Caring for an Abused Cat

Cats have a reputation for independence, where living with a cat is more akin to having a roommate than a loving companion. There’s some truth to this myth—especially when compared to their obedient canine counterparts—but they do have an affectionate side.

In fact, a recent study found that, when given the option, most cats will select human interaction over food. For a species that developed special communication for their human companions, this shouldn’t be surprising.

The unique bond that cats develop with their owners isn’t based on pack behavior. Cats develop individual relationships. When a human abuses that relationship, the effects can be more drastic than what we see in dogs. Dog instinct tells them to find safety in a new pack. Cat instinct tells them to find safety hidden away and alone.

As a result, abused cats hide. They may not be interested in a new relationship. But, with patience, you can earn their trust again.

A Structured and Safe Home

Cats crave routine. While boring to many humans, cats find safety in a schedule. Your foster cat will build her own routine over time, but you can guide her. Begin with a strict feeding and play schedule. Allow her to schedule her time in between. Give her the opportunity to spend time with you on her own by reading or watching TV in the same room. Work together to build your relationship and schedule.

Provide multiple options for safe places. These include perches, cat condos, cat trees, covered beds, and boxes. Your foster cat should have somewhere to go when she’s frightened.

Avoid loud noises. Cats have a heightened sense of hearing. Loud music may be fine for you but deafening to a cat. This is especially important for abused cats, who commonly associate their trauma with loud noise.

An abused cat should have everything she needs without expectation. This includes toys throughout the house, treats in her schedule, and multiple safe places to hide. Never expect an abused cat to learn a behavior through reward. Set her up for success by showing her that your home has everything she could ever need.

Exercise

Cats sleep for 16 to 20 hours a day, so optimize the time they are awake. They don’t require regular walks or training sessions. They’re more familiar with bursts of exercise, similar to their wild cousins who sprint and sneak to hunt. Reserve 15 to 20 minutes for intense play and exercise. Balls, teasers, and laser pointers will keep their attention and replicate the hunt sensation.

If left alone without exercise, cats will create their own games. This could involve something as harmless as a shoestring or something as a dangerous as a glass figurine they’ve knocked off of a shelf. They may also use unspent energy on scratching and climbing.

Hiding

While it’s important to offer your foster cat many options for hiding, she may become too reliant on them. If she’s spending most of her time in her safe places, a gentle intervention can encourage her to come out. Don’t force or pull her out.

  • Sit on the floor in the room she likes to hide. Use a gentle voice to try and coax her out. Throw treats toward her or use a toy to tempt her.
  • Take her food to her. Place it outside of her hiding spot and give her privacy to eat. After a few days, wait at a safe distance from the food. Don’t try to interact with her—talk to her instead. Move closer over time.
  • Sleep in the room she hides.

Separation Anxiety

Like dogs, cats can experience separation anxiety. You can treat separation anxiety in a cat like you would a dog.

  • Don’t make a big deal about leaving or returning home.
  • Before you leave, hide toys and treats around the house.
  • Don’t perform the same routine when leaving, because each cue will increase the cat’s anxiety about your departure.
  • Perform leaving drills. Leave the house for a minute and return. Do this once or twice a day, increasing it a bit more each day.
  • Put an animal video on the TV. Cats love to paw at birds and squirrels on the screen.

Time and Patience

Cats won’t transform overnight—they might not even change for weeks. But persistence about the safety of your home will help her in the long term. She may not warm up to you, but your interactions can help her when she relocates to her new home.

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