The Nitty Gritty
I know people don’t to talk about animal neglect or a abuse, and I imagine you’re unsure you even want to read this post. The topic isn’t pretty, but it’s reality, and facing it head on means we can give these animals a second chance at life and love. We can’t change the past, but we can change how WE respond. They deserve a chance at normalcy, even though their definition may be different than ours.
If you adopt or foster a cat (or dog) that’s been the victim of neglect or abuse, your observations are EVERYTHING in helping that stressed animal. I’m going to tell you how I identified some behavior patterns with Lucy, and a little about how I responded. I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I probably don’t have half of them. My hope is my experiences at least give you a few ideas of things to try.
Quick Lucy Intro
Sometimes, when I start to tell people about Lucy, they hold their hand up, unwilling to hear how her story started. But the truth is, that is her story, whether people like it or not. She was neglected, and it has led to a lot of obstacles for her, but I work with her to work through her challenges.
- 8-year-old tuxedo female cat
- Long-term foster for nearly one year
- Victim of extreme owner neglect (which is a form of abuse)
- Surrendered to shelter completely infested with fleas, underweight and excessively aggressive
- Suffered flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), an allergic reaction to flea saliva
- Has permanent nerve damage from FAD
Lucy’s Behavioral Patterns
Here are some of the non-normal behavioral patterns I noticed immediately with Lucy:
- Constant growling
- Fast huffing (stress response)
- Swatting (at cats or people)
- Dilated pupils
- Twitching tail
- Locked stares
- Warning bites (don’t break the skin, but hurt)
- Disinterest in toys
When I first got her, all of these were a constant, but she’s improved so much over time. Yes, it’s stressful for me, but it’s more stressful for her! It’s clear her behavior is driven by fear. My heart aches because I feel like no one had be nice to her or shown her love up until she was under my care.
Neglect: Impacts on the Brain
When animals are neglected or abused, the part of their brain that helps them survive and is responsible for fight or flight overdevelops. The slow part of the brain that analyzes things can’t function the same way, because they have to make quick determinations for survival. These associations become very black and white, because there’s no time for the animal to see any shade of gray. Survival is at stake.
Example: A female cat was previously hit by a person. Her brain concludes hand = pain. She learns that if she growls and swats at the hand, it doesn’t hit her. Her response when she sees a hand becomes growl + swat = protection. You adopt her, and even though you don’t strike her, your hand is a sign of something bad, because that’s what she learned over years of what was predictable behavior for her. When she sees your hand, growl + swat still equals protection.
Neglect and abuse LITERALLY changes brain development in the early years of life, and it can’t be undone. It is what it is. Therefore, you have to do two important things.
1. Meet Neglected and Abused Animals Where They Are
Don’t force them. There’s a reason why they react in an aggressive or fearful way. A lack of physical contact or displays of anger or aggression IS NOT ABOUT YOU. Experiences have created patterns in an animal’s brain that has contributed to their behavior. To expect a fearful cat to snuggle with you is not realistic, and it also is not something that makes her feel secure. Put the animal and her needs first.
When I met Lucy, I was saving her life, but she still saw me as a threat. I couldn’t touch her for weeks, and although it was hard, I had to accept it.
What I Did
Since cats respond to body language, I relied on maintaining a calm energy and hiding my hands. I would sit on the floor with her, so that I wasn’t an intimidating force towering over her. Being eye-level helps stressed or scared cats relax.
2. Understand Behavior Patterns Aren’t Your Animal’s Fault
Lucy’s brain is literally different and programmed for survival at all costs. Animals like her are overstimulated easily, and if they see something that scares them, they’ll go in to fight or flight mode.
BE VERY CAREFUL – an animal in fight or flight will not recognize you, and you are at the highest risk of being bit or harmed. Try to give space until the animal calms down. You may have to walk away for a short time so the animal can relax and reset.
What I Did
To keep stay safe, and lower the Lucy’s stress, I uncovered her triggers so I could either 1) avoid them or 2) use positive reinforcement to help her work around them.
Lucy Trigger: Hands
Normally, you let a cat smell your hand as a kitty handshake, but for Lucy, if she saw hands near her face, she’d growl and swat and get extremely upset.
In the beginning, it was critical that she didn’t see my hands coming toward her head. Therefore, I let Lucy come to me and rub against my legs. I tried to read her body language, and if it seemed she was relaxed and inviting, I’d gently pet her, careful that she didn’t see my hands.
I discovered early on that she liked treats, so I used treats to gain her trust. Handing her treats was out of the question, so I would put treats on the ground, back up, and sit down, OR toss them in her direction and let her eat them as she wanted.
Current Status: Improved
No more fixating or obsessing over my hands. I can even feed her treats.
Lucy Trigger: Boots
From day one, Lucy hated my boots, and would hit and attack them. She was probably shoved (at a minimum) by someone wearing boots, which made her create a negative association with them. It’s possible she was kicked, but I have no proof of that, and let’s not go there.
My goal was to make boots a non-factor. I tried to sit on the floor with her as much as possible when I had boots on, or remove my shoes when I was spending time with her.
Current Status: Improved
Every now and then, she’ll swat at my boots, but for the most part, she overcame this. She trusts me and knows my legs and feet mean her no harm.
Lucy Trigger: Other cats
Given that Lucy was an indoor/outdoor cat, she likely had to fight other animals and cats for resources. She associates other cats as threats to her survival. Now, when she sees a cat, she often goes in to fight or flight, even tough my cats are not a threat to her, because over time, she learned that other cats = threats.
Current Status: Little Improvement
I keep her in her own room, but she is a little explorer and goes “on the loose,” as I call it, running through the house and hissing at everything. When she sees my resident cats, she goes into fight or flight, and is completely terrified of them and me. I don’t know that this trigger will ever improve. It’s nearly impossible to work with a cat in fight or flight, so it’s just better to leave her alone until she calms down.
Be Patient and Honest with Yourself
You must have patience to work with an animal that’s been neglected or abused, because progress is very, very, very slow, and there will be days when they take steps backward. Trust me, it’s frustrating and exhausting, but it’s also rewarding.
Important: You don’t have to adopt or foster formerly abused or neglected animals. There are plenty of other animals that need your help and love. It’s most important that you’re honest about what you can and can’t handle, because your mental health is important too!
Would I foster Lucy again knowing now what I didn’t know when I got her? In a heartbeat. I’ve learned so much from her and love her to pieces. I always say, “She’s grouchy sometimes, but aren’t we all?”