meat-flavored baby food, others findable via Google) from a spoon held in your hand. Slowly, you can encourage them to climb up on you to get the food -- and let them leave when they choose -- and they'll learn that touching you and climbing on you (a lap precursor) is not only safe but rewarding.

Google has lots of great results for "Working with undersocialized cats" and similar phrases. The more you read, the more ideas you'll gather. Some you'll keep, some you'll discard, but all of the information should help you better understand your cats and how to raise their confidence.

Apologies for the length. Good luck with your adorable cats!
posted by swerve at 6:45 PM on June 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for the feedback everyone! I had cats growing up and they were very socialized so I am unused to this behaviour. You all have reassured me greatly. I didn’t know about the eye contact thing so will work on that, as well as not pressuring them when we hang out. Currently they are loving the shit out of a cardboard box in my living room. I am hanging out on the couch listening to a podcast. Thanks all.
posted by hepta at 8:01 PM on June 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

My cat Joaquin didn't let us pet him for a year. He's now a cuddlebunny. Here are some of the tips I got when I asked about him!
posted by Miko at 5:03 AM on June 21, 2019

I was in a similar situation. I tried to force it. It didn't work. What did?

The cat liked being around me, just not being picked up or touched. I let her just be around me. Slowly she would get closer and closer. One day she slept on the couch with her head on my hip. Slowly she let me pet her. It all came down to not forcing it. Some cats just take time.
posted by kbbbo at 8:59 AM on June 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

ignore them. They will find you fascinating soon enough. They hate it if you seem overeager, they feel embarrassed for you.
posted by some loser at 9:52 AM on June 21, 2019

Nthing that "two weeks is not enough time". It took two years for my cat Zach to let me initiate pets.

I handled it much like kbbbo did above; just let things be at their own pace. Zach went from sometimes outright attacking me, to liking to come and chill beside me, to sitting on laps (but if you tried to pet him he'd skeddadle), to finally let me scritch him. And then that was that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:39 AM on June 21, 2019

Lots of good advice here. The main takeaway is to get your kitty love appeased with Uli on a daily basis. I am assuming he has the white locket on his chest.
Let Uli have his fun with lots of cooing and nose bumps and slow chin and ear scritches. Lots of scritches down the back and eventually -- belly rubs!

Fil is taking this all in. Do some co-playing with him for thirty minutes to an hour -- sit on a level beside or below him, reading a book or watching YouTube on a laptop. Talk to him. Ignore him. Then at the end of the time, let him know you are going, reach gently toward him (don't touch him, let him have his space) and see if he will move toward your hand for a sniff. Pet his nose and face if allowed, then let him decide what comes next.
Over a period of days, get closer and settle down with him, or get closer for a few minutes and then get up and move further away for the rest of the time.
And if your hand just happens to be on the ground or furniture near Fil, where he can sniff it and get used to it, good. If you can put a finger under his chin or gently rub his paw, good. No pressure on either of you.

Treats are good. Playing catch the ribbon is excellent, but some cats don't respond to it. Playing "what's moving under the blanket?" is good, especially since it gives a nice surface for kneading. Boxes are very good.
Patience is the key.
posted by TrishaU at 8:16 PM on June 21, 2019

And some cats never become cuddle bugs. Ivory, my Turkish Angora, is a princess. Like really a princess. She won't let us brush her, so she has to get shaved when she mats. She doesn't like to be touched. She'll sit next to my dad. She'll sit outside my room. She wasn't cuddly when she was little and she isn't now.

My other cat, Gidgette, has recently got more cuddly. She wants to be in my lap all the time and is sleeping with me. This is definitely a change in the last few months.

They are sisters (but not genetically related) that were adopted at nearly the same time 9 years ago. Cat Tax

Everyone else has given good advice. Cats are just like people. They have their individual personalities, likes and dislikes. That's what makes them so awesome.
posted by kathrynm at 2:02 PM on June 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A further update, for those interested: the cats have made huge progress! Uli sleeps on my legs overnight now, and flops down for pets whenever we come home. He is not quite cuddly but very involved with us. Fil is a bit more reserved, but accepts pets now and will sit cautiously on the bed beside me while I read. Cat tax. Thank you all for the advice and reassurance!
posted by hepta at 10:18 AM on November 29, 2019 [7 favorites]

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