The princesses can't live in the tower forever!
February 23, 2021 9:01 AM   Subscribe

Shepherd and I may have done too good a job in providing our new girls (here) with a safe space for acclimating to their new home. How to encourage them to be brave?

Backstory: The Weird Sisters (Agatha has the clipped ear; Prudence has the stripe) are a once-feral pair of sisters who came to live with us shortly after the new year. They had previously been in a foster home with a large dog and two other cats for seven months. They are very close, these two girls.

The past few weeks has been a series of barricades to slowly widen their territory, with as minimal disruption for the current cat, Sir Digby Chicken Caesar. Well, now the house is open to the girls for them to explore and make their own...only they aren't doing it. Like little furry vampires, they will creep around briefly at night, but during the day, even with the door wide open, they will not leave the guest room safe space we created for them.

Cat lovers of MeFi, how you would go about coaxing the Weird Sisters out of their protective shell?

(P.S. Digby is not really bothered by them. He will hiss and so will Agatha, but no one has gotten physical. Feliway is all over the house.)
posted by Kitteh to Pets & Animals (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My daughter had a previously feral cat who lived in a cat rescue for several years before getting a chance to be in a real home. It took her several months to be comfortable enough to be out from under the bed or behind the toilet during daylight hours if anyone else is the room. My guess is most people are going to tell you to just give them lots of time.
posted by metahawk at 9:07 AM on February 23 [13 favorites]

This seems like basically a “cats are weird, give them time” situation.
posted by rockindata at 9:07 AM on February 23 [25 favorites]

You could go in and sit with them and read out loud so they get more used to you. But, yes, give them time. They are lovely girls.
posted by poppunkcat at 9:11 AM on February 23 [7 favorites]

My Nellie's nickname was Lady Digby Chicken Caesar!

Yeah, it's been my experience that new housecats will eventually come out of hiding on their own time if left alone. If they can get to their food, water, etc. they should be fine to go at their own pace.

You got yourself two fine-lookin' beaste there.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:15 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]

Nthing give-them-time.

Cats don't like direct wide-eyed contact and they love to be near-but-safe when interesting things are going on. Hang out with them; read, flip toys around, talk to them, but don't invade their safe space, don't reach out hands to them, and don't look at them much except with half-closed eyes. Always let scared cats take the first move.

It may be weeks or months depending on prior trauma if any, but they'll come around.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:16 AM on February 23 [5 favorites]

That's not a ton longer than it took for my feral adoptee to show interest in exploring, and he didn't have a pal in there with him (he made one very quickly afterwards). The thing I did with him was move his feeding in with the other cats in the living room at fixed times. But I'm not sure I'd even worry about it for a few more weeks. The time scales for feral cats are very long, but they do get there.
posted by wotsac at 9:19 AM on February 23

On top of reading, do things in their room that they'll find interesting to observe. Yarn crafts are a favourite because String! but I've also had hits with putting together furniture (as long as no power tools are used), repacking boxes, folding clothes and cutting up food ingredients.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 9:21 AM on February 23 [5 favorites]

If you don’t already have them, I’d suggest adding a couple of Feliway diffusers. For some cats, the difference can be magical.

I also wanted to note that your beautiful girls are very dark torties, and in my experience, very dark torties are usually Expert Level Cats even when they aren’t former ferals. They may need a great deal of time to integrate into the household, and a great deal of calm, patience, and love from you.
posted by timeo danaos at 9:23 AM on February 23 [5 favorites]

Jackson Galaxy has a thing called "base camp relocation" or something where basically he takes safe beds or toys that smell like the cats and moves them out from the safe spot to tell the cats like, hey, the hallway smells like your cool bed and is safe too! And he progressively does this until the cat is hanging out in more of the house. Feeding them slightly outside of their comfort zone might work too. But I think like the other folks they will warm up over time no matter what you do.
posted by clarinet at 9:27 AM on February 23 [8 favorites]

If you didn't think they were moving around at night I might be concerned, but it sounds like they are starting to explore, just at their own pace! The only other thing I might note is that cats hate feeling like someone is sneaking up on them, so making sure they have somewhere to eat where they see all doorways might help them feel more confident, like on top of a cat tree that's against a wall or in a corner and has space for them to sit behind the food bowl and face outward.
posted by capricorn at 9:27 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]

