Cat Whisperers Transform Scaredy Cats

Animal Welfare Pets Animals Cats Happy Story Pet Health Posted May 6, 2022
Timid, anxious and under-socialised cats and kittens are not an uncommon sight entering the RSPCA. However, it’s what goes on during their rehabilitation that turns them around as adoptable, adorable and affable pets and into the arms of their new family.

Mercury is a happy and contented kitty who enjoys head pats, chin rubs and the occasional back scratch. She loves to whizz around the house, ‘chats’ with her distinctive meow, and her new adoptive family of Helen and Rod say that their bed and a comfy sofa are two of Mercury’s favourite snoozing spots. Nevertheless, just a few months ago this black and white fur bundle was a vastly different cat.

mercury the cat rspca queensland

Wandering the streets frightened and anxious, Mercury was found and brought to an RSPCA Animal Care Centre. When rescued, Mercury was hissing, growling and withdrawn: expected signs of non-social behaviour. Historically, an under-socialised and fractious cat would have been considered beyond rehabilitation.

But, a cat rehabilitation program introduced into the RSPCA several years ago has transformed these scaredy cats into first-class companions.

Enter Kirsty Nalvarte and Tili Dukyer. These two women from the Brisbane Animal Care Campus specialised Animal Rehabilitation Team are at the forefront of a program known as the Fractious Cat Protocol, and its success is transforming the lives of so many kittens, cats, and the families that adopt them.

cat rehabilitation rspca queensland

This protocol for timid and under-socialised cats was first introduced by San Diego-based Animal Shelter Consultant, Renee Harris, in 2009. Her pilot program saw 55 of the 57 cats rehabilitated and adopted: a 97% turnaround! The program uses a successful combination of intuition, observation, and working practically with cat behaviour while gently pushing the boundaries.

793 adult cats were enrolled into the program last year with 82 percent able to be successfully rehabilitated and rehomed.

RSPCA Queensland’s Head of Behaviour Kirsty Nalvarte says, “In addition to that we had a 100% success rate with fractious kittens 12 weeks and under.”

So, what does this protocol look like in action? The aim is to mitigate negative senses and stresses for the cat from the moment of retrieval. Cats are fundamentally prey animals and are naturally on high alert. This is exacerbated when they have poor or minimal socialising. Mercury’s experience at the RSPCA provides insight into the approach taken by Kirsty, Tili and their team.

Safety and security

Mercury was understandably anxious on intake, so the team wanted to keep her calm. They supplied her enclosure (or cat ‘condo’) with comfortable bedding, provided a hiding area for a sense of safety, and kept delicious treats such as chicken or tuna on hand. Her condo was also covered with a towel to reduce her exposure to excessive stimuli, like cleaning noises that could overwhelm her senses.

Mercury preferred chicken but would only accept it once placed on the ground. These first 24 hours were crucial to reduce her anxiety levels. To assist, Feliway was sprayed on her bedding. This product mimics the feline facial pheromone cats leave when they are feeling safe to reduce stress. You can read more about pet pheromones here. Additionally, anxious cats are administered a medication designed to stimulate their appetite and induce calmness. Clearly, the way to a cat’s heart, just like some humans, is via their tummy!

cat rehabilitation rspca queensland happy cat

Patience is a virtue!

The key ingredients for the next phase: time and patience. This is where the real cat whispering comes into play. Over the next several days, the team might talk softly to the cat and initiate soft eye looks. If the handler receives soft, long eye blinks in response, they open the condo door and wait for further positive reactions. If the cat vocalises in response to the handler’s talk, this is considered a real breakthrough moment. A meow is establishing a cat-to-human connection of trust, and is a unique and wonderful experience.

In Mercury’s case, she required optimal time, patience and expertise - she was going to make the team work for her love and affection. While the cats often have the appearance of being much calmer by day two, their cortisol levels (arousal) often remain high for seven to ten days. The protocol for kittens is a little different. Kirsty explains that fractious kittens are often paired with more socialised kittens to accelerate social development.

Touch and sound

Using food wands for feeding and feathered wands for playing are a great segue into eventual hand-to-cat connection. “Gentle attention focused around the cheeks and along the jawline” is favoured for timid kittens, says Kirsty. Because of Mercury’s extreme timidity, this approach was an important step toward Mercury finding her Brave.

cat behaviour rehabilitation rspca queensland 

Music also plays a significant role in keeping cats calm. But it isn’t just any old tune banged out on the radio for their listening pleasure. Cats respond to lower frequency tones often found in classical music, like Bach, Mozart or Hadyn. And then there’s ‘Music for Cats’, a series of whirring, lilting sounds that appeal to cats’ brains and ears, inducing a calm that has even been said to tame fighting cats.

Fostering saves lives

And just when you think an anxious cat’s life couldn’t get any more wonderful under this protocol, there’s another layer. Socialisation can also involve fostering or the office program. Felines have a highly sensitive olfactory sense, which makes close proximity to other cats intimidating for the faint-hearted. Fostering opportunities can be a challenge to source, Kirsty says, but they give the cats and kittens much-needed human interaction and distance from other cats.  Mercury’s needs were certainly met as she flourished in her foster home primarily because of the calmness and consistency she received.

Adopting the Fractious Cat Protocol, the team in the Cat Rehabilitation Program support the cats’ environment so they can be who they truly are at heart – wonderful cat companions. Mercury’s adoptive parents, Rod and Helen, continued this work transitioning to her new home. And it’s really paid off. Mercury has risen to the occasion, going from a scaredy cat to a truly loveable and loving companion for her new family.

Top tips for timid kitties and settling in a new cat
  • Prior cat experience is essential for reading cat body language.
  • Start your kitty off in a quiet and safe enclosed launch space.
  • Use a pheromone spray or diffuser such as Feliway to aid calmness.
  • Have plenty of resources – bedding, toys, etc.
  • Provide two kitty litter trays initially to give your timid cat choices for going to the toilet.
  • Provide hiding places as a retreat and security.
  • Go at your cat’s pace: time, patience and love will build reassurance.
  • Use calm and consistent interactions with soft words and tasty soft foods.
  • After the initial period in a launch space (quiet enclosed room) invite the cat into other areas of the home, but return them to the launch room when out until their confidence is built.

Deborah Peden
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