Humbug was one of my foster cats. He and another member of his household came to me for socialisation and re-homing having been abandoned when their owner moved house. They were not the only cats in the group – there was a mum with new-born kittens, and a number of other semi-feral cats who were really too wild to consider re-habilitating. The semi-ferals were neutered, vaccinated and returned to the site where a caring neighbour fed them and gave them a warm bed in her shed; the mum and kittens went to another fosterer; and I had the two males who were both very fearful but we thought they were the most likely of the group to get to trust people given some TLC and time.
Day 1, 20:30: The older cat was hiding in covered litter tray. Very sad cat. When I went to pull down the blinds in the living room I could see through to the cat pen that he was sitting on the freezer looking out on to the garden. When he saw me looking he jumped off and hid.
Day 2, 06:00: Still hiding (behind the bed). Can stroke him and he doesn’t move, hiss or spit. Very shut down. Talked to him, left him a bit of tuna behind the bed, let him see the other cat was happy for me to make a fuss. Will go out later and get a cardboard box to make a den for him.
Day 3, 11:00: Oh dear, Humbug has disappeared!!
On Day 3 I needed to do a load of laundry. The foster cats live in my utility room. It has been converted into a cattery unit by the addition of wire mesh doors in front of the washing machine and tumble dryer and over the windows so they can be open in the summer. I knew that Mintoe and Humbug would probably be spooked by the noise and vibration at first, but learning to cope with household sounds is part of the socialisation process. I loaded up the machine and set it running, sat with the cats for about 10 minutes while they got used to the idea and then left them for a bit.
When I returned, Mintoe was howling behind the door. I picked him up and cuddled him and he settled happily in my arms. But where was Humbug? Now there is nowhere to hide in the cat pen and Humbug is a BIG cat. I stood there for a few minutes completely bemused and even caught myself looking up at the ceiling as if he could be clinging on up there! I opened the mesh door in front of the washing machine, pulled out the tumble dryer, got down on my hands and knees and looked behind the washing machine. Not a sign of him. I looked at the washing going round and round… Please God tell me he isn’t in THERE!
Then I thought, well maybe he sneaked past me when I left the pen… And then sneaked past me again when I left the kitchen… And then got out the front door…
Eventually, full of embarrassment, I rang the Cats Protection co-ordinator and explained sheepishly that I’d had an escape. She said “No, he’ll be in there somewhere.” But where? He is a massive cat. There’s nowhere for him to go. “Have you looked in the workings of the freezer?” she said. There is a small chest freezer in the utility room. Well, no. How could he be in there? I went and pulled the freezer out slightly and there he was. In the cavity around the condenser, cowering right at the back.
The days went by. Mintoe came round very quickly and after 4 weeks went home with his new family. With Humbug it was slow progress.
Day 23, 18:00: Humbug comes out for his food now and will present his head for stroking. He still runs back to his hidey hole after a couple of minutes
Day 28, 08.30: Humbug put his head round the kitchen door!
Beating the boredom
At some point around now I went on a training day for Cats Protection volunteers on Understanding Feline Origins and the Development of Behaviour. CP runs absolutely wonderful training for its volunteers. It didn’t come as a surprise to me to hear that cats who are in a foster or adoption centre placement for too long a time can become withdrawn and depressed and I wondered whether any of the ideas for keeping them interested and stimulated would work for Humbug.
I decided to try some foraging games. I stuck together some toilet roll middles in a pyramid shape and put little kibbles from his dried food allowance in there for him to find and work out how to get out. No response at all! So we went backwards a little bit from there and I folded in one end of a single tube and put the kibbles right down the end of it, then held it out to Humbug. Ooh… Humbug… what’s this? He looked at the tube, looked at me, and then shot his paw into the tube and hooked a kibble out! Then he inched right up to me and shot his paw in again. Thereafter he would only eat kibble if it was served by hand in a toilet roll middle! It gave him a little bit of enjoyment, and helped in small ways for us to bond.
