by Barbara George ~Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Kittens learn their social skills from mother and siblings between the ages of 7 to 12 weeks of age. For any number of reasons, not all cats have this opportunity. Older cats, or cats that have had less – or bad – contact with people, can be less social than we would like.
The key to socialising is trust. This works both ways, the cat must trust you and you the cat. Trust is earned, and can be broken by any negative association, abuse, threat, trauma, or fear, or the perceived possibility of any of these. Some cats are genetically disposed to be less social.
This series of articles is aimed at giving a generic look at the options available for socialising and older or timid cat. Feral cats and very young kittens require a different approach. Since each cat and situation is unique, not all of these thoughts will apply. Consider them all, then use those that will work for you, modify others that do not quite suit your cat, and discard the rest.
Socialising can take time, it is up to you and the cat to determine when the process is complete; no-one can predict that it will take days, months, or years.
There are disadvantages to allowing an unsocial cat to have a large territory; he has many options and places to go to avoid contact, and dealing with a large territory adds to his stress levels.
The first step in the socialisation process is containment. A cat in a restricted area has less stress and feels safer for knowing his entire territory; however extremely fearful cats, or those that have been traumatised by people, may find containment more stressful; look at the possibility of creating some form of contained environment that they feel comfortable in, even if it is the garage or an outdoor enclosure.
The containment area should be calm, quiet, uncluttered, and in an area of minimal traffic. It should be sized to give sufficient space for the cat to move around comfortably, while still keeping a distance from any people who enter the space.
The contents must be appropriate, easily managed, and contain multiple safe hiding places, open spaces, toys, scratching post, and other forms of stimulation. Food, water and litter stations must be separated, and cleaned, monitored and filled on a regular basis. Include an item that contains the smell of the person who will be interacting with the cat, initially away from food, water and litter tray. Update this every few days, gradually moving the scented item closer to the food, but not close enough to prevent him from eating.
A pheromone diffuser can be useful for creating a safe environment. Calming remedies can be added to food or water – provided he will still eat and drink. Catnip or Happy Cat provide another option for calming. Music designed for cats played at times during the day also help to reduce stress.
Predictably creates stability for cats; set a routine and keep to it as much as possible. Initially short visits to check on food, water and litter tray, with a verbal acknowledgement to him, are sufficient.