Feral Cat Series: Building Confidence of a Former Feral Cat

Our former-feral cat Bootsie is understandably timid. If my husband or I startle her, she flees as if her life depends on it. This has made it challenge to bond with her. Bootsie’s timidity also make her cautious of new but beneficial objects such as scales and crates. This makes it difficult to weigh her and transport her to the vet. Over the past year, my husband and I have tried a number of strategies to help Bootsie gain more confidence.

Bootsie came to live with us in the spring of 2015. Our earliest attempts to bond with her were sporadic and simple. We took turns feeding and playing with her. We also left a few of our dirty clothes scattered about, to help her get used to our scent. Because I had been a caretaker in her community cat colony, where I’d even been able to pet her, I had a head start over my husband, so I was braver in my attempts to snuggle with and hug her.

For the first year, those interactions were enough. Then circumstances changed. Bootsie was vomiting a lot, but we couldn’t get her into a crate to take her to the vet. My husband had to manhandle her into the crate, which wasn’t easy. At the vet’s, we discovered that she was overweight. It was therefore important that once we had put her on a diet, we monitor her weight at home to ensure she was safely losing weight. That meant we would have to teach her to get on a scale for regular weighings. As part of helping Bootsie lose weight, we unexpectedly found a way to make Bootsie more comfortable with us.

In 2016, to train Bootsie to accept a crate, we integrated it into her normal life. We placed a bed in it so that she’d find it comfortable. We also placed her food and water dish next to it so that she’d associate the crate with positive things. And every day I threw some treats into the crate to entice her into it. Despite these efforts, Bootsie remained on guard. If she even suspected that I intended to shut her inside the crate, she’d bolt as if her life depended on it. As a result, for the past two years, sometimes we kept our vet appointment but other times we’d have to reschedule.

In 2018, armed with more knowledge about cat behavior, I ramped up Bootsie’s crate-training. I began by sitting in the same room as the crate and putting a nugget of dry food beside me. When Bootsie would approach the nugget, I’d reach out to pet her. The first several days I tried this, she’d back away from me whenever I reached for her. I persisted, however, and over time she came to accept being petted as a normal part of mealtime.  As the weeks passed, I sat closer and closer to her crate, until finally I sat close enough to throw food into it. The last important steps were to pet her while she was inside the crate, and to close and open the crate door once she went inside. On a good day, I’m able to close the crate door and briefly leave the room without Bootsie trying to escape.

Training Bootsie to step fully onto a baby scale has been a much easier task. To start, I simply placed the scale on the floor and let her sniff it. After she became comfortable with the scale, I created a positive association for Bootsie with the scale by throwing food near it. Over a span of a few days, I placed the food closer and closer to the scale, until finally I began putting the food on the edge of the scale nearest to Bootsie.  Because she could take food from the edge of the scale without stepping onto it, I gradually moved the food further and further from the edge, until Bootsie was forced to step onto the scale to reach it. This enticed her to walk on it, but I still couldn’t get her remain on it long enough to weigh her. Training is a lot about patience. Day after day, I just kept sprinkling food on the scale, until Bootsie began staying on it for longer periods of time. Then of course I needed her to let me sit near enough that I could see the weight on the scale. Just as I did with the crate training, I began to inch closer and closer, until finally she let me sit next to the scale while at the same time she stood still on the scale. All of this time and effort eventually paid off. Nowadays when I pull out the scale, Bootsie will head straight to it without my luring her.

Now that we could easily keep track of Bootsie’s weight, the next goal was to put her on a diet and exercise program. But how could we make her be more active? We decided to do this by incorporating exercise into her mealtimes, by my husband and I taking turns flinging her food to different parts of the room so that she’d have to chase them. This forced her to be active, which was good for her weight loss, and also had the additional benefit of making Bootsie more comfortable around my husband.

Andy decided to change the purpose of Bootsie’s feedings with him. “Bootsie still treated me like I might pounce on her and devour her at any moment,” he told me. “If she wanted to go through the kitchen while I was making dinner, I had to squeeze myself into a corner with my back to her. And yet when I fed her, she was willing to get very close to me. But that wasn’t really a surprise. When Allison and I watch TV, Bootsie will lie on Allison’s lap, and sometimes will even lie on mine. In other words, when I’m not moving and my lap is available, she’s willing to get very close and even sit on me. But when I’m in motion, she seems to forget all the times I haven’t killed her.”

My husband decided to use Bootsie’s feeding to teach her to be more comfortable around him when he was moving. “The first thing I changed in our routine was to feed her from a standing position rather than sitting. I’d stand in one spot and drop a piece of food in front of me. As Bootsie got comfortable grabbing pieces that were far away, I’d drop them closer and closer. Once she could come right up to me, I began adding a little movement. I’d take a step forward and then drop a piece of food in front of me. Or, if I was past her, I’d take a step and drop a piece of food behind me. I wanted to teach her that my moving around was a good thing. We’ve now reached the point where I can circle her while she eats. I drop food to my left and walk in a tight counter-clockwise circle. Or to my right and walk clockwise. Or I’ll walk away and then turn and walk past her while she darts at food. She’s still suspicious of me, but at least during mealtimes she knows that she can get close to me, even when I’m moving. It’s progress.”

Inspired by my husband’s success, I recently revisited my crate-training methods. In addition to needing to crate Bootsie to take her to the vet, I’d like to know that I can crate her in the event of an emergency such as a fire or tornado. This would mean training her to go into her crate in the presence of noise and commotion. I began by standing instead of sitting while I placed treats on the floor near me. Then I started shuffling in different directions, which initially put her on guard again. Once I’d trained her to accept my random movements, I also started making noises. This again put her on guard, but once again she adapted. Bootsie has come a long way in being desensitized to motion and noise!

Do we still have work to do? Of course, because pet training is never really done. I continue to crate-train so that Bootsie will continue to be comfortable in her crate, while my husband continues in his efforts to earn Bootsie’s trust. But we’ve also reached the place where I’m able to teach Bootsie pure tricks, such as ‘twirl’ and ‘shake. And as we continue to train, our bond deepens too, which is the best outcome that any training can bring.

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