Last night during our touch session, I got Rupert to purr, and boy is he loud. Stinky and really really loud. I had to stay mindful of my own emotions so that I wouldn’t freak him out, but I did a happy dance around the house once I left the room.
Now it might seem that he’s advancing pretty quickly, but one has to keep in mind that I’ve been feeding him and taking care of him for 8 years outside, so there was already some level of trust there to begin with. Aside from that, it’s simply a matter of patience and gentle persistence, but I do have a few tricks that I learned during the process of rehabilitating Moon kitteh. The main one is called Mamma Cat, and it’s pretty simple really: I try to be perceived as a mother cat, albeit a big giant clumsy one.
If you’ve ever watched mother cats, you know that they do a couple of major things for their kittens: they protect them; they clean up after them; and they groom them, comfort them, and show them what to eat by bringing them food stuff. We can mimic all of those things pretty easily. They also show them how to hunt through play, but that comes later. Right now we want calm and comfortable.
- We’ve already protected them by giving them a safe warm space. When we act like comfortable cats in the safe room, they eventually get the idea.
- We already clean up after them by cleaning and maintaining their litter box. This is a huge deal for a cat. It shows we care. No one wants a dirty toilet.
- We bring them water and safe food to eat.
- We comfort them by grooming them, and by that I mean touching them in a way their mother would, not with big clumsy-clown hand petting, which is irritating.
To an outside observer, I probably look like an idiot when I am in the room working with him, but it’s important that we think and act like cat. That we speak cat.
- When I approach him, I am always down on the floor. This is where a blanket on the floor helps, so you can slowly slide towards them, and I always make sure my belly is up and showing. Cats showing each other “the belly” is the ultimate sign of trust and friendliness, and since I don’t have a tail, it’s one of my only signals. Lying down also keeps you in a positive calm space. It’s difficult to be tense when you’re lying down.
- I never look him directly in the eyes for very long. I slow blink, close my eyes, and periodically lower my head, which are all gestures that friendly cats use with each other to communicate that they are not a threat.
- I use the “fist of friendship.” Open grabby hands coming at them are frightening. A fist looks smaller, looks like a cat paw, and should be rested next to them for a minute or two to allow for scent recognition before any touching can begin.
- I start the touch process with one finger on the chin or cheek until I get body relaxation, then I get more fingers involved. I scratch chin and cheeks, and I slowly stroke neck and shoulders in the direction of the fur just like a mother cat would while grooming. I also do deeper finger circles that mimic when a mother is working on removing a knot or a parasite. Watch a cat groom themselves and you’ll see what I mean. It’s hard to explain the maneuver.
- Once we have closed eyes and comfort with the petting process, we can start offering bits of kibble. It might take time for them to feel comfortable eating in front of you. Just put the kibble next to their face and keep on touching them. That’s a mom cat’s way of telling them that this food is OK to eat.
If you can achieve eating, petting, and purring at the same time, you have made major progress in altering the cat’s preconceived notions of you from Human = Predator to Human = Big Stupid Cat.
Some sites say that you should let the cat come to you for affection, but I don’t agree with that. Eventually he will come to me, but knowing him for as long as I have, knowing how timid he is, I know that he will never make the first move. If he feels more comfortable under the chair, then I need to respect his choice and do what’s called “pet in place.” Different cats will respond to different techniques, just keep trying things until you get something that works.
I do 15 minute sessions with Rupert and then stop so that I don’t over-stimulate. Feral cats are very sensitive like that. Don’t paw them for too long. Let them know when you are going to stop, then roll over like a happy cat does, sit up, and hang out in the room for another hour or so. I like to read aloud, but you can watch TV too, just use headphones. It’s been said that feral cats like classical music, mainly harp and strings, so you can do that quietly too. Save your maniacal happy dance for after you leave the room. Remember, low-key is the right key to start with, and if you don’t get a purr session right away or every day, don’t worry. Just keep on keepin on. You’ll get there, and slow, steady, and calm is the speed you need to maintain.