Many people think their cat's behaviors are because the cat was abused or neglected. I want to clear this up for you. Abused cats are rare. Most cats are just wary of strangers. Bad behavior is usually because they were never taught correctly or played with aggressively. So, how can you identify an abused or neglected cat? Let's look at what cat abuse and neglect look like and then we can talk about the cat's responses:
Cat Abuse can be intentional or unintentional. Usually, unintentional abuse is called "neglect" and is addressed by humane societies all over the world. There are actually three levels of abuse. Neglect, Over-Discipline (over use of discipline tools) and Intentional Abuse. This article addresses the Neglect, which is the most benign form of abuse.
Description of Neglect -
Neglect means not addressing the animal's primary needs for survival - water, food, shelter, rest and hygienic elimination. Then there is the more severe type, where a cat is forced to live in filth, confined to a cage all the time, or denied companionship with people or other animals. Many times, this can be caused by not spaying or neutering your pet. Unwanted kittens, or too many cats, is the primary cause for almost all of this type of abuse. Sometimes, a person is too ill or has allergies. Maybe a person is trying to keep a cat in an environment that makes it impossible to properly care for a cat.
I remember many years ago, seeing a homeless man walking down the street with his belongings in a shopping cart. Homeless people were harder to find then, so he stood out. He was pushing the cart with one hand and had a carrier with a cat in it, in the other. I felt sorry for both, but being a child, I didn't know what to do. The cat was experiencing neglect, but felt much love. The man, I'm sure, didn't know he was doing harm to the cat. He just knew that he couldn't let his beloved cat go into a shelter - at that time all the shelters I knew of were kill-shelters.
An older cat (over a year) has little chance of coming out of a kill shelter. Most people want a kitten. The grown cats are often given no more than 2 weeks to find a home and then euthanized. This heartbreaking situation often occurs when people lose their homes, develop allergies or find that they just don't want to deal with the discipline and behavior problems that developed in the cat. The single biggest reason people give up a cat is inappropriate elimination. Next, come allergies, followed by death of the cat's owner. Some cats are surrendered because the person moves and is unable to find pet-friendly accommodations.
I understood the man's feelings of love and concern for his feline companion. I also understood that the cat couldn't live in that carrier for long. There was no safe place for them. No homeless shelter would take a man with a cat. In this case, I think the abuse is unintentional - neglect, by description. However, I think the heart of both the cat and the man were in the right place, just that the situation was unfortunate.
In news reports, we sometimes hear of breeding farms where cats are bred to the point of exhaustion and kept in sub-optimal conditions. We hear of people who just keep bringing home strays until they are over-run and can no longer take care of them, and the cats become a neighborhood problem. All of these situations can produce neglect.
Now, let's turn to the cat's response to neglect. How does a cat respond? Why does it do that? By understanding the specific situation and response, we can address the resulting problem behaviors with love, patience and training.
Effects of Neglect
A cat left in a cage with other animals nearby is often skittish and afraid of people. It expects food and a clean litter box on occasion, but cuddles and attention may make it uncomfortable. These cats often have no privacy issues in the cage, but once free, they are very private about their litter habits. If the cat was kept in a small carrier, it may soil itself, or hold back elimination until it is very uncomfortable. It may be dehydrated and need medical attention. The cat will be overweight from lack of activity. It may be apathetic when play is offered, not knowing what is expected. Electric lights may be something that set off a fear response in the cat because it means that people are coming. In other cases, darkness may be scary at first. Once the cat's eyes adjust to the light level, it will be all right, but when the lights are turned off or on, the cat may cry or hiss. In the case of a cat kept in the dark except when people are coming, it may be fearful the entire time the lights are on, while also expecting food, water and a clean litter box to be provided.
What Can We Do to Help These Cats?
These cats don't do well with handling. The less you try to pet, hold or cuddle these cats at first, the better. Let the cat come to you. It will, given time. Be sure to care for it's creature comforts - food, water, bed, clean litter box - but don't expect a cuddly cat for a while. That will come when the cat feels that it can trust you. It may be afraid of the sound of your feet on the floor. It may run when you come into a room. As time goes on, the cat will stay and just watch you. Another time, you may be able to approach and offer a scratch behind the ear. Eventually, you will be able to give a full cuddle. Do not try to pick the cat up, but you can pet it and the cat won't run away or feel assaulted. When the cat responds with a purr, an offer of a cheek or an ear, or you can stroke the spine and the cat isn't trying to run away, then you have a cat that is only cautious of you. Continue until the cat comes for cuddles, which may already be happening. Still do not try to pick the cat up. If it wants your lap, it will come. This cat may still run from you if discovered in a windowsill, on a dresser or surprised in the litter box. Say your cat's name in a conversational tone and the cat will eventually not run away and perhaps allow a stroke. In the case of the litter box, just say the cat's name, but never try to cuddle a cat in the litter box. If you can provide a privacy screen, the cat may stay in the room.
