“It is difficult to obtain the friendship of a cat. He is a philosophical animal…one that does not place his affections thoughtlessly.”
“Cats don’t like change without their consent.”
Meet Stray Willy, your new dance partner. This dance is likely to turn into a marathon not a quick tango, for indoor kitties can live over the twenty year mark. So consider this boy to be a long-standing resident in your home. The dance between the two of you may contain some complicated steps. You will need to think quickly on your feet in order to outmaneuver your feline partner while still leaving him with the impression that he is in charge.
If you decide to take control away from him, you may find your partner digging his claws into your Berber carpet while growling his protest. Stray Willy has the lead in this partnership, while you accept your cues from him. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should lift Stray Willy up in your arms and cut a mean rug while he bites your shoulder in a desperate attempt to escape your temporary insanity. The master plan here is for you to slow down in your approach with him and not hustle too quickly toward the socialization process.
You can easily tell the difference between fast and slow movements, but to Willy anything introduced to him quickly will be to fast for his liking. You might decide one day to move him three steps forward by pulling him out from under your bed (his secure hiding spot) and insisting he sit on your lap while you pet him. But, if Willy hasn’t approached you first by giving you cues indicating he is ready for first contact, you may find yourself flat on your butt on the floor with a cat who has decided to teach YOU a lesson or two!
Take each encounter with Willy slowly. Learn from what he is saying to you by paying close attention to his body language. Watch his tail, ear and eye placement. He gives out distinct signals indicating his mood.
Heidi Bickel, webmaster and co-author of www.savesamoa.org and www.straypetadvocacy.org relates her relationship with her dance partner of eight years, Ophelia.
“Ophelia is a beautiful, mysterious creature who was rescued out of the walls of our apartment at too young of an age. She is my best teacher when it comes to other cats, because she taught me to listen.”
Heidi had specific ideas set in her head about how this little kitten was supposed to behave. Concepts formed from memories of cats she encountered when she was growing up. Heidi had no clear knowledge of how to handle stray kittens and her first mistake was forcing Ophelia out of hiding instead of waiting for her to come out on her own. This decision haunts her to this da.
“I believe that is why Ophelia chose Earl over me for company. He is clearly her favorite, because he never forced her to do anything she didn’t want to do.”
Heidi found that by pushing Ophelia to try and accept her quickly, she created a cat fearful of Heidi’s presence.
“I remember the first time she allowed me to pet her, probably two weeks since she had been with us, when she was about 8 weeks old. We were playing on the bed with a wand-type toy with Trent, who had been raised underfoot. I would try to sneak a light stroke in when she wasn’t looking, but she was too smart for that. She had been watching and learning, watching Trent enjoying being petted and purring. She decided to try it out one night. When we were playing, she went to the side of the bed and sat down, facing away from me toward the edge of the bed. It was the perfect set up for her – easy escape if she didn’t like it. I was watching her and saw her tense up like she was expecting something bad to happen. I very slowly reached out and lightly stroked her down the back. She realized it didn’t hurt, relaxed just a tiny bit, and then went back to playing. She did that exact thing at least 3 more times that evening. She still didn’t like seeing a big hand coming toward her, but she would accept it on her terms – if she knew it was coming but she couldn’t see it. She still loves being scratched right in the middle of her back.”
Heidi’s experience with her stray cat is a perfect example of giving in to the cat’s needs instead of expecting Ophelia to respond like a typical housecat.
The Stray Cat Scramble:
Willy has triggers inside of his cat brain. When these triggers go off, so does Willy. He is apt to explode into a frenzy of activity. Triggers can consist of anything; a loud noise from the street, someone in your home dropping a metal pot on the floor, the sudden appearance of guests in the home, thunder, heavy winds or slamming rains. When triggered, Willy can turn from a cat who is just beginning to tolerate you into a feral cat, faster than a break-dancer can perform a windmill. In his haste to get away, he can leave you with a few days of lasting reminders; long, deep scratches on your arms or legs. Perhaps more lasting would be the burns left behind when he bolts and dumps the cup of hot coffee you were just enjoying in your lap.
Amy Grandston recounts a time when her stray cat Pocket Lint took off when the doorbell rang. Amy was drinking a glass of ice tea, and Pocket Lint was on her lap. When the doorbell pealed, Pocket Lint leapt straight up in the air; hit her drinking glass so hard against her teeth that her front tooth chipped! Amy ended up in the dentist chair a little bit wiser on the subject of triggers. When you find out what triggers Stray Willy, it is best to write the triggers down and then avoid setting them off.
