by Barbara George, Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Cats are considered as independent free spirits, doing what cats do and not bowing down to any requirements or rules besides their own. This works for cats in the wild, and feral cat colonies, but not for us in the home; there we want our cats to be part of our lives as part of the family.
While many cats manage to work out a plan to have both options, sometimes things go wrong and a previously-homely cat decides to establish his independence outside the home, while making some use of our caring hospitality when it suits him.
The main reasons for this action are typically excessive stress or a painful experience that is associated with the home. The cat feels safer living outside the home, with occasional forays back for food, a warm bed, and maybe a cuddle.
He has places to go, possibly prey to catch or food available elsewhere, safe places to sleep. Therefore there is no reason to be a homely domesticated cat, he has all he needs. It suits him perfectly, but does not sit well with us. We are still responsible for him, his health and medical care, and would like to have our friendly feline back home.
Since he has many options, he can choose to avoid the home where he felt stressed or where he experience pain or trauma. This is normal cat behaviour, one of their survival strategies – to avoid areas of conflict, especially if they were not exposed to a full program of socialisation as kittens.
He has no need to change his behaviour, as all his needs are met – and we continue to provide what he needs when it is not available elsewhere. This makes the perfect life for a cat.
In order for him to return home it is necessary to make the home a safe place for him by eliminating whatever stresses him, then to encourage him to feel safe and secure in the home. As he doesn’t come home often, and has many options, it is necessary to reduce his options and reduce his resources outside the home. Ideally, he will learn to trust the environment and people that he interacts with, and returns to being the cuddly and loving cat he was previously.
Since every cat, every home and every situation is different, it is not possible to lay out a plan of reconciliation. Identifying the stress or trauma may not be possible, so how do you change that? Using the methods as outlined in the articles on Socialising an Older or Timid Cat will work for some cats. Different methods, including medical interaction, can be used with those cats that have been outdoors for so long as not to remember, or wish to remember, living with us. Not all cats have the personality to live as part of a multi-cat household; each cat has a cat-tolerate limit – the number of cats they can deal with in the territory that is available.
A cat with too much freedom never has to make a decision or take an action that he doesn’t like. It is possible to re-habilitate these cats; it takes dedication, patience, and time, but is well worth the effort.