Dealing With Traumatized Rescue Cats

Many rescue cats who come from abusive backgrounds need both time and space to heal in their new homes.

traumatized rescue cats
It’s important for traumatized rescue cats to find the right family fit. Photo: EugenieM

When Lori Erickson first laid eyes on Tinycat at the airport, “he was absolutely terrified,” she says.

She brought the Bombay rescue home. He promptly disappeared under the bathroom cabinet, where he stayed for about a month, coming out only to eat or use the litter box.

During that time, he had “the same ‘I’m shell-shocked, I don’t know what to do, I can’t even move’ look,” Erickson says.

Previously, Tinycat had had another home, complete with a cat buddy. His friend had died.

That, plus a series of changes — a move, his previous human’s absence for an extended period of time — had sent Tinycat into a depression, and he’d begun wetting around the house.

First, he’d been relegated to the basement. Then his people, not knowing what else to do, relinquished him to foster care, where he’d managed to get a little better.

Erickson knew Tinycat’s backstory. She knew she was dealing with a traumatized rescue cat.

“I made an effort not to reach for him, not to poke at him,” she says. “But then I’d see his little nose poking out when I brought his food. I waited for him to be comfortable enough to come out and eat before I ever reached for him.”

Large cages can be a safe space for traumatized rescue cats in a new home. Photo: Mimzy

Traumatized Rescue Cats

Eileen Karsh, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Temple University, “developed an interest in early-stage relationships” and feline socialization back in the early 1980s, she says.

Later, she and her colleague, Carmen Burket, went on to create Companion Cat, a sophisticated adoption program that focused on the ways that various feline and human personalities interacted.

One of the things that Karsh discovered was that “people who lack self-confidence find it difficult, even impossible, to relate to a shy or timid cat.”

A cat’s “inclination to hide triggers feelings of rejection in the insecure person.… Nurturant people, however, provide good homes for timid or even fearful cats,” she says.

That’s why Erickson was a good fit for Tinycat.

In rescue work, that right fit is even more critical.

We’re talking about cats who have been abandoned and/or abused — cats who have absolutely no reason to trust human beings.

And yet these traumatized rescue cats need to be socialized if they are to have a shot at finding homes.

Tinycat was not a stray, and he hadn’t been abused, either. But he had been neglected and then given up after many years. So he had abandonment issues.

Erickson had worked with cats like him before. So she proceeded slowly.

“I’d start picking him up and holding him,” she says. “He wasn’t comfortable being held at first. The first few times, yeah, he’d be very stiff.”

She kept the sessions short but repeated them twice daily.

And within a short time, Tinycat was actually beginning to enjoy being held.

Patience is key when you’re dealing with traumatized rescue cats. Photo: TheresaOtero

How Cage Size Matters to a Traumatized Rescue Cat

Avoid large places: That’s the advice that the priest gives the artistic boy in Lafcadio Hearn’s story “The Boy Who Drew Cats.”

It also happens to be the way that most real-life cats operate in strange places, especially if they’ve been on the streets and kicked around some.

That’s why people who foster traumatized rescue cats sometimes need to use cages.

Now, these are not the compact cages you see at animal control or at your vet’s. These are roughly 4 feet wide, 2.5 feet deep and 5 or 6 feet tall. They also have perches so the cat can move around.

“For an extra-aggressive or an emotionally shut-down cat, it gives them a safe place, and it gives you a safe place,” a friend in rescue explains to me. “The goal is not to keep them in a cage until they’re adopted — it’s to get them out of the cages and living like a normal cat.”

These large cages give cats a way to deal with stress and tame down.

When Merci came to me after losing 2 homes in quick succession, she was a howling, biting banshee. There was no way she could be handled.

So I kept her in the large plastic show cage she’d arrived in. She could see and get used to me and still feel safe. By the end of the week, I could let her out in my office.

Other Safe Spaces

Cardboard “hiding boxes” also help, as a 2014 study of shelter cats showed.

“Hiding is a behavioral strategy of the species to cope with environmental changes and stresses,” says one of the researchers, Claudia Vinke.

Other handy socialization tools include feather-on-a-stick toys, plain feathers or even artists’ paintbrushes — “something that has a long stick but a soft edge so that you can touch them,” my rescue friend suggests.

“It can be the bridge to real human contact,” my friend says.

Erickson seconds that. She used a feather toy with Tinycat. It’s a gentle, nonthreatening way of making that contact — of getting “them used to being touched at all.”

This traumatized rescue cat is on the mend, thanks to a lot of great people:

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Tinycat, that sad little Bombay, “is as bold as brass tacks now.”

He’s still a little leery of strangers, but he is very happy with Erickson, her boyfriend and Spaz, his cat buddy. Even his coat is thicker and healthier.

It all comes down to patience, Erickson says.

“That’s the best thing you can do. Don’t reach for them if it’s clear that that makes them uncomfortable,” she says. “Just wait. They’ll come around — it may just take a long time.”