Cats crave routine. If you set up a pattern (a schedule of daily visits) with Stray Willy and stick to that routine, this will help you become a better dance partner. No one likes to get tripped up on the dance floor. Surprises can throw Willy off guard making him defensive and setting him back on his haunches.
Most people experience setbacks when they are working on socializing a stray cat because they decide to set the time limit expecting the cat to comply. It is important to remember that who the cat has become is based on his experiences prior to arriving in your care. Cats never remember the good things we do for them, but they never forget the bad. Make one misstep, and you may find yourself with a partner who performs an effective vanishing act.
Any dance instructor will tell you how important good posture is when it comes to dancing. Otherwise, you slouch across the dance floor in bad form, stepping all over your partner’s toes and getting yelled at in the process. Using good posture with Stray Willy will only hurt you in the long run. Instead of towering above him, try lowering yourself to his level removing the threat that height in the cat world represents to him. Lay or sit on the floor and be very quiet. Read out loud to him softly, talk to him about your day, or just lay on your stomach and nap. Once you show him that you are not a threat, he will be more inclined to come out of the shadows and explore.
You can set out meaty treats around you before you lie down. As he comes out intrigued by the new smells, keep perfectly still and slow down your breathing. Don’t make eye contact with him or turn your head even if he happens to jump up and do the Lindy-Hop on your back. You could even hum or sing softly. Songs are soothing to cats as long as you don’t take that moment to try-out your audition for American Idol!
If Willy is reluctant to come out and be your dance partner, you can entice him out by offering him a diversion. You need a full-length mirror- the type that fits on the back of a door and a can of Feliway Spray. Spray the frame of the mirror with Feliway Spray and then take the mirror and prop it up horizontally against a wall with the mirror side facing out. Be sure and place this mirror so it reflects Stray Willy’s current hiding place. Then back away into a corner and sit on the floor, slow your breathing and close your eyes, become a non-threatening presence in the room, or as your Yoga instructor might say “Become one with the floor.” Then wait for Stray Willy to make the first move.
When confronted with their mirror-image, cats do not know quite what to think. They move forward to investigate the new invader. When they sniff the mirror and are met with no scent, they are intrigued. After all, the cat in the mirror moves like another cat, looks like another cat, but doesn’t smell like another cat. That’s where the Feliway comes in handy. It imparts a friendly smell; therefore, the image isn’t a threat. This is a way to break the ice between the two of you. Without the Feliway the curious visit can quickly become a confrontation between cat and mirror. This process also comes in handy when you are introducing the resident cat to Stray Willy.
After seeing his image in the mirror, Willy might just entertain you with his own form of dancing. Each cat is an individual, if you see signs of aggression from him; you will need to park the mirror outside.
In dances such as the Rumba- Salsa and the Cha-Cha-Cha body contact is limited. With Stray Willy, the same holds true. You should hold off any body contact with him, until he is ready and receptive to receive it. This does not apply if he needs to go to the vet, or he needs to be medicated. Unfortunately, with many stray cats, giving pills or other meds becomes an important step towards having a healthy feline partner.
Stray Willy will tell you when he is ready for you to touch him. His signals, whether subtle or direct indicate he is open to begin the process. He might reward you with a slight head bump against your leg, or curl up near you to nap. Something simple, such as sitting next to you and starting to groom tells you he has relaxed in your presence. Cats will only groom themselves when they are completely at ease.
First contact should always be cautious. Some kitties love to be scratched under their chins or the top of their heads without touching their whiskers. When first contact involves petting the back, do so gently. Cats have receptors located in various places down their body. If you manage to set one off and the cat isn’t used to this sensation, you might get bit.
Always be sure your tetanus is up-to-date before initiating any type of contact with Stray Willy. Don’t get carried away during first contact and start a marathon petting session. Cats not accustomed to human touch tend to become over-stimulated when being stroked causing the cat to strike out aggressively.
Keeping tabs on where his tail is located will help. If the tail is raised and the tip of the tail has a hook in it (like a question mark) the signal is clear. Stray Willy is in a friendly mood. Do not make eye contact with him though. If your eyes meet, blink your eyes several times slowly then bow your head. If he starts to growl, close your eyes and s-l-o-w-l-y withdraw your hand.