These cats need socialization. They need to learn to live with others outside of a cage. They need gentle discipline and may not know the meaning of the word "no." They will love feeding time but be afraid if you need to walk near their food bowls, and run from the food. Give them time, move slowly and talk gently in their vicinity. They need to learn what people are about in a good way.
Once your cat has learned to trust you a little bit, enough to not run away when you enter a room or even starts to come to you, then you can begin to bond with your cat. A tickler wand is your best friend for this. Gently shake the wand so that the end twitches. Your cat will be interested, but may only watch at first. If your cat goes for it, excellent! When your cat gets hold of the business end of the wand, allow your cat to feel the success by keeping the wand steady for a few moments. When the cat lets go, you can start to twitch it again. The cat will play with you in this manner for quite a while. When the cat tires, put the wand up out of the way so that your cat is forced to play with you, not just the wand. If your cat grabs the wand in it's mouth and tries to run away with it, offer resistance and don't let go of the wand. Some cats want to take the wand and hide it under a couch or in a corner so they can worry over it for a while. Don't allow this - the cat needs to play with you, not just the wand. After about ten days of playing with the wand, you will see your cat become more accepting of its new circumstances. Your cat should assimilate into the household well. There may be people it does not accept, and those persons can also play with the cat to promote bonding.
Under no circumstances should you perpetuate the abuse or neglect! Any discipline needs to be done gently and with care. A squirt bottle, long a favorite tool for discipline, should only be used in the beginning stages of training, while the cat is learning the word "no." After that, you should not need it. Redirection is your best training technique. When your cat gets into or expresses interest in something that you don't want to see it getting involved with, redirect it's attention to something that it is allowed to be involved with or have.
Some of these cats can be clicker trained, but the bond with the person needs to be present, first. Concentrated training to condition the cat to the clicker will be needed. Some cats may be so skittish that even the best treats will not condition the cat to the clicker. If your cat runs from the clicker after a week of conditioning, do not continue. Your cat will never be comfortable with the unexpected noise it makes. You are better clapping your hands and saying "no" to stop bad behaviors than trying to clicker train for positive behaviors.
These cats will be extremely grateful for good treatment. One expression of that love, biting, may not be acceptable - especially if the cat bites hard and uses the canine teeth. Push your hand or finger into the mouth instead of pulling out so that the cat will not be able to bite down and cause you injury. You can push in hard enough to cause the gag reflex, but never harder. Never cause the cat injury in response to an injury to your person. Hitting is never acceptable - but raising a flat hand so that the eyebrow whiskers can feel it is acceptable.
If you must pick up your cat, as in putting the cat in the carrier or removing it to another room, pay attention to the cat's body. Be sure to pick the cat up by the ribs and the hind legs at the same time to minimize stress to the cat. If the body is stiff, don't hold the cat to your chest. Allow the cat to struggle, but stay out of the way of the claws. When you place the cat down (don't let it jump), stroke its back if you can. Talk to the cat. It will stop a few paces away and look at you. The cat may come to you for a scratch if offered. Always talk softly and lovingly to your cat.
In Closing -
With all these admonitions and dos and don'ts, you may think that a neglected cat is too much trouble. Not that much, really. They take some time getting used to people, but once they trust you and know you have their best interests at heart, these cats will come to love you very much. The early stages with a neglected cat are the most critical. After that, you may find a loving, caring, demanding cat. Demanding because it may never want to be separated from you. Demanding because whatever it was denied before it will crave from you. Moreover, you will be loved, very deeply. It will care about you in its fashion. If your are down or blue, possibly sick, the cat will worry over you and try to find a way to comfort you. These cats are very responsive to their people. Hypersensitive is a good description. Empathic is another good description of their behavior. Some cats even approach a symbiotic relationship with their people.
Give love and patience, and love and patience will be returned. Give concern and care and those are returned. A neglected cat is one of the best pets for a single, older person. The cat will be tuned to that person in short order. It will give love and affection to ease the loneliness and loss these people sometimes experience. When the person is ill, the cat will understand and be there to comfort, while allowing the person to care for him or herself.