I am beginning to think that Annie and Maggie are communicating telepathically. Maggie is a puppy mill rescue who is being fostered and helped – the start of her story can be found here. Annie is the feral kitten I rescued from a colony, sick to the point of dying soon. (Her early story can be found here.) Her physical problems are making good progress, but I am trying to help her trust people and grow comfortable in a home, the same journey Maggie is embarked upon. And despite the fact that they are different species, they seem to share a lot in common. I have to admit, I’ve been surprised by that (which only shows you how much I have to learn.)
Part of learning to trust people is dealing with being pet. People love petting dogs and cats. Cats and dogs don’t always like being pet, and those who have been rescued (whether from puppy mills or feral colonies) really have an issue with human touch. It is sooooo hard to not just reach out and want to pet animals. People do it all the time, sometimes with disastrous consequences. We humans seem to think that if we want to pet a dog or cat, they should accept it and like it, and nothing could be further from the truth. A lot of the work with rescues is about choice for the animal – letting them know they have one – and ultimately, that’s about respect for another being.
So one of the things I am concentrating on with Annie is letting her decide how much she wants to be pet, or not pet. Maggie is working with the same issue. I saw a wonderful video some time ago demonstrating how to tell if a dog wants to be pet or not, and got to re-view it on the blog about Maggie the other day. If you haven’t seen this, it is worth a quick view. Knowing what a dog’s body language tells you about his or her comfort with being pet at that time is critical not only to building a solid bond, but also to avoid ugly things like bites.
Maybe there’s something like this for cats out there, but I haven’t seen it. With Annie, I offer her my open hand , or sometimes just a finger, which seems a little less threatening. If she wants to be pet she usually moves her head towards my hand, or she stretches her neck out so I can rub the side of her cheek or under her chin. If she leans into my hand as I pet, she’s really happy to be pet. Signs that she doesn’t want to be pet include turning away, backing away, hissing. I don’t force it when I get that response. Sometimes I go away when she doesn’t want contact. Sometimes not. I don’t want her to think that hissing, for instance, will always get me to leave – she won’t ever be comfortable with me if I let her learn that. But I don’t pet her when she doesn’t want to be pet. I hang out, talk quietly, do my slow blinks (the cat version of “I love you”), and just wait for her to be quiet. I go away when she has relaxed and is okay that I’m nearby, even if she doesn’t want to be pet. It’s a fine line.
Respect, particularly with rescues, is probably always a fine line. We need to push the line sometimes or the animal won’t make any progress. We have to push the line big time when there are things, like medications, that have to be given. But even then there are ways of doing what needs to be done with the least restraint and gentlest touch possible. Dr. Sophia Yin’s books and CDs have been a great help in teaching me (and a cast of thousands) ways of handling dogs and cats that cause the least amount of stress. I’m still trying to learn how to help Annie with her pooping problem without stressing the daylights out of her…we’re not there yet, but I’m trying.
Annie is making amazing progress, despite my occasional clumsiness, or my rude attempts to massage her butt when she is having trouble pooping. I am trying to teach her that being picked up is not always a harbinger of something awful. Sometimes it means good stuff, like food. A few times now she has (very tentatively) let me pick her up and put her on my lap, and she has stayed there a bit, and even purred. But she gets to leave my lap when she’s ready – a little reward for humoring me in the first place. It is so hard, especially with a kitten not to want to pick her up and cuddle her, but she’s a long way from being ready for that, and may never be ready…hard to know. She has to make the choices herself, and my task is to respect her choices. We both continue to learn.