Be aware that when Stray Willy purrs, he may do so because he is scared, uncertain, stressed, sick or contented. Contrary to popular belief, a kitty purring does not always signal contentment. I have had cats who have passed away in my lap purring till their very last breath. Purring is a comfort for the cat. It is the first sound Stray Willy heard and felt as he made his way toward his mom’s belly and snuggled up to the milk bar. The purrs produced by his mother and his other littermates calmed Stray Willy as he suckled for the first time, and eventually he added his own purr to the orchestra.
When his mom left the nest to hunt, Stray Willy and his littermates knew instinctively, they should keep purring; this time with their mouths closed. Purring reassured them they weren’t alone. The closed mouth purr is so quiet, even predators can’t hear them. They stopped purring when mom cat returned to the nest.
As mentioned previously, in this feline dance, Stray Willy is the leader. As you spend quiet time with him not demanding he do anything he isn’t ready to do, you will learn by simple observation how to read him. He sets the pace. If you decide to rush him, you may well find yourself back at the beginning with him, wondering what went wrong.
As humans, we tend to be impatient. Perhaps it is our fast-paced lifestyle, being stuck in traffic during the morning commute, not willing to stay home and fix breakfast but rather grab a Starbucks and donut at the local coffee stand that makes us a restless race. Never try to lead Stray Willy where he does not wish to go. Anything new introduced into his secure environment should be done in small steps. Even something as minor as you moving his litter pans to another location in the room can set him into a tail spin. The more you interact with him, doing basic things; providing food, water, litter pan maintenance and companionship, the sooner he will lower his guard and learn to trust you.
Don’t show him off to friends or family early-on. Allow him the luxury of getting to know you first, then introduce the other key players one at a time. Set your watch to his inner clock and move to his rhythm. Just like in dancing, practice makes purrfect.
Unless you understand Stray Willy’s world, following his lead can become difficult. He can’t tell you about what he endured before arriving into your care. If he could, you might run out of Kleenex long before he finishes his tale. Cats living on the outside live on the edge. They are susceptible to all the cat bullies that exist, both two and four-legged. They are constantly on guard against predators, vulnerable against all types of dangers and survive only by their cunning and their instincts. The longer Stray Willy had to live outside, the more ingrained his feral tendencies become.
Depending on where his territory was located, he could have been either scavenging for food from dumpsters and garbage cans, or being fed by kindly old ladies. If food was unavailable, his range would have widened and the dangers increased depending on if he was a city cat, or a country cat. His world has now been rocked, and he needs to regain control of this new world. Taking the lead away from him throws both of you off balance.
Cats kept indoors for the first time will display certain behaviors that are purely driven by instinct and survival tactics. Knowing the type of partner you will be facing and how to deal with the behavior creates the first step towards understanding each other and beginning to communicate.
Wrong Way Willy-
You walk up to the door of the room and Stray Willy is in the middle of the floor. The minute you open the door, Stray Willy takes off and ducks underneath the dresser. Taking a can of cat food and opening it up doesn’t seem to entice Stray Willy out of his hiding place. Throwing a toy into the room also doesn’t budge him. What do you do?
Lie down in the center of the room on your belly. Fold your head into your arms. Be sure that your head is turned away from the direction that Stray Willy would be approaching. Even if you aren’t tired, shut your eyes and slow down your breathing. You can meditate, recite the Lord’s Prayer, nap, solve the world’s problems or do whatever quiet activity you can think of while you lie there. When he approaches, lay very still. He has command of the floor. By making yourself smaller than he is, you remove the threat that your height represents to him. In Stray Willy’s world, both the Alpha cats and the predators tower above him. He has learned through experience that he is on the lowest part of the food chain. By avoiding anything bigger than he is, he understands this will prolong his life. You don’t mean him any harm, but he doesn’t know that so he takes off when you walk into the room.
The Great Pretender-
This cat bluffs using verbal intimidation. Growling and hissing and backing into a corner or ducking around objects, the Great Pretender is hoping that you will take the hint and just leave him alone. The way to tell the difference between the Great Pretender and the more aggressive Rough and Rumble would be from the placement of the ears, eyes and tail.
