Saturday, August 27, 2016

Shelter Shock for Cats

Many would not think it, but I have experienced shelter shock myself, and I usually deal with cats who suffer from it as well. Shelter shock is relatively undefined but it is a reality many people and discarded pets face. The hard truth is that we become accustomed to the shelter being more comfortable than a real home, in fact, the shelter becomes what we consider a real home.

The reason is because of why we're there in the first place, life dealt us a bad hand and people around us discarded us without any emotion. Often we come from abusive places, where we are hurt by those we love everyday. The shelter becomes the safer place, the place where we feel the least pain and fear.

Dogs are quicker to overcome this, humans vary a lot, but our feline family take much more time. Cats are, by their nature, habitual animals. They prefer rituals and repetition, change causes them a lot of distress.

So when a cat is frequently removed from an environment they have become accustomed to, then tossed into a new one, then returned to the safer environment, they become suspicious of environments that are not the safe one. The safest environment in most cases is the shelter, their needs are met and most people are not abusive to them.

This is how they are seeing things when they come into your home for the first time. Often they say to keep them in a single room for several days to adjust, but what are they adjusting to?

Here's a guide that will help them adjust faster, and some recommendations on how to make the even longer period of earning their trust easier on you. Many of the problems you will face could also be seen when there is no shelter shock, but dealing with these problems will ease the effects of shelter shock so I'm listing them as well.


They need to learn the scents of their new home. Felines are very sensitive to odors, everything from perfume to soap will decide how they see you. So watch how they react to your presence, and which parts of your body they seem to prefer.

Chances are they are pleased with the scents most prominent to those body parts. Then try to get some of those scents onto your hands, play around with different combinations until you notice them taking more interest in your hands.

After a while you'll notice they rub their chins on you a lot, that means they are trying to mix their scents with you. This is a great sign, it essentially means that they feel welcome.

It's also good to note that rubbing their chin with a scent can help them overcome any anxiety associated with that scent, useful for introducing cats to other cats or dogs. Get the scent of one on your hand then rub the chin of the other, this will mix the foreign scent with a scent the cat instinctively loves.

Urine - Spraying:

Many cats will "spray" urine on certain areas of their residence. This isn't always the case, but if it does happen do not punish them, at least not in the traditional sense. You will have to find other methods of dealing with it until they trust you, after they trust you then ignoring them is the proper punishment.

Spraying is done when they feel threatened, frightened, or they're trying to say hello. It's like claiming the territory but more complicated. The urine spray is more of a communication method, not truly a sign of dominance. You need to show them "we don't talk like that around here," but that will only work after they trust you.

Until they trust you using citrus perfumes in areas they try to spray in will deter them. Try to get them to spray in a single place that you can either leave alone or clean up easily. A bathtub is a good place, give them one thing in the bathtub that they can spray and wash it when the odor gets too strong for you.

After not receiving any replies to the spraying, they should stop eventually.

Urine - Accidents:

The other type of urination is the accident, often they look guilty when this is the case because they don't really want to do this at all. The reasons for this happening can be numerous, your first step is to have a vet check them out. When they feel pain in the litter box, they'll seek another location to urinate.

If it's medical, having multiple litter boxes with different types of litter in each will usually fix the problem. If it's habitual, then try different types of litter, they will have a preference. Some cats actually prefer soil to litter, or even newspaper, finding what they like is the key to helping them adjust to a new situation.

Violent Behavior:

This is probably the most common problem caused by shelter shock, they don't want to leave the shelter so they do what they can to get back. This often means attacking and hurting the ones who took them away from their "safe place." This is also the hardest for most people to deal with, and one that I've almost mastered.

Violent behaviors are learned, they are then reinforced as a method of getting what they want when they are returned to the shelters for it. The things you need is a lot of topical antibiotics, and patience. Yes, the way to overcome this is to not return them, not strike back, and just mend your own wounds.

Cats are not psychotic by nature, they form bonds just like humans, love just like humans, and feel empathy just like humans. It may be difficult to see past the fury of claws, teeth, and glaring eyes, but that poor cat has not been shown love by a human outside of the shelter for a long time. Keep the vulnerable away from them during the time it takes for them to realize that you will love them back.

After a while, they will stop, curious as to why you haven't struck back and why they are still there. Eventually they will venture to you, to test the waters, to see if you will give them affection instead. This is when you shower them with affection and love.

After that, you can slowly introduce them to other loving humans, letting them see that not all humans are outside of the shelters are bad. Once they trust you, they will be your best friend and a defender of the family.


So this leads us to the basic steps you should follow when you get them home, in spite of what shelters will tell you. Shelters give quick and dirty steps that are simple but won't actually help with the bonding. So in some places you will notice a conflict.

  1. The room - if they are not violent, introduce them to the house one room at a time. Stay in one room giving them affection for several minutes until they look bored or paw at the door, then move to a new room. This gives them a chance to see their new domain, just be sure they cannot get outside of the house until they are fully adjusted. When they are fully adjusted they'll seek a place to sleep. Keeping them in only on room too long may actually slow their progress.
  2. Let sleeping cats lie - cats need lots of sleep, so disturbing them while they sleep will only increase their stress level. Remember that they have been through a lot of stress and will need a lot more sleep when they are first brought home from a shelter. Giving them peace and quiet, and letting them sleep a lot, will let them know that they can relax.
  3. Reward good behavior - cats don't understand punishment, but they do learn how to get what they want. So giving them treats when they behave well will let them know what you want from them, but punishing them for anything will only teach them to be violent. Also remember that cats love to play, and they are more likely to see any violence as play, and they'll always win.
  4. Give them distance - curiosity is the one thing every cat will have in common, while they prefer routine, they find new things in small doses to be interesting as well. So introduce them to family members little by little, and not all at once. That's how they met most people in the shelter so it will also be familiar to them, the small visits from people instead of overwhelming them with everyone at once. If you're single, then just don't worry if they don't want to spend time with you right away.
  5. Depression is rare - if a cat acts like they don't want anything to do with you, it's probably because they were ripped from someone they were bonded to, or betrayed by someone they loved. This will take a very long time, sometimes years, for them to get over. If you don't have someone there constantly then you should consider getting a second cat or a dog for them to bond with. The bonding will take a while the older the second one is, but it will help them feel more like socializing.
  6. Show and tell - the final step, or bit of advice, it to show the cat that they can trust you. If you have another family member, give them affection when the cat can see, family can be human or other. Petting, gentle kisses, hugs, etc. will show that you are capable of gentleness and so long as they don't see you get violent, they'll eventually realize that you are not a threat. Also, talk to the cat, even though cats don't communicate verbally, they do learn how to understand our speech. So don't be shy about telling them about your day, confiding in a cat shows them that you want to be friends.

I hope this helps people who adopt cats from shelters, we kill too many cats and dogs in those places and they deserve to live as much as we do. So don't be quick to return your new friend to the shelter just because they act a little different when you get them home, give them time and patience and you will have the best friend of your life.

So, until next time, enjoy life, play video games, and show a cat some love.