Popoki the cat is so much fun to photograph. Every time I look up from my desk, it seems that she's doing something new and adorable. Last week, for example, she started sleeping belly up in her bed like this. It's almost too cute for words.
And it reminds me of how far she's come, and how her story might help other potential cat people out there.
You see, I've had two conversations this week with people who adopted completely shy or partially shy cats from the shelter. In both cases, these people were contemplating returning their shy cats to the shelter because the cats weren't integrating with other family members as quickly as the people might like. In both cases, those animals had been in their new homes for about a month.
While I'm glad to help people who have questions about their cats, it makes me wonder if people are really prepared BEFORE they take these cats home. It makes me wonder if they've really thought through what it means to take a shy creature into their homes. I'd rather that people were prepared, because returns are hard on a shy cat. It shuts them down yet more.
I consider myself a bit of a shy cat expert, as Popoki was (and in some cases, is) desperately shy. In the shelter, she hid in the back of her kennel, trying to make herself small behind her litter pan. When I brought her home, she hid underneath the bed for weeks. She would only interact with me in very small doses, and even then, she was always planning her escape route. She didn't trust me at all.
Adopting her meant resigning myself to life with an animal that would judge me, dislike me and make me feel a little bad about myself---knowing that this would pass if I would do the work it takes to turn things around. That work involves:
- Classical conditioning. I had to feed her from a spoon or with my fingers (not out of a bowl), so she'd associate good things with me.
- Reducing hiding spaces. I kept her in a spare room with a bed that was taken off its frame. That way, she couldn't completely hide from me.
- Acceptance. Some days, she'd do better than others. Some days, she'd do worse. I had to be sure not to judge her on her bad days or get too excited on the good days.
- Cushioning. As she adjusted, I needed to keep her surroundings calm and serene. No loud noises, yelling, new animals, furniture moving or any other disruption. And no visitors.
Adopting a shy cat is more than rewarding. It's life changing. You help an animal learn to trust, you support their emotional growth and your bond at the end of the journey is nearly unbreakable. Taking home a cat like this will enhance your life in so many ways.
But it's a lot of work. It's a huge time commitment. It's not right for everyone. If you don't think you can put in the work, it's not your fault or the cat's fault. It's just not a good fit.
But do this for me: If you read through this blog post and you think: "I couldn't do that!" let the next shy cat pass you by. Take home another one instead. Both you and the shy cat will be happier for it.
Any other shy cat lovers out there with tips I missed? Shoot me a note in the comments. Love to hear from you.