Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Patience Pays Off

Just as I was starting to wonder if Gracie would ever feel safe enough to trust me...

Just as I was starting to think that perhaps this time the challenge was too great for me...

Just as I was starting to accept that this was likely to be as happy as Gracie was ever going to get...


(Profuse apologies for the 'cat voice'. You have to talk to cats this way. They make you do it.)

I couldn't believe my eyes.

For no apparent reason, other than now, finally, being used to me, Gracie decided to test the waters. She was safely out of my reach, but fully visible. And for the very first time she was sitting up! Sitting up AND washing!!!

When you bring a cat home from a rescue centre you are never completely happy until the new housemate has done the following things:

1. Had something to eat and something to drink
2. Used the litter tray (both functions)
3. Washed herself

When a cat feels comfortable enough to take her attention away from you to focus on her own hygiene you know that she's starting to feel okay about things.

What had I done to finally earn Gracie's trust? No idea. But the following things may have had a positive impact on her over time:

1. I didn't rush her. After moving her to the smaller room I left her there for most of the day and night by herself. She had all she needed (water, food, litter tray, warmth, comfort).What she didn't need during this time was constant human company, so I left her alone.
2. It's important that you allow the cat to get used to your non-threatening presence. So several times a day I would quietly enter the room, sit on the bed and calmly read aloud. I wouldn't look for Gracie or try to engage her in any way.
3. I realised that looming over her when she was scared was only making things worse. So I stopped doing that. Instead, I spoke in a calm quiet voice and let her come to me if she wanted to (she didn't, but that was okay).

In the second video (above) I mention that Gracie should be happy because she's 'sitting by the Feliway diffuser'. Now, if you own a tricky cat but haven't heard about Feliway then you have been missing a trick. Feliway is a liquid that you can get from your vet (or online) that comes in the form of a spray or a plug-in diffuser. This magical elixir mimics the smell of a cats own hormones. Cats feel comfortable in a place when they've rubbed their sent on any available surface, either by rubbing her face against it or by scratching at it with her paws. If the cat is too stressed to leave her scent, Feliway provides a replacement scent that will help the cat to feel calmer and more at home.

Am I convinced that it works 100% of the time... hmm... not really. It's impossible to say. But you can see for yourself... Gracie is by the Feliway diffuser and she's suddenly very chilled out.

After doing all of this for about a week it was as if a switched had flicked in Gracie's mind. All that nasty hissing and spitting was no more.

LESSON FIVE: Your patience will be rewarded (eventually!)

But this is far from the end of the story.

Although Gracie was happy to let me watch her from a distance, for her to be truly happy she would still need to overcome her fear of people. Otherwise, she would continue to live an unfulfilled, unrewarding life. I wanted Gracie to enjoy all the perks of being a cat, and this would only be possible when she truly conquered her fear of her owner.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

In Her Own Time

When it comes to animals, cats in particular (and, to an extent, dogs), it's very easy for us humans to take aggression at face value, when what the animal is truly experiencing is fear.

As we've already seen, any attempts to approach Gracie in those first few days were met with hissing and spitting. However, she never actually struck out at me. Her real message to me was 'keep away, I'm scared of you'... not 'keep away or I'll attack you'. I have no doubt that had I ignored her warning and tried to pick her up someone (probably me) would have been hurt in Gracie's attempt to get away to make herself safe. Although you may be getting desperate to give you new cat a cuddle, it's really important that you wait for the cat to initiate it. So, for now, no physical contact allowed (unless it comes from the cat, and that wasn't going to happen any time soon!).

Gracie spent a few more days wedged behind that bed and I was running low (on ideas, not patience - I have patience to infinity as far as cats are concerned).

The video I shared in the last post shows things were about as bad as they can get.

This was largely my fault. Standing over her when she felt threatened stressed her out. The penny dropped with me eventually (sorry Gracie).

Just as I thought things were never going to change, after days of exactly the same behaviour, something different happened.

