Humbug's Story

I have rescued several quite normal cats who just lost their owners through bad luck (or boredom on the first owner's part), but I have had one unforgettable experience with rescuing a disturbed cat. He was a five-year old Siamese who had good reason to be scared out of his wits! He had been returned to his very elderly breeder two weeks after being sold as a kitten because he had jammed himself, terrified, behind a wardrobe and wouldn't come out for anything. For some reason the breeder didn't neuter him when she took him back, but kept him entire and shut him into a completely empty room at the top of the house. The old man went in once a day to feed him, keeping him away from the door with his walking stick.

Like most Siamese he was extremely intelligent, and it's hard to imagine how he coped with the frustration and lack of stimulation of being left here, alone and un-neutered (so sexually very frustrated), never touched (except with a stick) and never played with for five years. They let me take him away after a nightmare chase and beating from the old man to force him into a carrier that clearly terrified him. I had tried to catch him, but failed, and I have to admit that after watching this terrible performance I cried in relief when I got him out to the car, my heart pounding with horror and empathy for the terror he'd had to suffer in order to leave that house.
I got him home and put him into my spare bedroom - a sunny room with a warm blue carpet, desk, shelves, and a fleece-covered sofa, with lots of toys and cat beds for him - quite a change after bare floorboards. I thought he'd explore and look interested, but it was very different. I let him out of the carrier and he quite literally climbed the thinly wallpapered walls until he fell off. He tore about the room, and eventually ended up sitting on a shelf shaking like a miniature earthquake. Even his eyes wobbled from side to side. He was a very big cat, but nothing but skin and bone. I understand a bit more of what he must have felt when a stud owner explained (and demonstrated to me) how territorial an entire male cat becomes, and how even a much loved and well-balanced cat could be upset by being taken from his familiar quarters. My first offering to him, a home, was probably more frightening that anything he'd encountered so far because it was so unfamiliar. His first offering to me was a golf-ball-sized blob of worms that he puked up. I called the vet out.
I could touch him at this point because he was so terrified that he was too rigid with fear to do anything about it - the vet thought I was mad and said he wouldn't dare touch a cat like that! I think this showed that he was basically a gentle cat: he could have attacked and done incredible damage to me, and I was probably very foolish to touch him when he was in that state. The vet's verdict was that the cat was not just feral, but completely crazy, and if he had been found in the wild they would have neutered him and put him back. However, because he'd never been outside that wasn't an option. The vet said sedating him would probably make him more frightened, so the first step was to neuter him and calm down those rampaging hormones.

It took four days of leaving his food inside a trap in his room before he went in and was caught. I'm glad I didn't have to see what the vet went through to anaesthetize him. As soon as he came back from the vet - still shaking like a leaf and scuttling into corners - I started putting a fair bit of Rescue Remedy in his water (you couldn't get close enough to dose directly). About 10 drops in a medium-sized glass of water. I changed the water about every two days as cats often prefer their water 'old'.
I have never seen a cat show such peculiar eating habits: I would put out a good-sized portion of cat food on a plate or dish. He would eat exactly, symmetrically, half of the plate, leaving a perfect semicircle of food behind. This would be finished later in the day, and then he would repeat the performace with his evening meal. As I was worried about his thinness I made sure he always had food, and I still have no idea why he ate like this, though it undoubtedly had something to do with a belief that he might not be fed any more that day. Perhaps there were days when the old man didn't get up the stairs to feed him.
There was a pile of toys and other interesting bits and pieces in his room, but he didn't touch any of them because he just didn't know what they were for. A big breakthrough in encouraging him to move towards me was with string: about 5 days of flicking it towards his nose and dragging it away, done from the opposite side of the room, and with him completely unable to decide what to do about it. The first time he went for it, his long limbs were so surprised that he catapulted across the room, doing somersaults: he had never learned to play, so had never learned to co-ordinate his legs! However, over several days, he learned, until he would go and sit by the string when I went into his room. Interactive play is very unthreatening, and distracts the cat from worrying solely about how close you are, or what you might be about to do next. By distracting him with play, he gradually allowed himself to get closer to me, though usually when he realised how close he had got, he backed off again very quickly. However, each time he found himself 'too close' to me, it taught him that nothing horrible happened, so it gradually had an impact.

A catnip toy... but what do I do with it?

The first day with me - nothing but a bag of trembling bones

I never tried to touch him, as it clearly terrified him. After about 10 mins of play, I would offer my hand held as far from my body as possible, and with my head turned away and looking in the opposite direction. A strategically placed mirror showed him watching my face for long minutes before slinking forward and sniffing my fingertips before backing off again. Then I slowly drew my hand back and turned my head and played with him again. Between cats, eye contact is aggressive, so all this time I was very careful never to meet his eyes, though I was dying to because he had such beautiful deep blue sad eyes, and I was used to making eye contact with my own cats.

Tug of war with the string - no I DON'T want to come any closer!

Gradually the shaking stopped, and his eyes became normal (thank goodness!), and he began to fill out a bit as he ate as much as I could get down him (the vet had given him wormer, blood tests and vaccinations under the anaesthetic). On days when I was working at home in my study I shut my resident cats downstairs and opened the wire door to his room-I swore that he'd never be enclosed and shut away from the rest of the world again. Three days went by before he emerged from his own room (I could see him from my desk). It was quite exciting watching him slinking along on his tummy looking in amazement at a world he was sure he shouldn't investigate. A tiny movement from me sent him shooting back into his room, but about an hour later he couldn't resist it, and ventured out again.