If the cat’s ears are pinned flat against his head, he is spoiling for a fight. If his tail is tucked protectively between his legs, and his eyes narrowed into slits, then there is no room for negotiation. If you approach him, odds are in his favor that he will win the battle.
If the ears are not pinned, the eyes are wide and the entire tail is visible not tucked between his legs tail is up, one way to disarm this kitty is to close your eyes and just relax. You should have on a pair of heavy gloves just to be safe and be wearing several long sleeve shirts for your protection. With your eyes closed, reach out your hand and stroke the cat, just a few strokes. The movement has to be fluid, flowing like a dance.
If you are jerky or hesitant, he will sense your insecurity and strike because you’ve put him on the defensive. Once you begin to stroke him gently, he will cower down waiting for you to hurt him (as others before you likely have). This is your opportunity to show him that he is in a safe place and nothing will harm him under your watch. If he bolts let him go. Don’t chase after him. There will be time for a repeat performance in the near future.
The Great Hisscape Artist-
This cat has one thing on his mind and that is to get out of kitty jail! He will not pass GO, he will not collect $200.00. He craves the world he knew before being put into your home. In the old world, he had escape routes and places he could hide when he sensed danger around him. Now, there is no escape; just four walls and a door. That door is his focus point and he will take every opportunity he can to try and escape.
Stopping the Great Hisscapist, means you need to get a bit tricky. There are several ways you can stop him from wanting to be near the door. The least obtrusive way is to lay scent near the door that he dislikes. Cats do not appreciate citrus in any form. They don’t eat citrus fruits, they don’t want lemon slices floating in their water bowl, or oranges stuffed in their holiday stockings. There is a litter on the market that is made from citrus. The manufacturer takes the peels of citrus fruits that have been squeezed of all their juices, presses them up and dries them in a large kiln then sifts it down to resemble clay litter. My cats avoided this litter like the plague when I tested it here at home. The brand is called Citra-Max and you can order it online. One thing I have noticed about citrus-based kitty litters in years past, they don’t stay available on the market for long periods of time. But, they do make an excellent cat deterrent. You can sprinkle some of this litter in front of the door to stop your escape artist.
Another alternative is to buy lemon-scented car air fresheners. Hang several of these fresheners near the door and also hang one from the door knob.
Do not use Lysol lemon scented spray. Lysol is toxic to kitties. The Lysol spray has a high content of alcohol that can poison your cat. Other lemon scented air fresheners can carry the same danger. Be sure and read the label carefully.
There are commercial products available to keep cats off objects or away from areas. Many of these products use either sound, strong scents or air to scare the cat away. Since your objective is not to startle this cat further, these products should be carefully considered before being used. Products include:
SSSCat Automated Cat Deterrent- this canister comes with a motion detector. Any motion triggers the alarm that activates either the spray of air, or a loud beeping sound. Not only will it scare your cat away from the area, but it might startle you as well the first time you hear it.
Spray Citronella- works on the same premise as the SSSCat except it isn’t automated. You hold it and spray it in the direction of the cat. The can sprays a large burst of air combined with Citronella into the room, never right at the cat. The scent will drive kitty away. Using this product disrupts the bonding session between you and Stray Willy. You want him to come to you, not be afraid of you.
Tattle Tale Pet Alarm- senses vibrations in the floor and when activated will sound an alarm to startle the cat away. However it is not very effective when placed on carpets or rugs. The Tattle Tale works best on tile and hardwood floors.
Gruff and Rumble-
Gruff and Rumble wants to fight you. He’s ready, willing and able to take you on. He’s been hurt by people before and he remembers well the terror and the feeling of helplessness. He has vowed to himself that this will never happen to him again. He is angry, aggressive, in full-feral mode hoping that this type of posturing will discourage you to try and dance with him.
His idea of dancing with you is tap dancing across your head with his claws out! Dancing with this fellow if not done cautiously may wind up with you in the hospital and him at a shelter waiting for his final ticket to be punched. Some cats are not meant to be kept in captivity in any fashion, and you will know within 30 days if Gruff and Rumble can be reached. A cat this aggressive is a danger to the members of the household, so only one knowledgeable person should be interacting with him daily.
You will be tipped off by his body language, how he moves, how low he is to the floor. Looking at his ear placement, where his tail is are also keys to judge his mood. If he lays on the floor on his belly claws extended glaring at you, this is not an invitation to rumba.