I went into Gracie's room as normal only to find she wasn't in her usual spot.

Of course, the first thing I did was panic. Cats have a reputation for being able to find their way out of anywhere and I was sure she had finally outsmarted me in some way.

(A story about my cat Smudge that may amuse. I once had to get a urine sample from Smudge. To enable this to happen, given there were two other cats living in the house at the time, I shut Smudge in a room on his own with the litter tray. Sounds foolproof, doesn't it? Well I was the fool. Sometime later I returned to the room to find the door open, Smudge nowhere to be seen, Jasmine (one of my other cats) was in the room I'd left Smudge in and there was wee in the litter tray. It seems Jasmine had leapt at the door handle until it sprang open and released Smudge from his incarceration. As for the wee... as I didn't know which cat it had come from that had to be flushed. Cats: underestimate them at your peril).

Eventually, I found Gracie, here...

LESSON FOUR: Be grateful for even a tiny bit of progress

This may not seem like very much progress, but it was. Yes, she's still terrified, but she would have heard me coming up the stairs and didn't dart back to her usual 'safe' place. Something, albeit something very tiny, was different this time.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Two Steps Back

After nine days and very little progress, and with concerns about her weight because she wasn't coming out to eat frequently enough, I decided to make Gracie's world a bit smaller by moving her to a different, smaller room.

The house I lived in at the time had three bedrooms, and the second bedroom had frequently been used as a kind of 'cat triage' for new arrivals. It was a straight-forward 3x3 metres, with a wall cupboard that cats can also access.

We moved Gracie, her food and water bowls, toys, scratching post and litter tray, to the new location sure it would help.

It didn't.

If anything, it made the situation worse.

In the living room she had been able to hide underneath the sofa. In the bedroom there was nothing to hide underneath (I bought her one of those 'crinkle tunnels' that my shy cat Betty used to hide out in, but Gracie ignored it).

It was my intention to leave her well alone for most of the day, popping in every couple of hours or so to sit and read, and talk quietly, so Gracie could become accustomed to my voice. I'm not sure whether this helped at all.

The first time I popped my head around the door for a 'sitting quietly session' I panicked. I couldn't find Gracie anywhere in the room. There seemed to be nowhere she could get out (the room was on the first floor and the windows and door were secure).

I searched the 3x3 metre space for some time before I finally found her. Gracie had gone behind the single 'day bed' and squashed herself down as flat as possible in an effort to remain concealed. When I finally spotted her I was very relieved. However, it was plain to see that she was terrified. Any attempt to approach or communicate with her was met with this...

Loud, isn't it? That is the sound of a cat saying 'If you come near me I will attack'. It's a defensive sound, a combination of a hiss and a spit.

While I wasn't attempting to touch Gracie, I was committing one of the cardinal sins against cats.

LESSON THREE: Don't stand over a nervous cat

Cats like to have something above them, but that something shouldn't be your face. Because of where she was (lodged between the radiator and the back of the day bed) I was unable to approach her except from above. At least when she was under the sofa I'd seemed less menacing to her.

So now we had reached an impasse.

I tried to show Gracie that I was there to help her by offering her some tasty food (she must have been so hungry). However, her desire to stay where she was was far more powerful than her desire to eat.

Notice Dreamies and catnip on the window sill. She showed no interest in either.

Gracie was still coming out to eat in the dead of night, but she wasn't socialising. There is an argument that as long as she was eating and drinking she was okay, but a domesticated cat absolutely must be comfortable with human interaction. I would need to administer her flea treatments and take her to the vet for vaccinations and check ups in the future without so much drama. Moreover, Gracie deserved to be happy and to have a quality of life that enabled her to do cat things. This wasn't living, it was existing.

We still had some way to go.

Please support Wood Green, The Animals Charity by sponsoring my Fire Walk (16th April 2016). Even if you can only spare £1. Wood Green will make your money go a long way towards helping the unwanted animals in their care.

Monday, 15 February 2016

The Price of Love

A pause (paws) in Gracie's story today to talk about cat bereavement.

