I’m showing a photo of me holding this beautiful little kitty because that in itself is a small miracle. Mariposa is one of the adult cats we trapped at the abandoned house in Carnegie. I’ll be fostering her for adoption, and in the week she’s been here she’s really turned around her behavior and also given me quite the puzzle to figure out regarding her reactions to her circumstances and how to help her feel safe and secure as a former feral cat. But we’re good now, and getting better each day.
She is probably just about a year old now so she wasn’t quite an adult when we were trapping, but she is the only non-kitten-age cat who had any speck of friendliness toward humans, or I should say that she is the only one who was not outright hostile. The cats of that house had somewhat traumatic lives and lots of loss, and it’s no wonder they acted that way. Here she is from those days.
Also, she looks so much like one of the other adult cats, who may be her mother, that I got the two confused and so did the caretakers, and until we trapped her she wasn’t on the list. At that time I named her Betsy because she is baby doll cute and needed a cute name. Below in the first photo I could actually open the trap to take her photo, unlike her suspected mother, Sammy, who turned out to be a demon feral mom. More on that later.
Considering the feral nature of the cats she lived with it’s a wonder she was friendly at all, but from the beginning I could pet her in the trap. I asked all the fosters to check for adoptability, and when she went with Elle to foster before and after her surgery Elle reported she could be moved in and out of the trap and crate, enjoyed a little petting, played in her cage and was very interested in her other cats, and never showed any hostility. Elle felt she could be adoptable with some work, and I can’t thank Elle enough for both assessing her, working with her as much as she had time for, and for holding her until I was ready to take her.
So, unlike her aunties and others from the abandoned house who will go to the farm and live as ferals, she became an adoptable cat under Pittsburgh C.A.T. To avoid repeating common foster cat names and making a lot of confusion in record keeping there is a list of cat names that have been used currently and in the past year. There had been a Betsy so we tossed around a few ideas, Elle was thinking Marisol, and I was looking at that tiny face, feathery ears and long whiskers and thinking she looked like a butterfly, and considering Mariposa. We already had a Marisol, so Mariposa it was.
Elle is fostering quite a few cats, including some medical cases, so the little girl would come to me to finish her fostering. I had to wait until my TNRing slowed down so I’d have time for her. Elle and I met for the transfer last week; I mentioned this in my article about the 11 cats TNR project as the cat who was “another whole story”.
And she became an even deeper story as soon as she arrived here. I could handle her right away on Wednesday evening, and even sat on the floor with her. She was frightened on my lap, stiff and trembling, but I put her next to me on her crate hammock (on the floor) and petted her. She had a mixed reaction, rubbing her nose on my hand and making eye contact with me, then shrinking back a little. I let her go to explore the room and just gave her little doses of affection so I wouldn’t traumatize her.
She had been in a crate and separate from other cats since early June—as a TNR she only received a rabies vaccine but no snap test or other vaccines so for safety she needs to be kept quarantined. A crate would naturally help her feel safe and protected, but my bathroom is small with three good hiding places that have sufficed for all the semi-feral cats and kittens who’ve fostered in there. I set her trap in the tub, covered it with a sheet, and put food and water in front of it since most tend to stay in their trap or carrier at first. But she was in the cubby next to the tub when I came back. I removed the trap because I’d actually need it the next day for trapping the 11 cats, and I don’t think she missed it. The food was untouched. I moved it to the floor outside the tub.
The next time I came in she was under the cabinet, a very tiny space just four inches tall, but I can take out the bottom drawer and access the cat underneath through there. I gently pulled her out and had a little affection session again, put the drawer back in and let her go back underneath.
The food remained untouched when I went to bed that night. It’s not at all unusual for any cat who’s just been moved to miss a meal, especially a semi-feral kitty who’s spent the last two months in a crate.
She continued hiding through the next day, sometimes the cubby and sometimes under the cabinet. I changed her food but she still didn’t eat and no sign of her water being used, still not too unusual but not something that could go on for too long. I could interact with her and we even had a few nose taps, but as it turned out, from that day, Thursday, through Sunday, she hid as far under the cabinet as she could get and did not eat one single bite of anything, even the food she’d been eating just fine before, though she’d sniff each thing and I knew she was hungry. She did use the litterbox, though.
She obviously couldn’t feel safe in this new space. The hiding, fearfulness and not eating were what I recognized as a cat who has been displaced from her territory, unable to assure her own safety and relax, constantly on edge. We had to resolve that or she’d be one sick kitty pretty soon.
I am typically stocked on all the containers, toys, treats, phereomone wipes and collars, flower essences, and anything else I can use for fosters and would have had them on hand from the beginning, but I used the last of it all for Sienna. Right now I’m out of everything, and most weren’t in the budget for last week with the extras for TNR. But I knew a calming collar could help, and might just be the only other thing she needed—a ready dose of mother cat pheromones that tell kittens they are safe and secure in what is happening. They’ve worked for other cats like Basil, Ophelia, Theo and cats and kittens I’d advised people with. Everyone was out of them, though! Elle and I kept in touch and I mentioned I’d like to use a few pheromone treatments on her but until a check came in I’d have to wait. She told me she’d always had a diffuser going near her crate and was kind enough to send me the money to buy one, so I plugged it in on Friday.