About a week later, I came upstairs from making a cup of tea and found him basking in a patch of sunlight on my bed - it was a wonderful sight, even if it only lasted about 2 seconds! After that, he began to expect to be let out about mid-morning, so we established a routine. By now he had eaten his way through three synthetic fleeces (I used to hear the squeaky noise he made chewing it at night - this was probably a way of dealing with frustration). He became quite attached to various toys: a hideous stuffed cat-toy nearly the same size as him that he cuddled up to; a pair of swimming goggles that he stole from my bedroom, and of course the remains of his current fleece.

The window sill in my bedroom became his territory, and I could get quite close with the camera before he gave up and ran away - he watched me very closely all the time.

One sunny afternoon, I was sitting in my study and was dusturbed by a strange 'shuffling' noise. It was Humbug (he was a dark Seal Tabby Point, so what else could I call him?) dragging his fleece from his room into my bedroom. A few minutes later he went back and dragged the cuddly toy through, and over the course of about an hour, all his toys, especially the swimming goggles (clackety-clack across the floor) were also moved. I think his possessions, the first he had ever had, also gave him a sense of security, and from then on whenever he moved, or whenever I had to move him, all his belongings went with him, the swimming goggles were always first though-perhaps these had a special place in his heart as all the other things had been given to him, but this was something he had found for himself and 'stolen' during an adventurous exploration in my bedroom.

By this time Humbug was no longer as jumpy as he had been, and though he ran away in horror if I tried to touch him, he seemed far less stressed and panicky. So I consulted some feral rescue people about starting to touch him, and as a result of their advice, he was moved downstairs to my kitchen and put into a smallish pen: about one and a half metres by 1m x 1m in the middle of the room. From then on, he lived here. He was fed three times a day, and each time he had to allow me to stroke him before he got his food.

All through this time, he remained on Rescue Remedy. I had noticed a distinct calming down at about 3 weeks from starting the Remedy, so I was sure it was helping. The stroking again involved working without meeting his eyes: I had to start the stroking in his mid back, and just stroke firmly and slowly down to just above where his knees were sticking up. Then I moved my hand further up his neck with each stroke, trying to make sure he always knew where my hand was and what it was doing, so that I never did anything sudden or unexpected. If you've ever stroked a very frightened cat you will know how rigid they sit, and every touch makes them jump. I felt a real beast, but I knew it had to be done if he was going to have a hope of a normal life.

A couple of times (feeling very brave) he whipped around and snapped at my hand, but he never actually bit me, or clawed me, though each time I left the cage (or at least took my arm out) I got a firm smack on the back of my hand (his claws were always completely sheathed). I tolerated this, and even encouraged it by holding my hand out, to let him know I wasn't agressive or defensive, and as it allowed him to feel in control. By now he felt the cage was his safe place, so I began to let him out for short periods, and he would always retreat to the cage if he felt unsafe or insecure.

Maybe about 3 more weeks, and he had come to expect the stroking, and I had progressed to fondling his ears, and even touched his back legs and tail, this was the point where I discovered the badly mended broken thigh bone (undoubtedly from that walking stick). He winced badly and drew back sharply the first time I touched that leg, and I knew something was wrong because he was not that sensitive by this time. An x-ray showed the evidence of an old break, and he never really got to like me touching him there, even though it probably didn't hurt any more. It was very upsetting to think of him suffering this pain and the fear that went with it when his leg was broken - no wonder he had been so terrified when we first tried to catch him. The mirror was a great help in allowing me to see what I was doing without looking at him, and we maintained the sequence of stroke, smack human, then food. Being in the kitchen got him used to people moving around, noises, and particularly my voice, as I talked to him all the time I was in there, and showed him things through the mesh of the cage, gradually allowing eye-contact while he felt safe behind the wire.

Humbug with some of his trophies: the ghastly stuffed toy cat, a fluffy mouse, and of course the chewed remnants of one of his fleeces! I think he was lying on the swimming goggles.

I gradually allowed him out of the cage when he stopped hiding when I wanted to handle him, and by the time he had been 5 months with me I could dispense with the cage as he let me approach and stroke him as long as I didn't do it unexpectedly. He still tensed up all over when I stroked him, but even so he had begun rolling over and exposing his tummy, much to my surprise. The first time this happened while I was rubbing his neck: he lifted one front leg up, very slowly and trembling slightly, and clearly offered his tummy for a rub, though with all his limbs completely rigid in case I turned on him! When he started living out of his cage, he got a very small cardboard box that was placed on top of the kitchen table. He chose it himself, and it was only just big enough for him once he had his bit of fleece in there as well. In here he felt really safe and contained for sleeping, and gradually he ate less fleece, though he never really stopped entirely. I always made sure he had an old synthetic fleece to eat as this seemed to be a comfort thing, and more important to his emotional well-being than anything else. I read up on the wool-eating pica quite a lot, and it seemed that there was no reason to suppose it would harm him, as it was not stringy, and went right through him like roughage.

At six months, we were having our usual grudging stroke: he sitting nearly rigid while I talked and stroked his back and head, when I heard a strange rumbling noise: I looked around at the boiler thinking "oh no, the central heating has broken down..." I was wrong, it was his first purr, six months to the day from his neutering - a sound I had believed he simply didn't know about. After that, we never looked back. I still got a smack now and again, just to let me know who was in charge, and picking him up was a signal for panic stations, but now he purred when I stroked him. Though he had learned to enjoy stroking, he still couldn't quite trust me enough to relax.

He was really saved by a litter of kittens...