From the perspective of someone who has loved and lost several cat companions I have come to regard pet loss in a different way. All the pain and sadness for 'what is lost' is still there. However, I now have a new outlook on pet bereavement that has helped me to help more animals, and Gracie's story is testament to how pet loss can be a positive beginning as well as a distressing and disheartening end.

As I said in an earlier post, when I lost my cat Lola to cancer I was devastated. Once a cat has crawled (or clawed) their way into your heart they never really leave, even when their physical bodies aren't with us any more.

When Lola died, I really wasn't sure I wanted another cat. I went to Wood Green a few days after she passed and saw a lovely ginger and white tom there but I left without speaking to anyone at cat reception because I thought the 'right thing' to do would be to wait. Two weeks later, that sweet boy was still in my thoughts so I returned to Wood Green and was relieved to find he was still there. Relieved, yet sad for him and frustrated with myself for not acting on my feelings towards him the first time I saw him. Smudge would prove to be a wonderful companion and I wish I'd known him all the days of his life. Loving Smudge didn't mean I loved Lola any less, but did take some of the aching pain away.

And as a lover and rescuer of animals it was the right thing to do.

Sometimes we fear being hurt again so much that we let our fear be our guide. We are so scared of the all-consuming sadness that comes with pet bereavement that we turn our backs to other animals that need our help now.

A cat is a big commitment and you should never rush into adopting a rescue cat unless you are absolutely sure you can offer them the best possible 'forever' home. However, when you know that you can, and recent bereavement is the only thing holding you back, perhaps hearing what I've learned over the years will cause you to feel differently about welcoming a new cat companion into your home.

Cats live in the now.

They don't know about death in the way that we do. Their concept of time is not the same as ours. They have no idea about the future so they don't worry about it very much. They only know now.

Letting another cat that desperately needs care and shelter into your life is not a betrayal of the cat you have lost. Cats are pragmatic beasts. To them, it would be plainly obvious that a new cat in need should be dining from the food bowl they don't use any more. Holding onto grief is holding onto love when we could be using it to help another cat. Holding onto sadness is not what the cat who has passed would want for us at all.

It's time for that love to be shared with another cat. This is the circle of life and the circle of love. Animal shelters like Wood Green are full to over-flowing right now with cats who are waiting for you. This is not to say you should 'get over' or forget the feelings you have for the cat you have lost, but to look at this a continuation of that love for all cats, especially those in need. The cat you have lost has made room in your life for another cat to be loved, and if he or she could speak to you now, I am quite sure they would urge you to bring a new cat home so they don't have to spend one more day in a shelter when they could be in your arms, on your lap or destroying your furniture.

If you are kind enough to own a cat, especially a rescue cat, then you will one day know the pain of losing them. This is the debt we all pay to love. What we get in return are many moments of true joy. Some days the only laughter comes from a cat's antics. They give us so much just by being themselves. When you stack it all up the pain we feel when that dreaded time comes is just a reflection of the great joy that we've felt and the great joy that our happy memories will continue to give us.

The lovely people at Wood Green, who have comforted me when I've felt incredibly sad at the loss of a pet remind us that it's far harder for pets to lose us than it is for us to lose them. It's true.

It is absolutely right to feel sad, but that love and compassion that only you can give to the animals in your care are now desperately needed by another animal who is patiently waiting.

Lola, Betty, Smudge, Sooty, Jasmine. Mummy still loves you very much. Thank you for being brilliant and for what you've taught me about how to be a compassionate and loving human. Thank you Lola for making way for Smudge, and Jasmine and Sooty for making way for Gracie. xxx

Until one has loved an animal a part of one's soul remains unawakened

Please support Wood Green, The Animals Charity by sponsoring my Fire Walk (16th April 2016). Even if you can only spare £1. Wood Green will make your money go a long way towards helping the unwanted animals in their care.

Friday, 12 February 2016

The Little Chimney Sweep

Oh dear. This is embarrassing.