I trapped on Thursday, transported Friday, trapped Saturday and transported to surgeries and then to farm on Sunday. In between I brought in a huge airline pet carrier and put it in the tub with her crate hammock and even put her food and water in there, covered it with a sheet and closed the door so she’d have just that small space to deal with. Later she was hiding under the hammock inside, food and water untouched. The weather was very hot and I didn’t want to add hyperthermia to her list so I took the blanket out of the carrier but left it covered and closed. It made no difference.
I opened the door to the carrier. She went back under the cabinet. If she would start eating and drinking, then hiding under the cabinet would be fine and she could take her time, but she was making no progress at all. She did use the litterbox and did not feel dehydrated but on Friday night I decided to give her a few mL of water by syringe. I could handle her, she did not fight, and seemed to appreciate it.
No change on Saturday. When I got back from trapping I pulled out a fresh jar of baby food and gave her baby food and water, and again no fighting, and she consumed what I gave her. It wasn’t enough to be a meal, but enough to keep her going. I hoped it would also get her digestion going so her body would ask for food having just enough to bring back her hunger. She continued to be mildly affectionate and I could see she was just on the edge of letting go of her fears, but she just couldn’t step over the line. The diffuser wasn’t enough on its own.
Later that night when I was in my studio I heard her meowing in there and digging around, looking for a way to get out. If a kitty just isn’t right for socializing I can let her go. I can’t let that sort of desperate unhappiness persist just because I think she should be a socialized cat. But I still felt she really wanted it and just needed help to get there.
And I had so little time to run to yet another store, but finally on Sunday, between the surgeries and shopping for goods and running out to the farm, I found a calming collar.
I waited until I got back home to put it on her because I wanted to spend time with her to see her reaction to it. I didn’t want her to pull it partway over her head while I was away, or react even more fearfully to something strange on her body. I syringe fed her baby food and water again, then got the collar ready and put it over her head. She was frightened by it, but I gently adjusted it to fit her and petted her and she was fine. Again, she would not have a treat or even enjoy some catnip, though I knew from Elle she enjoyed both.
The next morning, Monday, there were signs of exploration, some things knocked over, and she was on the toilet tank. One look at her food and water and I could nearly see the bottom of her food bowl, and the water was down about one quarter inch. Progress! Later she was back under the cabinet but I gently took her out from under and she seemed more relaxed at being handled.
Through the day she progressed each time I came in. I directed her to the cubby where she could get more air and look out the window, and blocked under the cabinet. She tried to pull things out, but settled back in the cubby or on the floor next to the toilet where it’s actually pretty cool.
I took the photo of me holding her on Tuesday. On that day she greeted me with a few little mews, which was odd because that’s not a feral cat thing, cats learn that living with people. Later she leaned forward to sniff my face and gave me a nose tap. That and being easily handled and even enjoying affection reaffirmed the idea that she just needed a little help, but it also made me wonder if she’d somehow had some socialization before we’d trapped her.
Several neighbors had told us about the kittens they’d taken from that yard over the years, all kept indoors and very much loved. I wonder if someone grabbed this pretty kitten when she was tiny and kept her for a while, then she either escaped or they put her back out or back at the house for one of the many reasons people do things like that. That could be why she was the only one who wasn’t truly feral like the others, and also why she acted like a displaced cat instead of the typical feral who would have stayed in her trap in the tub rather than going out into the room. If she had been displaced once, either by escaping and being lost or by being put back outside, that would have been traumatic enough, and then for it to basically happen again would be very difficult for her.
But now, each day, she is even more friendly. The calming collar did its work in helping her move past that fearful barrier, and it can keep doing its work. She greets me when I come into the room with a luxurious kitty stretch, comes to my hand for pets, rubs her face all over my hands and PURRS. She is fine with being picked up and held, and kissed and nuzzled. She doesn’t play yet, nor take her treats, and she can still be startled, but that’s okay. Last night she mewed for me to come into the bathroom and was right at the door when I opened it. Today she hopped up on the toilet so I could pet her and she twirled around and waved her fluffy tail.
This will be a very fun journey and I can’t wait to see where she ends up. I have to get her to one of our foster checks to get the rest of her tests, vaccines and microchip, and then she will be ready when it’s time to meet the rest of the household.
Brief notes on using calming collars
Though the calming collar worked for her, and for others, it’s not a magic collar. Like any other means of modifying behavior it only works when it’s appropriate for the situation, and it’s one of many tools to help cats deal with their fears over a long term—most often I’ve used collars for three or four months, and others have used them even longer.