We have a foster right now that came from living outside. We've had her for about a month and she's just now starting to venture out from my daughter's room. I think yours will come out too, just give them time!
posted by dawkins_7 at 9:29 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Popping in to say that it seems that Prudence has taken a shine to me and will happily accept pats. Agatha is less trustful (but the braver of the two). We have done all the cat parent things in which we spend time in the room just being there instead of expecting them to engage with us.
posted by Kitteh at 9:29 AM on February 23 [4 favorites]

Oh, goodness. One suggestion just to give them variety - occasionally leave an open box in their room for them to check out. Leave it an hour or day or few, take it out, move it around, etc. Make it different. Slowly but not obviously, move it a little closer to the door, sort of a two steps forward, one back approach. Eventually, try leaving it in the doorway or just outside the door.

If it sorta fits, it eventually sits.
Paper bags are good to swap in, too.
The tricky part is pretending you left the box or bag there on accident, so cat is curious and will explore... they've ever so much more suspicious if they think you left it there for them.
posted by stormyteal at 10:13 AM on February 23 [4 favorites]

We adopted two 9 month old formerly feral cat brothers from a foster agency. They had their own room for a month and then we would let them out at night to explore. Gradually we transitioned to letting them out all the time, though I think they would have been less scaredy if we had been able to do it in stages. Unfortunately our house only had doors on the bedrooms and the bathroom, so it was small bedroom ---> entire house. If we could have broadened their territory more gradually I feel it would have helped.

Oliver is friendly and gregarious, Rufus is super smart and cautious. I'm not sure the foster we got them from really socialized them. It took Rufus a full year to really start coming up to us and hanging out on his own accord, even though very earlier on I taught them both to respond to a whistle. The thing that seemed to help the most was sitting on the floor and brushing him, which is something I began when he had to wear a cone for a torn ear. I never really brushed cats before, or had it recommended to me. I feel silly for never having thought of it before, because both cats love it.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:36 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]

They are braver at dusk because that is a cat's natural hunting time. If you are trying to interest them in coming out try doing it at dusk.

Hungry cats are braver than well fed ones, again because of the instinct to go look for food. If you make sure you are not over feeding them into comfortable torpidity they will be more interested in coming out and exploring.

Cats like warmth. If you put a nice cozy pet bed or heater in the next room out and turn the heat down to slightly chilly in the room where they are you may find they prefer the room with the heater.

Obviously don't starve or feed them, but use their natural motivation to get them out.

Try catnip also. If you sprinkle it on the floor they will likely roll in it and then stop to groom. When a cat grooms it relaxes and is more likely to stick around. An old way of making a kitten stay at a new home was to butter its paws or dip them in the juice from a can of tuna. The cat would want to clean its paws before it walk anywhere and then it would remember that this was the comfortable place where food could be found and where it could do some grooming.

Nthing have patience. This is early days for the cats. If they get totally comfortable with the Sir Digby they will not avoid areas that might be his territory and where he might suddenly come out and swat them. So if you can get him to spend lots of comfortable sleeping time in the room with them, they are more likely to feel confident exploring.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:49 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]

Get them used to being picked up if you can. The trick is to never let them escape, but always to put them down again promptly before they have a chance to get frightened. You need to get a good grip and then be masterful and then have the whole experience over before they are able to process it. If you can get them to be lap cats it is easy - all you do is simply pick them up off your lap and put them down when it is time to get off. If not, try moving them over a few inches, several times a day, if not too inconvenient.

The idea is for the cat to get the idea that being held is no big deal, and to associate it with treats and petting. You may wish to hold them with one hand on the back of their neck, pinching gently, as that is reassuring too - it reminds them of when they were light enough to be carried that way by a mother cat. Don't actually carry the cat by the scruff of the neck. Adult cats are usually too heavy for this to be safe or comfortable. The grip is just a reassurance so they have no fear of being dropped. They should also be well supported by your arms so they feel like they could hang on easily if there were a danger of falling.

Once they get used to that you can take them out of the room, again, absurdly briefly - one step out, then back in and put down in a familiar spot.

Move on from there - assuming the cat is totally comfortable - with allowing them to sniff things at shoulder height in the next room, before replacing them to the location they prefer.