While Gracie endured a self-imposed nine-day exile under the sofa, life around her went on. And while I'm quite sure she would have stayed there indefinitely if allowed to, Gracie was about to be rudely forced out of hiding.

Being a young and recently rescued cat, a trip to the vet was required. Not only did Gracie need to be checked over, she needed her vaccinations.

While any progress between Gracie and I was invisible to the naked eye, I hoped that through our daily contact she was beginning to get used to me and that the familiarity would lead to trust. So there was NO WAY I was going to be the one to put her back into the carry box for the trip to the vet.

Fortunately for us both, my partner David agreed to help out.

Unfortunately for us all, the first attempt to get Gracie into the box was not successful.

In hindsight I feel like an idiot for not blocking the chimney before attempting to move Gracie. But when a cat hasn't moved at all in nine days you forget that when push comes to shove cats can move far more quickly than unsuspecting humans can.

Turns out, Gracie wasn't entirely rigid. She darted up away from David and up the chimney stack faster than the speed of light.

Behold the aftermath (when I filmed this, Gracie was still in the chimney and I was in tears).

I was beside myself. Never mind the mess, I was sure Gracie would die up there.

The chimney wasn't in use - thank goodness - but it contained a huge amount of soot, most of which Gracie dislodged as she scrambled up the stack. I hadn't been able to coax her out from under the sofa yet, so there was no way she was going to come out of the chimney with me in the room.

We decided the best, and possibly only, course of action was to leave her alone for a few hours in the hope she'd find her own way down.

I returned to the room four hours later and there she was, back under the sofa.

We were more successful in getting her into the carry box the following day, when the extent of the mess she'd created became more apparent.

Gracie with sooty paws
Look at the state of those paws
Just as well we were going to see the vet as I was very concerned that she may have breathed in soot or licked soot from herself and become ill. I'm pleased to say she was given a clean bill of health in this regard.

Sadly, the same could not be said for the carpet.

Sooty carpet
LESSON TWO: Block the chimney off

I know it seems obvious now, but we hadn't seen Gracie move at all in over a week and didn't anticipate how fast she could go when she put her mind to it.

This, dear reader, is what we should have done in the first place...

Chimney blocked off
No one is getting up here
We did manage to get her to the vet, albeit with further collateral damage (David picked her up wearing gardening gloves. She bit right through them and his hand.). Although underweight (no surprise), the vet said she was doing very well. I said to the vet, "This is the first time I've actually been able to look at her properly". "Well, she'll never be a cat that you can pick up", said the vet...

Please support Wood Green, The Animals Charity by sponsoring my Fire Walk (16th April 2016). Even if you can only spare £1. Wood Green will make your money go a long way towards helping the unwanted animals in their care.

My First Mistakes

This blog is full of mistakes.

Not entirely my fault and definitely not Gracie's fault. Every cat is different. One thing I did get right was correctly setting my expectation for a long journey ahead.

Some rescue cats settle into their new environment right away. One of my other cats, Smudge, span in circles of joy when released from the carry basket into his new home.

Remembering how well Smudge had done being restricted to the large lounge in my former home (in Abbots Langley, Herts) I decided to do the same with Gracie. At that time I lived alone in a 3-bedroom, semi-detached house with Derek (my other cat). It was a quiet home with lots of space and I assumed Gracie would benefit from this.

This was mistake number one.

I opened the door to Gracie's carry box and left the room so that she could spend some time alone getting used to the sights, sounds and smells of her new home. On returning to the room a few minutes later I was pleased to see the carry box was empty. This was a good sign. Gracie had taken her first, tentative steps into her new life.

Unfortunately, she wasn't investigating her new home with quite as much enthusiasm as I'd hoped. Instead, she'd wedged herself under the sofa.

This is to be expected. Cats like to be under things, ideally in a spot where they can observe what else is going on while feeling safe.

However, I hadn't reckoned for just how scared Gracie would be. While I knew that I meant Gracie no harm, Gracie didn't know this.

