Many people believe that the cat’s behavior is due to the cat being mistreated or neglected. I will clear this up for you. Abused cats are rare. Most cats are just wary of strangers. Bad behavior is usually because they were never taught properly or played aggressively with them. So how can you identify an abused or neglected cat? Let’s look at what cat abuse and neglect look like, and then we can talk about the cat’s response:

Cat abuse can be intentional or unintentional. Commonly, unintentional abuse is called “neglect” and is addressed by humane societies around the world. There are actually three levels of abuse. Neglect, overdiscipline (over use of discipline tools) and intentional abuse. This article deals with neglect, which is the most benign form of abuse.

Description of neglect –

Neglect means not addressing the animal’s primary needs for survival – water, food, shelter, rest and hygienic elimination. Then there is the more severe type, where a cat is forced to live in filth, confined in a cage all the time, or denied contact with people or other animals. Many times this can be due to the pet not being spayed or neutered. Unwanted kittens, or too many cats, are the main cause of almost all of this type of abuse. Sometimes a person is too sick or has allergies. Perhaps a person is trying to keep a cat in an environment that makes it impossible to properly care for a cat.

I remember years ago seeing a homeless man walking down the street with his belongings in a cart. Then it was harder to find homeless people, so he stood out. He pushed the cart with one hand and had a carrier with a cat in the other. I felt sorry for both, but as a child I didn’t know what to do. The cat experienced neglect, but felt a lot of love. The man, I’m sure, didn’t know he was hurting the cat. He just knew he couldn’t let his beloved cat go into a shelter – at the time, all the shelters I knew were no-kill shelters.

An older cat (over one year) has little chance of getting out of a kill home. Most people want a kitten. The adult cats are often given no more than 2 weeks to find a home and are then killed. This heartbreaking situation often occurs when people lose their homes, develop allergies, or find they just don’t want to deal with the discipline and behavior problems that developed in the cat. The single biggest reason people give up a cat is inappropriate elimination. Then come allergies, followed by the death of the cat’s owner. Some cats are surrendered because the person moves and is unable to find pet-friendly accommodation.

I understood the man’s feelings of love and concern for his feline companion. I also understood that the cat could not live long in that carrier. There was no safe place for them. No homeless shelter would take a man with a cat. In this case, I believe the abuse is unintentional – neglect, by description. However, I think the hearts of both the cat and the man were in the right place, just that the situation was unfortunate.

In news reports, we sometimes hear about cat farms where cats are bred to the point of exhaustion and kept in suboptimal conditions. We hear of people who just keep bringing in homeless people until they get run over and can no longer care for them, and the cats become a neighborhood problem. All of these situations can result in neglect.

Now let’s move on to the cat’s response to neglect. How does a cat react? Why does it do that? By understanding the specific situation and response, we can address the resulting problem behavior with love, patience and training.

Effects of neglect

A cat that is left in a cage with other animals nearby is often frightened and afraid of people. It expects food and a clean litter box occasionally, but cuddles and attention can make it uncomfortable. These cats often have no privacy issues in the cage, but once free, they are very private about their littering habits. If the cat was kept in a small carrier, it may soil itself, or hold back elimination until it is very uncomfortable. It may be dehydrated and needs medical attention. The cat will be overweight due to lack of activity. It can be apathetic when play is offered, not knowing what is expected. Electric light can be something that triggers a fear response in the cat because it means people are coming. In other cases, the darkness can be scary at first. Once the cat’s eyes have adjusted to the light level, it will be fine, but when the lights are turned off or on, the cat may cry or hiss. In the case of a cat that is kept in the dark except when people come, it may be fearful all the time the lights are on, while expecting to be given food, water and a clean litter box.

What can we do to help these cats?

These cats are not comfortable with handling. The less you try to pet, hold or cuddle these cats at first, the better. Let the cat come to you. It will, given time. Be sure to take care of the creature comforts – food, water, bed, clean litter box – but don’t expect a cuddly cat for a while. It will come when the cat feels it can trust you. It may be afraid of the sound of your feet on the floor. It can go when you enter a room. As time goes by, the cat will stay and just look at you. Another time you might approach and offer a scratch behind the ear. Eventually you will be able to give a whole treat. Don’t try to pick the cat up, but you can pet it and the cat won’t run away or feel assaulted. When the cat responds with a purr, an offer of cheek or ear, or you can stroke the spine and the cat does not try to run away, then you have a cat that is just being careful with you. Continue until the cat comes for a cuddle, which may already be happening. Still don’t try to pick up the cat. If it wants your lap, it will. This cat can still run away from you if spotted on a windowsill, on a dresser or surprised in the litter box. Say the cat’s name in a conversational tone and eventually the cat won’t run away and maybe allow a hit. As for the litter box, just say the cat’s name, but never try to pet a cat in the litter box. If you can provide a privacy screen, the cat can stay in the room.

