A brown striped cat with chubby cheeks glowered at me from inside the cage. A new arrival at the shelter, Bodhi needed an intake examination. Unsure if he was feral (meaning not socialized with humans and unable to be touched), I cautiously opened his cage and scratched his forehead. He shied away, his pupils dilated, his gaze wary. He was clearly terrified, but did not bite or scratch. I managed to complete a full examination, but in the following weeks, Bodhi regressed. Cowering at first, he soon began hissing and lunging at the staff members who cleaned his cage. Due to his behavior, Bodhi was given a box to hide in. Though this helped him feel safe, he shut down and avoided us instead of getting used to us.
One alternative for fearful cats in shelters is a “barn cat program,” which places them in outdoor homes. While cats labeled as “feral” are best suited to life outdoors, an animal’s safest environment will always be an indoor home. Having seen Bodhi’s potential that first day, I decided to bring him home as a behavioral foster. I prepared a large crate with a litter box, food bowls, and a hooded bed where he could hide. For the first several days, Bodhi huddled in his bed and hissed if I came too close. I tossed him treats and left some tasty wet food whenever I came near to create a positive association. I was soon able to hand-feed Bodhi the treats, and eventually, scratch his cheeks! Though still fearful, he was making progress!
Having seen Bodhi’s potential that first day,
I decided to bring him home as a behavioral foster.
Bodhi only came out at night when the room was dark. One evening I discovered he wasn’t in the crate. Eventually, I found him hidden between my bed’s headboard and the wall. Taking him onto my lap, I positioned his head in the crook of my arm so he could “hide.” Slowly stroking his back and cheeks, I was delighted when he leaned into my touch. Soon he slipped from my lap and returned to his crate, but I couldn’t have been more pleased with his progress! A few days later, Bodhi crawled from the crate and rolled on his back, demanding to be petted. Bodhi was ready to return to the shelter, where he was made available for adoption—and not in our barn cat program! I regularly took him into the staff lounge during lunch breaks, where he grew comfortable walking around instead of hiding. In January, he found his happily-ever-after home with an adopter who thought he was just as special as we did.
It is difficult to find homes for fearful cats. Many people don’t understand that cats often behave differently in a home than in a shelter. When searching for a new companion, consider taking the time to meet those who have not yet learned that people can be kind. After all, trust is so much more rewarding when it is earned.
Breonna Loxley is an animal care technician at an animal shelter. She is an avid artist, writer, and animal-lover. She lives with her parents, a younger brother, two cats, and one dog.
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