Because cats are territorial they may get the idea that an area is off limits and without anything interesting to lure them into that territory they don't go there. So if they get carried through the territory and allowed to check it out, they will get the idea that there is not an invisible line they don't cross, but rather that they are expected to be there. Mine rather liked being put up on top of high furniture for a few moments. Being high up is reassuring to a cat as there is lots of room for them to escape, they have a good view of potential predators but at the same time there is nowhere for a predator to come from behind them. If they have checked out the top of the book case and the wardrobe and microwave cart they will be more willing to explore the floor - they will know that there are no signs of predators up there, just an old microwave cook book and a couple of hats. But again, it is really important that the cat is already comfortable being carried on your shoulder and being handled before you do this. A frightened cat being held tightly to prevent escape is not going to be reassured by having to be in an area which they haven't checked out. This introduction is only for cats that trust you.

Sleeping in the room with the cats also makes them bond with you.

Do not try chase and play games. The biggest risk to a cat is that you will walk on it unintentionally clumsily while wearing hard shoes or boots. Some cats love the game of hiding under the furniture from you but you should still never offer to play a game where your hands or feet are potentially frightening. Even if you pretend to run away from them it will frighten them. Since you are bigger it may make them think that a predator is after you - and anything you are afraid of can destroy them. Well socialized cats who think of themselves as humans might offer to play this game with you - but it is up to the cat to offer, never you. If they offer it will likely be long after they are roaming the house and have explored everything it has to offer.

For this reason try to walk lightly and wear only stocking feet or soft slippers around the cats and never move fast or suddenly.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:30 PM on February 23 [2 favorites]

Mostly the sitting still in their space with some smelly treats has worked for me. I would go into the isolation room without trying to locate the cat, put a treat out just out of my own reach but in a clear space, and then pull out a book. Even if I never sdaw the cat I woulds tay an hour or so, tlakign occationally in a low comforting voice and jsut being generally nonthreatening. If the cat ate the treat, wait for the cat to hide and put out a couple more, closer to me.

We had one case where this did not quite work. We eventually lured him onto the bed with treats to get him acclimated to touches and affection. He liked stritches and even face-toface rubs. But swe enver succeeded in expanding the "trust zone" further than the bed.

For the rest of his life he trusted and loved any person lying in a bed. If you sat up, stood up, or god forbid actually walked anywhere, forget it. He would not stay in the room with any person who was not lying down, but he would sleep on us and cuddle when we were. Hes lept with us every night, but I never saw him sleeping in a non-concealed location at any other time.

Seriously you would walk casually into a room and he would explode out from under a bed or behind a chair, usually right over your foot, hissing and growling. For 12 years. We had people that came over to our house weekly who thought we were lying about the third cat for years until they went off to the bathroom down a dark hallway and scared him out.
posted by buildmyworld at 4:39 PM on February 23 [4 favorites]

Sit on the floor about 2 meters/6 feet away from the cat, which is usually under a sofa or bed.
Pull out a long piece of yarn. Sit still and relaxed and just let the yarn do the work, tossing it and dragging it back like a fishing lure.
Trail it in front of the cat's nose. Toss it back again. Then... drag it just out of sight.
Wait a moment and see what the cat does.
Toss the yarn back again. Drag the yarn over it's paws, if possible. Dangle the yarn end in front of it's nose, or a little higher.
No noise, maybe some soft whispering.
This is the initial gambit. This is getting the cat into stalking mode, and playing with you and the string. This may take a few sessions to teach reliably.
Once the cat has the bait, following it, stalking it and capturing it, then try trailing it across the floor... behind your back with the cat following... across your legs... and around behind your back again.

The point is to use stalking behavior to goose the cat into playing with you. At some point in the future I include petting and treats, and lots of encouraging words.
I do not let the cat take the yarn away, since it is a choking hazard.
I do not do this if there are other distractions in the room or nearby. A few minutes each time are fine for a no-pressure introduction to the yarn stalking game.
posted by TrishaU at 9:53 AM on February 24

Response by poster: Since posting this and letting the Weird Sisters run free, I'm pleased to report that within a few weeks, with really no help from us, they adjusted very quickly to having run of the house. Agatha was the most reluctant but now they rarely go into the guest room anymore. Prudence is playing with her brother Digby, and everyone is doing great. Thank you, folx!
posted by Kitteh at 7:39 AM on April 13 [6 favorites]

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