Collars can be used in other behavioral situations with socialized cats of any age, such as territorial spraying. Last summer we had a flea infestation even though I treat them from boxes I’d brought down from the attic that squirrels had recently nested in, and Basil and Mimi both have an extreme reaction to flea bites. Basil not only began pulling out bites of fur but also regressed from anyone even coming too close to him, which may have been to avoid being touched. I put a collar on him and in a couple of weeks he’d calmed down and even quit pulling out fur; I used a second just to be sure and he’s been fine since them. But when I’ve used them to help with socialization it’s been for cats who were trapped prior to six months of age. The younger the cats were when trapped, the less time the collar needed to take effect, and the less total time it was needed.
A collar will not turn a feral cat into a socialized cat. It may help a feral cat deal with new situations in relation to humans if for some reason it has to live with humans for safety or medical reasons, and in time a feral cat may find its place in life with humans, but a collar alone will not do that.
I’ve also found there are many collars out there termed “calming collars”, some of which use pheromones, some of which use herbal calming scents like lavender and chamomile. If you choose to use a collar be certain to read the label thoroughly and research others’ use of the collar by reading reviews on purchasing sites. Be absolutely certain it is manufactured for use with cats—pheromones are species specific, and some also use essential oils. Most essential oils are not safe to use on cats because they can’t metabolize the phenols and turpenoids in the oils.
Sienna was thought to be a feral cat when she was trapped because of her personality over her months with the caretaker, but the next morning she was hesitantly accepting, even asking, for affection. When she came here that night she was shy but it was clear she knew all about life with humans. When I let her out of the foster bathroom she found a safe spot in the bedroom, and even began to eat with the family, but she was intimidated by all the other cats and was shy of anyone but me, not good for adoption, and I don’t like to see any cat live with fear.
She was kitty number nine, and that’s not a typical situation for most cats. In addition to the number my cats are all pretty friendly with other cats and don’t hesitate to walk right up to a foster and lick them or do a nose tap, sometimes more than one at a time.
I could see she wasn’t really getting accustomed to their activity, and also disappearing for hours when anyone came to the house, so in April I started her with calming collars. She eased into life with the other cats right away, which helped slow them down on their practice of trying to make her feel better by crowding her. It’s now August and for about the past month, when someone has come to visit, she maintains her spot in the kitchen and one person has been able to pet her. She has some work to do in that area, and I need to get more people in to help with all my fosters.
Big handsome Theodore was the friendliest kitten in the litter when they came here in 2015. He and Simon and Alvina had been trapped somewhere around 10 or 11 weeks old, and at their former foster’s house would play with the other cats but not interact with humans after a month, so they came here where I could focus on them, being my only fosters needing socialization. They socialized in about a month with the help of a lot of flower essences and lots of visitors. Theo remained friendly even when I transported him and Simon to my niece’s home in Savannah.
Even though they did all I’d described to help a former feral cat adjust to a new territory somehow over time he grew timid of strangers, and even to unfamiliar noises and activities to a certain extent. My niece got him a calming collar and within days he would greet people. After a few months he was back to normal.
Hamlet’s sister Ophelia loved me and was always much more affectionate than he was, but was terrified of strangers. She had also taken a very long time to socialize to life outside of the foster room even with a very slow inch-by-inch introduction to my tiny house, and I actually had to put them back in and start over twice because each found hiding places and froze in place, acting like displaced kitties (this was when I studied that behavior). I was using flower essences but not calming collars at that time. When her adopters saw her on the Pittsburgh C.A.T. page they were smitten. When they visited I had to confine her to the bathroom, but she surprisingly reacted well to them—meaning she did not feel the need to fight for her life but let them hold her—and they adopted her on the spot, understanding the time she’d need to integrate to their household of two other rescued cats.
After about a month she would let them hold her and brush her, she ate well and watched birds out the window, but she was clearly not reaching out and they were uncertain about both letting her out of her room and introducing her to the other cats. They got a calming collar and two days later I got an emotional message from her foster telling me she was twirling her tail and purring and rolling over for belly rubs. Ophelia did get over that hurdle of interacting with a human pretty quickly, but integrating her into the house took longer, though it progressed steadily. When her foster quit using a collar after a few months she could see Ophelia regressing and began using them again. After another few months of collars she quit them again and Ophelia seems to be permanently socialized, at least to their household.
Hamlet does not yet wear a calming collar, but he will. I’ve used flower essences and other pheromone products with him since the time he arrived here. He loves all the other cats and actually loves the company of people too, but he just doesn’t know what to do with them when they’re here. He sits in the doorway of the next room and looks at them, then enters the room but runs past them, and often does this repeatedly. If we can time it right and can touch him, he stops and gets pets, sometimes a lot of pets, from a total stranger. So, like Mariposa, I think a calming collar will help him ease over that barrier.
The Sargent brand of Sentry Calming Collars that I’ve used because they were the most available and they worked well, are scented with lavender. Lavender has been shown to help in calming cats, but Hamlet will have none of it. I’ve researched other collars and found one that has the same dose of pheromones and no scent at all.
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