Q: We got our 3-year-old female cat from the Portage County pound almost two years ago. She had given birth to three kittens … they were weaned. At our house, she acted like a normal cat … running around the house, playing with toys, etc.
However, within a year or so, she started finding secluded places in the house or cellar and staying in them for a week or so, coming out only to eat and drink. She may go outside, but only for a little while. Since she became a hermit, she doesn’t use the kitty litter … a bath tub or tile floor or a laundry tub will suffice. She never did like to be held or sit on our laps.
All we want is for her to behave like a cat. What do you suggest?
— J. Robert Horner, Kent
A: First of all, kudos for adopting a cat from the pound! This sounds like a unique situation, and it raises a lot of questions. When cats become withdrawn, there are many factors that could be at the root of the cause.
The first thing that you should rule out is a medical problem. A thorough physical exam and history would be a great first step.
Cats are masters at hiding the fact that they are sick, many times a change in behavior is the only clue they give. The amount of time you describe that she spends hiding, coupled with the idea that she isn’t using her litter box are red flags that something could be physically wrong.
If medical issues are ruled out, I’d move on to environmental causes for her hiding behavior. Cats are creatures of habit, and some are very sensitive to changes in their home life. Did any new people or animals move in around the time she began to hide? For some cats, even moving the furniture around can be enough to send them into a panic. Cats are also very sensitive to noises that we often tune out. For instance, I’ve known cats who stop using their litter box if it is too close to the washing machine because of the surprising noises that it creates. Try to look through your cat’s eyes and see if there is anything that she could perceive as a threat in your home.
To help her abandon her hermit lifestyle, I’d also work slowly at gaining her trust. Since she’s a cat that doesn’t like to be held, I’d start with toys that don’t require you to touch her. Interactive toys, like a feather on a fishing pole style, are great for getting shy cats to come out of their shells. Food can also be a powerful tool. Offering tiny bits of special treats during play and social time will help the cat associate you with good things.
The most important thing to keep in mind is to let her come to you. Avoid the temptation to pet her or pick her up — let her come and rub on you first.
I hope this helps. Best of luck to you and your kitty.
— Veterinarian Meg Geldhof, medical director of One of a Kind Pet Rescue
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