We have been a cat foster home since August, 2015, and in that time we have seen many good felines come and go – the most charming of which were Rumour and Riddle.
We don’t say that lightly. We have had a lot of funny, gorgeous, quirky cats in our home, but R&R win for Most Charming Kittens Ever. We think the two of them would make AMAZING protagonists for a new animated movie about a pair of orphaned kitten brothers with extra toes. (Are you listening, Disney?)
R&R were our first experience with a pair of littermates, and since then, we’ve unofficially created 2 definite Cat Types, which has helped us socialize fractious cats with differing needs.
The Rumour/Riddle Pair Dynamic
Though we don’t necessarily agree with the usual assumption that every feline relationship has a “dominant” and a “submissive”, we do recognize that cat relationships are complex and impossible for humans to understand at a glance. That was why it took us weeks to realize that in this pair, Rumour was the one in charge.
The thing that threw us off is that good old inclination to assume that extroversion = confidence. Susan Cain would be so disappointed. But when we walked into the room, Rumour would burrow into the furniture and stare up at us with big, sad, scared eyes. Riddle would dance around our feet, looking for a fight and a toy and basically excited about whatever we had to offer, even if it was a blood test or liquid antibiotics.
So how do we know Rumour was in charge? First of all, he ate more. Riddle would scarf down his food while we were in the room, while Rumour slowly crept his way out of his hiding place, hesitant to come within petting reach of us. But we know from our spy cam that when we left the room, Rumour took over the eating, and guarded the bowls from his brother. You could see it in their sizes, too – the larger kitten is usually the bully.
We’ve noticed this pattern many times since. An unsocialized cat who is reserved, stays hidden, and shuts down on contact seems to be a bit of a bully to other cats, when humans are taken out of the equation. We’ve chalked this up to confidence – an insecure cat who isn’t sure he’ll be allowed to eat is more likely to get over his fear and approach the humans, the providers, in order to get an edge on his companion.
While this certainly isn’t all there is to a cat pair, and every cat pair is different, this distinction has been helpful to us in figuring out how to handle the two distinct types of fractious behaviour that these two displayed.
There are a few characteristics that lead us to believe one of our fosters is a Rumour:
- Can be touched when cornered in a small space, such as a cage or a teeny tiny hiding spot they’ve found.
- Excessive hissing
- “Shutting down” on human contact – allowing you to handle them
- Refusing to eat in the presence of humans
- Willing to close their eyes, as long as humans aren’t in petting reach – but won’t sleep
- Hesitant to move at all – stays in one safe spot regardless of what happens, unless flushed out by force
- LOVE hiding under beds, behind couches, inside furniture, or anywhere else where reaching them is hindered
These all sound incredibly depressing. And they are. But one upside to a Rumour type is that you can actually handle them, as a result of their paralyzing fear of humanity. And as they get used to being pet, they may begin purring, and ease back on the otherwise nonstop hissing they do (though that depends on the cat).
A couple of tips if you happen to have a Rumour in your life:
- Keep Rumours in an isolation room. You’ll lose them, otherwise. We lost the original Rumour many times in our isolation room, since he had torn open the lining of the futon and crawled inside. He also hid behind three’s Income Tax Act to great success.
- When they are holed up, sit near them and pet their backs (their faces may be too much too soon). Back off if they become visibly distressed, but don’t go far – when they realize it’s not dangerous, their distress will very. slowly. decrease
- If you flush a Rumour out of her hiding spot, she will panic and scramble – stay back and give her space to calm down. Allow her to find a new safe place and keep your distance. (It sounds mean, but sometimes their hiding spots are dangerous or inconvenient, and you have to relocate them!)
- When your Rumour has his eyes trained on you, take note of what makes his ears prick and his neck crane. Whether it’s treats, regular meals, or a certain type of toy, that will be the key to easing the cat out of the safe place. If it’s food, for example, put the food down and sit a few feet away, still and quiet, not meeting his eyes. Eventually, with patience, maybe on the second or third try, he will give in to his obsession and come creeping out to get the food.
