It is a sad fact of life that many cats suffer abuse of some kind during their lives. Abuse can take the form of physical assaults or punishment – but many cats suffer from the silent abuse of neglect. When abuse occurs during a sensitive stage of a cat's development, it can have a profound impact for the rest of its life, even if the cat is subsequently removed from the abusive environment.
An older animal may bounce back from a bad situation, but a young, impressionable cat will show lasting mental scars. He or she often has to be coaxed out of a shell of resistance and will likely never be fully trusting.
Types of Abuse
Cat abuse takes many forms, including the following:
The Cat's Reaction
Whether dog, cat, or other species, the universal response to abuse is one of mistrust, social withdrawal, physical inactivity, and depression. The thoroughly defeated cat often hunkers in the corner of a room or under the bed, not daring to explore its environment. This fear can extend to the outside world, giving an appearance of agoraphobia (fear of open spaces). Severely affected cats may not want or know how to play. They remain vigilant, reclusive and often quiet.
These are general signs. Specific signs may reflect the type of abuse the cat suffered. For example, if a young cat has been forced to spend many hours alone, it may fear a return of this situation with such intensity that they become overly attached to a caring owner and may show extreme anxiety when separated from him/her. Alternatively, affected cats may simply fear being left alone – a slightly different situation.
Cats that have not been exposed to people during the first 7 weeks of life never become fully accepting of people and thus rarely make good pets. Cats that have been mistreated by people during the same period may become positively hostile to strangers for the rest of their lives.
Abuse and neglect have other serious ramifications. The behavioral flaws arising from inappropriate rearing can threaten cats' lives because affected cats do not know how to respond appropriately to different situations.
How To Rehabilitate a Previously Abused Cat
First of all, don't expect things to turn around overnight and do not have too high expectations for the final result. It often takes a year to transform a reclusive, abused cat into a family-friendly companion. Even so, do not expect a miracle: You are unlikely to achieve complete resolution of the issues. Previously abused pets can become accepting of their human family members but making them into well-rounded social successes is an almost impossible task.
That said, to attempt such therapeutic work can be a rewarding challenge, and those who have met with success never regret the decision they made to make a formerly miserable pet happy and save its life.
Here's how to proceed:
Some specific measures include the following:
Once appropriate background measures are in place, and the cat is on the mend, it is time to consider active rehabilitation in the form of desensitization. Desensitization is the behavioral equivalent of homeopathy: A little bit of what ails (step-wise approach to feared person or situation) is employed under close control to do some good.
Whether the "little bit" entails limited and controlled exposure to strangers or being left alone depends on the particular needs of the cat. Desensitization is best performed in conjunction with counter-conditioning – a process in which animals' fear cues are associated with a positive (or, at least, different) response. The usual strategy is to replace a previously fearful response with an appetitive response using delicious food as the conditioner.
With reference to training, as ethologist Konrad Lorenz once said, "Art and science aren't enough; patience is the basic stuff." This is especially true when it comes to rehabilitating formerly abused animals. Such animals present the greatest challenge, because they are not blank slates for inscription but rather have already been exposed to un-erasable unfortunate learning. However, this is not to say that amazing turnarounds cannot be achieved – for they can – only that trainers must work hard with such pets to superimpose new learning that will submerge earlier adverse learning experiences.