Don’t take his hostility personally. It is part survival mode, part actions from past experiences with humans and it is his force field from alien invaders. You are an alien in his world. But don’t lower your defenses either.
To work with this cat safely means you need to dress up like a HASMAT team member. Full protection; includes gloves, extra long sleeved shirts, long pants tucked into your socks and goggles. If you have a Gruff and Rumble cat in your midst, never turn your back on him. Be aware also that some of these boys can launch full frontal attacks quickly when they feel threatened.
There are those cats who when worked with slowly and cautiously can learn to trust you over time. But, they rarely trust anyone else and they do pose a danger to you, your family and other resident pets unless you know what you are doing while working with them. Generally, they are much better off being neutered and released back into the world as a barn cat. In some instances, they will need to be euthanized as they cannot overcome the abuse and neglect they have suffered. The Gruff and Rumble cats are also capable of redirected aggression and fear induced aggressive attacks.
The Laps Dancer-
I see the wheels turning gentle reader. You are thinking what possible problems could a cat who does a lap dance offer someone? But this lap dancer is different. Once released from the trap or the cat carrier, he will immediately crawl up the wall and begin running laps over your head near the ceiling! His fear is so pronounced that he believes if he can get higher than you, he can escape the terror. If you stay in the room with the lap dancer, you will not only become dizzy watching him whirl around your head, but you will add to his growing fear. Your best course of action is to immediately leave the room and let this cat have some space for 24-48 hours making certain that he has food, water, litter pans and adequate shelter first. Staying in the room with a lap dancer is hazardous to your health and his. He could stroke out in his panic or become overheated in his frenzy to escape.
When you return, do so quietly. Go about seeing to all his needs and completely ignore him. He needs time to decompress and get used to being inside. Monitor his food and water intake carefully and check and see what the litter pan action looks like. If he quits eating over 48 hours, he will have to be re-captured and taken to the vet. Cats sometimes stage hunger strikes when they are stressed. Not eating in 48 hours opens Stray Willy to health issues he might never escape from!
The Tenderfoot is immediately upon being released in the room, under your feet, twirling between your ankles and almost tripping you. Chances are, while he was at the vet, they located a microchip and this lovely boy has been owned by someone before you. When this situation occurs, vet clinics will look up the information on the chip to see if the cat is registered in their clinic. If unable to find any records, someone will call the other clinics in the area and ask them to search for this chip ID. Any information located is passed on to the person who rescued the cat. It is then your responsibility to contact the previous owner and let them know their cat has been found.
In instances where the owner can no longer be located, or if they express no desire to reclaim their kitty, it falls on the rescuer to either keep the cat or find him a loving home. The Tenderfoot is so happy to be indoors again that behavior problems are few and far between and the personality is nothing but pure love. Be sure you pay the microchip company to change over the information on the chip to your information if you decide to keep The Tenderfoot as your loving companion.
The Wallflower is very shy. Loud noises and sudden appearances of people into his room will send him high-tailing it to the nearest hiding place. He flinches when you go to touch him, crouching low to the floor and watching you with big bug-eyes. As you move forward, he moves back and just when you think you have him cornered; he finds an escape and dashes across the room to a new hiding place.
In the cat world, the wallflower is what is known as a pariah cat. The Pariah lives on the outskirts of the colony, only eating after every one else has eaten. His appearance will elicit the group turning on him to chase him away from the food, the shelter or any comfort that they might have. It is a lonely existence and the cat learns quickly that avoidance is the best way to survive.
The Pariah cat can be either female or male. The Pariah cats do well to stay in a household where there are no other cats. Cats living inside a home have a pronounced social order. The Wallflower or Pariah cat falls way below the social order of cats.
Now that you have been made aware of the different personalities that Stray Willy may display, realize too that besides being your dance partner, Stray Willy can also be a magician and “Presto…Chango,” into one or more of the above characters without warning. He has the ability to turn into a Hiss-cape Artist, or a Wallflower at his pleasure.
The dance between the two you can be a two-step foxtrot, the Texas shuffle, a smooth waltz or an all out free-for all. When you get into the swing of things, you will discover that dancing with Stray Willy isn’t as strenuous as you first feared it might be. Relaxing, giving up control and paying attention to your partner results in a memorable journey toward a lasting bond.