Mind of the Cat: 11/05

Want to Help a Neighborhood Stray? You should be aware of the obstacles before embarking on this good deed.

Rescuing stray cats can be simultaneously rewarding and also quite frustrating. It is very tempting to bring roaming felines into our homes. When cats are outside, they may approach us as we bring them food and other offerings. More often, we peek at them from our own hiding places, content to know that we have offered them some comfort.

The next stage is to invite them into our homes. This usually happens when the snow arrives and we are concerned that they will not be quite warm enough or are not quite sturdy enough to brave the elements. So we lure them in for a treat, or leave a door or window ajar hoping to tempt them inside. Sometimes, humane traps are used in an attempt to provide security.

Veterinary Checkup First
Once weve brought a cat inside, it is essential to take it for a veterinary checkup. We want to make sure to have the cat vaccinated, and we want to be sure that our other resident pets will remain healthy. So we go through the small bit of trauma surrounding the recapture and transport.

And now, we have a new cat, dont we? In the back of our minds, we hope that the cat will immediately recognize that we saved him from a cold, lonely existence. We assume that the cat will understand that this gesture of kindness reflects our good nature and that we should be trusted. Alas, that connection is only rarely realized – at least not immediately. Still, initially, most people are rather patient.

After a week or month has passed and the rescued cat remains in hiding, we begin to wonder: Did we really do the right thing? Maybe the cat was happier outdoors on his own. Maybe we should not have imposed our lifestyle on this free creature. How long should we wait before resigning ourselves to the fact that our adoptee is just miserable? Or, should I say, how long should we live with the rejection!

In a recent correspondence, I was asked specifically whether there was a point at which a person should be concerned that the rescued cat needs assistance. Sadly, this kind person was concerned that he was inflicting a restrictive lifestyle on his cat and that he was causing permanent emotional scars. He just wants her to be normal and happy in her environment.

What a tough call. Yes, some cats seem to have it all worked out in the great outdoors. They are able to keep away from predators, they stay out of the road, and they find warm shelter in places that are relatively safe. They may even mingle within a social group of cats. Still, the risk of being killed or maimed is very high. There is no one to notice if they have a fever and refuse food just long enough to cause liver damage. There is no way for them to hunt if they have a serious injury. They have no one to look for them if they are hurt and hiding.

Certainly, we offer the potential to improve the quality of life for a good number of the cats that we do rescue. Can we do anything to speed the process along? That is, can we improve the likelihood that we will wind up with a real family member and remove all doubt that we may have done more harm than good?

Some Helpful Hints
I can recommend some guidelines for helping a rescued cat come out of hiding. First and most important, try not to be overly assertive. Coaxing is a sure way to send a cat running. The more we impose upon the cat by leaning, reaching out, establishing eye contact or even talking, the more the cat will back away.

The key is to try to convince yourself that it is not so very urgent that you make friends today. Provide a nice quiet room. Allow the cat to slowly discover safety. Try to prevent him from needing to speed away from danger. Every time a cat flees, his fear is actually reinforced, making long-term progress that much more difficult.

You May Need Professional Help
As time goes on, if progress remains sluggish, more structured behavior modification is in order. Your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist will be able to help you determine which of these approaches is appropriate for your situation, and can help you put them in place.

In summary, patience is the key. There should be no deadline. If you become frustrated, your new cat may be frightened by your behavior. Cats are sensitive, so do not think you can hide your feelings! Take your time and seek professional help from a veterinarian or a behaviorist if you are not comfortable with your progress.