These cats need socialization. They must learn to live with others outside a cage. They need gentle discipline and may not know the meaning of the word “no”. They will love mealtime, but be afraid if you need to go near their food bowls and run away from the food. Give them time, move slowly and speak carefully nearby. They need to learn what people are about in a good way.

Once your cat has learned to trust you a little, enough not to run away when you enter a room or even start coming to you, you can begin to bond with your cat. A wedge stick is your best friend for this. Gently shake the rod so that the end twitches. Your cat will be interested, but can only watch at first. If your cat goes for it, great! When your cat gets hold of the business end of the wand, let your cat feel the success by holding the wand steady for a few moments. When the cat lets go, you can start to move again. The cat will play with you like this for quite some time. When the cat gets tired, put the stick out of the way so your cat is forced to play with you, not just the stick. If your cat grabs the stick in its mouth and tries to run away with it, resist and do not let go of the stick. Some cats like to take the wand and hide it under a sofa or in a corner so they can worry about it for a while. Do not allow this – the cat needs to play with you, not just the wand. After about ten days of playing with the wand, you will see that your cat becomes more accepting of its new circumstances. Your cat should assimilate well into the household. There may be people it does not accept, and these people may also play with the cat to promote bonding.

Under no circumstances should you continue the abuse or neglect! Any discipline must be done gently and with care. A squirt bottle, long a favorite tool of discipline, should only be used at the beginning of training, while the cat is learning the word “no”. After that you shouldn’t need it. Redirection is your best training technique. When your cat gets into or expresses interest in something you don’t want him to get involved in, redirect his attention to something he is allowed to be involved in or have.

Some of these cats can be clicker trained, but the bond with the person must be present first. Concentrated training to condition the cat to the clicker will be necessary. Some cats can be so dirty that even the best treats will not condition the cat to the clicker. If your cat runs away from the clicker after a week of conditioning, don’t continue. Your cat will never be comfortable with the unexpected noise it makes. You are better off clapping your hands and saying “no” to stop bad behavior than trying to click the tree for positive behavior.

These cats will be extremely grateful for good treatment. One expression of that love, biting, may not be acceptable – especially if the cat bites hard and uses its canines. Push your hand or finger into the mouth instead of pulling out so the cat can’t bite down and hurt you. You can push in hard enough to cause the gag reflex, but never harder. Never harm the cat in response to an injury to you. Hitting is never acceptable – but raising a flat hand so the eyebrows can feel it is acceptable.

If you have to pick up your cat, such as putting the cat in the carrier or moving it to another room, pay attention to the cat’s body. Be sure to pick up the cat by the ribs and hind legs at the same time to minimize stress for the cat. If the body is stiff, do not hold the cat to the chest. Let the cat struggle, but stay away from the claws. When you put the cat down (don’t let him jump), stroke his back if you can. Talk to the cat. It will stop a few steps away and look at you. The cat may come to you for a scratch if offered. Always speak softly and lovingly to your cat.

In Conclusion –

With all these admonitions and dos and don’ts, you might think a neglected cat is too much trouble. Not so much, really. They take some time to get used to people, but once they trust you and know you have their best interests at heart, these cats will come to love you very much. The early stages with a neglected cat are the most critical. After that you can find a loving, caring and demanding cat. Demanding because it may never want to part with you. Demanding because whatever it was denied before, it will demand from you. Also, you will be loved, very deeply. It will take care of you in its own way. If you are down or blue, possibly sick, the cat will worry about you and try to find a way to comfort you. These cats are very responsive to their people. Oversensitive is a good description. Empathic is another good description of their behavior. Some cats even approach a symbiotic relationship with their people.

Give love and patience, and love and patience will be returned. Give concern and care and they will be returned. A neglected cat is one of the best pets for a single, elderly person. The cat will be attuned to that person in no time. It will bring love and affection to ease the loneliness and loss these people sometimes experience. When the person is sick, the cat will understand and be there to comfort, while allowing the person to take care of themselves.

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