- When the cat advances, DO NOT SCARE HER. Just stay quiet and reward her trust in you by not proving her wrong. Remember, fractious cats don’t find your voice or hands comforting. Basically, repress all instincts to love the cat and let her eat in peace.
- Once that step is complete, begin using the cat’s motivation, whether it’s food or play, to interact with him. Play with more involved toys, or pet his back while he eats. Yes, he’ll hate it at first, but over time he will learn not to cringe quite so violently at your touch, and it will be awesome.
We recognize Riddles based on the following:
- Unable to hide as a result of extreme curiosity – Riddles can often be found poking their heads out from under a couch to identify a sound or a smell.
- Constantly on the move – even when they lie down, they are ready to spring into action at any given second
- Never closing their eyes, not even to blink
- Aggressive play, especially with distance toys at first, like throwing a ball or using a laser pointer – graduating to wand toys
- Over time, Riddles will begin following you around and constantly being underfoot
- Crying, trilling, howling. All brands of cat sound, other than purring. (It takes wild cats a long time to learn how to speak, so if you’ve adopted or fostered a cat who was picked up as a stray, you won’t hear them for a while)
- Visible attempts to drag Rumours out to play with them
- You find yourself wondering what the cat’s fur feels like because you have never, ever touched him
In general, we feel better about Riddles because they aren’t as sad and scared as Rumours. But despite their efforts to interact with humans, they are incredibly jumpy, squirmy, and practiced escape artists. While it’s easy-ish to get a Rumour to sit and endure some pets, a Riddle won’t even let you get within arm’s reach before racing around the room in a panic. And in the case of a foster cat, it’s going to be difficult to get these guys adopted, because people will HATE the fact that they can’t pet them, so it’s important to focus efforts on that.
Here are some things that have worked for us:
- Play, a lot. Riddles love to play and will start to forget you’re scary when that blood lust is ringing in their ears (we assume). When they’re in vicious killer mode, they’ll even jump over you or brush past you to land the kill. Then they’ll look sheepish and run away, but it’s still a victory.
- Riddles are insecure, in our experience, so they will want to be fed and will eat in front of you. Sit by them and make them endure some petting while they gorge themselves. They’ll be pissed, and they will cringe violently at your touch, but over time they’ll ease into it, especially if they have a bossy littermate looking to steal their meal
- When you catch a Riddle with her eyes trained on your highlighter (true story) or something else you’re doing that she’s really excited about, use it to coax her near. Don’t make eye contact, just carry on, and in her entrancement she may accidentally come closer than she meant to.
- Let them get bored, so they lie down, for once. We’ve found that they like to chill out near us, so they don’t miss anything fun, so if you sit quietly on the couch, they may even lie down next to you. Out of reach, but every step counts!
- Hold treats in your palm (once they learn that treats are awesome. Some cats have never had them.) You’ll be surprised at the guts these cats have when a treat is on the line. Stay still and wait, and don’t give in to their sad, beggar eyes. They will eventually give up and take it from your hand, which is both really cute and an important trust step.
As both types of cat progress, they begin to meet somewhere in the middle as your standard house cat personality. Rumours begin to play more and feel more comfortable prowling the house. Riddles learn to chill out and hopefully even allow you to pet them. Towards the end of our time with the original R&R, they were out and about all the time, lazing near us and begrudgingly allowing us to pet them while they ate their meals.
Although it’s helpful to categorize behaviours to figure out what to do when your cat is knocking photos off the wall or cowering under a towel in the corner, the most important thing to do is read their reactions and their progress to figure out how far you can push them – handling a feral domestic cat too much too soon is dangerous for both of you, and will hurt the cat’s chances at having a good domestic life. Err on the side of caution, always. The best way to make a fractious cat come around is to be patient, and give them time.
Other Rumours of ours: Lucas, Paisley, Demitri
Other Riddles of ours: Missy, Deniro