Her new home under the sofa soon became her prison.

Gracie under the sofa
The new arrival wedged under the sofa

A few days later still under the sofa
(These pictures are enlarged. I was not this close to her!)

When I looked under the sofa, with the aid of a torch (shone to the side of her, not directly at her face), all I could see was a flash of white and two large, mistrustful eyes.

Everything I felt Gracie needed was in easy reach of her: fresh water, fresh cat food (wet and dry), litter tray, scratching post. Over the next nine days, these items gave me the only indications that Gracie was moving out from under the sofa at all.

When I was in the room (not too often because I wanted to give her peace and quiet) she stayed stock still. Only when she knew for sure that I wasn't around did she venture out into the room to eat, drink and answer the call of nature (that's one of the wonderful things about cats, no matter what their psychological state they still tend to respect litter tray etiquette).

Concerned about her weight and wanting to create a bond between us, I decided to try feeding Gracie some cat food using a fish slice that I slid under the sofa towards her. This worked to an extent. She took the food, but I believe this was because she was extremely hungry - my presence was merely tolerated. Even after days of patiently feeding her this way (it's not easy for me to lie flat on the floor these days!) there was no real progress. She never asked for food, and never moved closer to take it when offered. But at least she was eating.

So, if she's eating, drinking and using the litter tray how did I know I'd made a mistake? Because after nine days she should have begun to explore her surroundings a little more out of sheer curiosity. And the reason she didn't?

LESSON ONE: The room was too big

If you have a nervous, anxious or frightened cat, you can help them to feel more secure by placing them in a smaller room with lots of places to hide.

By putting Gracie in a large room I now realise I extended her anxiety a few days longer than necessary. The size of the room was just too overwhelming for her. Hence she only felt safe when she was wedged under the sofa out of reach.

After nine days, and concerned for her weight and wellbeing, I decided that this arrangement wasn't working and moved her to a much smaller room. However, there would be a few more mishaps before that...

Gracie under the sofa
"Ask all you like, I'm not coming out"

Please support Wood Green, The Animals Charity by sponsoring my Fire Walk (16th April 2016). Even if you can only spare £1. Wood Green will make your money go a long way towards helping the unwanted animals in their care.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

What's to Come

Before I launch into Gracie's story, I'd like to say a few things about what you should expect.

My goal with Gracie was to get her better.

Not to make a record of her suffering.

Not to make her a YouTube star.

I took some video (which you will get to see over the coming posts) purely to document Gracie's progress.

Because the videos are not intended to make money or be exploitative they are very short. You will see enough of Gracie's situation to understand why she so desperately needed help but not enough to feel that her situation was exploited in any way.

I mentioned at the beginning of this blog that when she came to me Gracie had been self-harming. She had painful-looking sores on her neck that were self-inflicted. However, these were well-healed by the time I took her home thanks to the loving care of the team at Wood Green, The Animals Charity. I did not take pictures of Gracie's injuries. There is no need for anyone to see them. All that remains of them now is one tiny bald patch where her fur didn't regrow. It's barely noticeable and I like to think she's now forgotten all about it. In fact, she's now such a chilled-out cat I can't imagine her ever doing that to herself again.

I love my cats and dog like they are my children. It's my hope that sharing how Gracie become (eventually) convinced that this new home was safe will inspire other potential cat rescuers to invest the time and patience it takes to turn a cat like Gracie's life around.

If you do see anything on the blog that makes you feel sad remember that this story has a happy ending and there is video of Gracie looking full of joy and contentment to come.

In my opinion, animal cruelty doesn't stop at direct physical and emotional harm and neglect. It extents to sharing videos of animals experiencing cruelty. There will be none of that here.

Stop animal abuse and cruelty

Please support Wood Green, The Animals Charity by sponsoring my Fire Walk (16th April 2016). Even if you can only spare £1. Wood Green will make your money go a long way towards helping the unwanted animals in their care.