Deciding to adopt
Another month passed. The difficulty now was that if progress was that slow, would he ever trust enough to be home-able? And if he wasn’t home-able what were we going to do with him? He is a big lad, he didn’t really know how he was supposed to be with people, and although he isn’t at all aggressive, if he doesn’t know what to do, he responds with a little nip. People at Cats Protection were starting to say “He can’t take a place up in the pen indefinitely – if he isn’t home-able maybe he should go back with the others that are being fed outside by the neighbour?”
I never intended to adopt – I still had Muffin and she was an old lady and not really up for a new housemate. But I couldn’t bear the thought that he had started to build a bond and feel safe with me and wouldn’t understand why he had been sent back to somewhere he clearly hated. I loved his wonky big boy face – he has the gorgeous full face and broad shoulders and back of a tomcat that was not neutered until after maturity, and his left ear and eye droop a little, especially when he is tired. I thought he might have had a stroke at some time, but the vet just says he has had some neurological damage at some time. I loved the fact that he would wrap his tail round my arm and from a bit too far away present his head to be stroked, and although it wasn’t entirely appropriate behaviour I understood why if I took my hand away he nipped the skin on the back of my hand and pulled it towards him. So Humbug moved out of the fostering pen and into the house.
Yes I suppose it was inevitable I would keep one wasn’t it?! The main reason I had said I wouldn’t replace Merlin was because Muffin is so old and set in her ways, but Humbug is such a quiet boy I didn’t think he would rock the boat at all. Humbug has had a little explore of the living room and has ventured upstairs a couple of times, but then he hears a noise outside and shoots back down into the pen where he feels safe. He has touched noses with Muffin though and all three cats have eaten together with no histrionics. Dolly isn’t terribly keen but she isn’t causing any problems. Humbug is such a sad boy. I don’t know how long it will take before he really gains any confidence. I’m not quite sure how to get him to make the transition from the pen to the rest of the house, because of course he will have to relinquish the pen to another set of foster cats in 2 or 3 weeks’ time. Ideally I’d like him to be able to have his bed in a corner of the living room so he can enjoy the fire and a bit of company, but I imagine his choice would really be under the bed upstairs where no-one goes…
He was no trouble to anyone. He made a little den under a stack of chairs in the spare bedroom, so I put a litter tray up there and fed him near his den, and although he had the run of the house he hardly strayed from his private place. My brother and his family came to stay for a week and they only saw him once.
Becoming one of the family
About 6 weeks after officially becoming a “resident”, Humbug decided to come into the living room and sit with me while I was working. At first he bolted for cover at the slightest sound or movement. I sited a large cardboard box with some blankets in it so that it faced against the side of a chest of drawers, and pulled the chest away from the wall a little so that he could get into his den from behind the chest, and if necessary defend it against Gus and Pele (who had joined us in December but that is another story…). He settled in there happily and watched the world through a gap in the box, coming out when all was quiet.
On January 4th I had a visit from a friend and her son, both good “cat” people. We were sat on the sofa chatting when Humbug emerged from his den, stood in front of us and purred.
Nowadays he is relaxed and happy in the house, at least with me. We have an unspoken contract of respect. I don’t make too many demands of him, I don’t force cuddles on him or handle him unnecessarily. He lives in his own small world which ends about 1 metre in front of his face. Sometimes he is sitting somewhere purring away to himself and I really wonder what he is thinking about.
If I’d worried about him running off once he was allowed to roam outside, I needn’t have been concerned. His view seems to be “I tried the great outdoors and it was a horrible scary place. I’m not going there ever again.” He likes to go out and sun himself in the garden but no farther than that.
He is very fastidious and tidy. He keeps himself beautifully clean. And his litter tray has little pyramids covering his business with not a granule out of place!
Not going out much means that we have a bit of trouble keeping his weight down. He was overweight on arrival and hasn’t lost anything much since he has been here. It came as a bit of a surprise though to find that he is thrilled with toys! Catnip mice, bunches of feathers, fishing rod toys – he loves them all. It looks like he has never seen a toy before.