Monday, May 6, 2013

Life With Cats

I confess to being a cat person. 

A life with cats is a life of unfolding.  Forging a relationship with a cat is a complicated dance, requiring massive amounts of patience and a willingness to set aside your own desires.  I imagine the same is true with most any animal.  You have to throw out your expectations, throw out your imagined outcomes, throw out your preconceptions of cat-human relationships.  Like people, each one is different, and each relationship will be different from all others.  Sometimes, it takes work, compromise, sacrifice.  But the rewards, oh the rewards.  I cannot imagine a life without cats.  These are some of the most richly nuanced and satisfying relationships I have ever had. 

I have always been a cat person.  According to my parents, I had an affinity for cats that was evident even before I could properly form sentences.  Over the years, I have had a huge number of cats move through my life.  Like many cat people, I seem to have some silent beacon in my body, a signal to every cat in the vicinity that there is a 'cat person' nearby.  Through so much trial and error in building trust and growing relationships with cats, I've learned a number of things that have helped me to turn wily, wary, and sometimes downright aggressive strays and abandoned cats into loving, affectionate companions.  If you are looking to grow a relationship with an aloof kitty, these tips may help you as well.

1.  Patience, patience, patience.  This is paramount.  You must be prepared to invest a lot of time in gaining the cat's trust.  Without trust, everything else is irrelevant.  Now, that's not to say that every cat will take huge amounts of time.  Every cat is different, and some will trust more readily than others.  Especially if you're dealing with a stray, whose background is unknown, you can never predict how quickly your efforts will pay off.  But hang in there.  Don't give up.  Even the reluctant ones eventually come around.  *Note here that I'm primarily talking about cats who have been socialized with humans at some point.  True feral cats will never be your couch companion.  They may come to accept your presence (for providing food, shelter, etc.) but will most likely never accept your offers of physical affection.  Looking for resources for caring for ferals?  Check out Alley Cat Allies.

2.  Routine.  Establishing a regular routine for feeding and socializing has proven to be a very important element, in my experience.  Most cats don't like surprises, and even my docile housecats are upset by changes in their daily routines.  That stray that has been living an unpredictable and unstructured life may welcome the chance to anticipate your arrival at specific times.  Develop a schedule and stick to it.  Show up at your appointed time.  Stay for ten minutes or an hour, but stay, even if your stray doesn't appear or wanders off.  Strays have a fantastic ability to hide themselves, so you never know when they may be watching from a hidden location.

3. Pay attention.  Cats have been our domesticated companions for many thousands of years, and the species has developed remarkable methods of communicating with us.  We only have to pay attention to realize they have a lot to tell us.  When you're with your cat, give him your full attention.  Watch his face, his whiskers, his ears, his tail.  Watch how he holds his body, how he moves himself in response to your actions.  Listen for vocal emissions too.  You can begin to recognize his own method of communication and make correlations.  For example, one of my strays always reacted strongly (by folding back his ears, lowering his head, and lowering his body in a defensive posture) whenever I wore heavy shoes (like my hiking sneakers or boots) that made deeper, louder noises on the concrete patio where we had our regular meetings.  Once I recognized it, I could remember to avoid wearing those kinds of shoes around him.  Even more, it gave me a possible clue to his background: he had developed a negative reaction to that particular sound, maybe due to an abuse by someone who had a heavy gait or wore those kinds of hard-soled or heavy shoes.  Once you reach the 'petting' stage, where physical contact is allowed, this part becomes even more important.  Pay close attention during petting sessions - your cat will tell you with his body language how he prefers to be touched.  Don't be too aggressive in your attempts; rather, let him direct you.  A subtle nod of his head toward your hand may be his way of signaling permission, directing you to focus your attention to his head, ears, or neck.  By holding out your hand and letting him come to you, or waiting for his subtle permission, you are building trust by demonstrating that you won't force anything on him.  Once you get past the initial stages here, you'll be able to initiate the petting sessions rather than waiting for permission.  Later, we'll talk about limits how to set them.

I think these three concepts are probably the basics, the foundations for building a relationship.  Now, let me go into some detail on my process. 

It all starts with an initial meeting - the fleeting glance in the bushes, or the flash of fur as they dart through the yard.  While I don't always pursue every cat I see, I always want to.  I want to cuddle and love every single one, much to the frustration of my partner, who thinks two cats is plenty.  (We've passed that mark a long time ago.)  Anyway, the first encounter is always sort of an assessment on both parts.  Sometimes there's contact immediately - in this case I usually assume kitty is someone's pet, gone walkabout.  If he sticks around for any length of time, I'll assume he's lost and begin the process for trying to locate an owner.  Sometimes these immediately friendly ones turn out to be abandoned.  We've recently had one of these.  A shy, sweet, quiet little fellow that just showed up on our back porch one day.  Weeks of trying to locate an owner proved fruitless, and he's since become part of our family. 


The more reluctant ones - oh how I love that challenge.  The mystery and potential is thrilling.  I love this work of re-establishing a link that has been bent, broken, pulled out of shape and distorted.  I love the work of building a bridge to this little soul.  I feel as though I'm restoring this little soul's faith in humanity. 

Food nearly always comes first.  In most cases, the first sighting happens as a result of kitty searching for food.  I'm convinced there's a communication network at work, whereby one stray who finds food here goes and tells all the other cats around here that this is the place to find a meal.  Anyway, when I see that stray who seems to be looking for food, my first action is to take out a big smelly can of wet food.  Sometimes the cat will run off as soon as he sees me.  Sometimes he'll back off and watch at a safe distance.  No matter what, I always go out slowly, just to the edge of the patio, or part way across the yard, and tap the can while I talk softly.  Even if the cat runs off - we have a lot of brush and trees along the edges of our yard and the yard next door, so (as I mentioned above) I can't always tell if the cat is just hiding, or has completely vacated the area.  So I'll keep talking softly.  This helps, I think, to start the process of letting the cat get to know you.  Let him hear your voice right away.  Moving slowly, I'll set out a small dish and open the can, dishing out the good stuff with broad movements.  If he's still watching, let him see you (and hear you) open the can and go through the motions of dishing out the food.  We're establishing routine here, see?  The actions need to become familiar to him.  He'll begin to associate the pleasant act of eating that food with the acts, the sounds and smells, that came before. 

This post has already gotten longer than I anticipated - I didn't realize I had so many words in me.  So let's end this one for now.  Next time I'll go a bit further, and we'll talk about setting up that routine, creating anticipation, and setting limits.

Thanks for reading!

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