Adventures In Cat Adoption: How To Help A Special Needs Cat

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When my husband Adam and I visited our local pet shelter earlier this year, we had the very clear goal of adopting an adorable, fluffy, little kitten to add to our family. The selection we made before we left turned out to be startling even to us.

dj sugar
Apogee Photography / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

We introduced ourselves to lots of different cats and kittens while we worked through the many different rooms of the facility. While we were visiting with the occupants in the final area, we came to a cage with a warning sign on it: “Warning: This Cat Bites!” So why on earth would we end up bringing home a chunky, fierce, five-year-old cat with a lot of baggage when we originally came in for a lovable little kitten?

Because everyone comes in for a kitten and the plight of this poor cat was not his fault.

“Rumson” was abused before he ended up at this particular no-kill shelter, but he was definitely a cherished pet at some point in his past too because he craved human affection.

The nature of his behavior problem was very odd. He didn’t get along very well with other animals, but since he was going to be our only pet that was not a very big deal for us. He seemed to love people and he was deeply affectionate when he was close to someone, but then he could turn vicious in an instant, giving wicked bites and slashes without warning.

The danger of Rumson attacking one of the other animals, one of his care givers or a prospective visitor meant that the opportunities for him to get out of his cage for exercise were extremely limited, which accounted a great deal for his size. Without the chance to exercise he also had tons of pent up energy which did not have a good avenue for release. All of that was working against him, but the bright yellow warning sign on his cage made it even less likely that he would get the opportunity to wind up in a loving home.

It really seemed like this poor cat was likely to while away the rest of his life in a box.

My husband and I always cheer for the underdog (or undercat, in this case!) and so we decided to see if Rumson would settle down in more relaxed surroundings: our home.

Now, just three months later, our little “wild cat” he is a calm, loving and purring member of our family.

So what exactly helped Rumson settle down?

First, we had to figure out the true source of his problems.

For example, Roslyn discovered (the hard way) that Rumson had an issue with feet. He went absolutely ballistic on Roslyn when she attempted to scoot him away from a door with a foot, which leads me to speculate that he was kicked before we got him.

Knowing this, we were very careful to always know where he was. We would always step slowly and deliberately around him so that he always felt safe around us.

Adam affectionately refers to our next breakthrough on our kitty’s behavior problems as “Roslyn Bryan’s theory on pet communication.” It probably applies equally well in both humans and animals alike, but it certainly seemed to work in the case of our new kitty!

I’m pretty sure that another problem that Rumson was fighting with is that he didn’t feel “heard”. In order for any relationship to flourish, there has to be good communication and a genuine understanding between the participants.

When Rumson had enough contact with us, there was none of the usual body language of cats.. There was no hissing, growling, flattened ears or twitching tail. When he had enough, Rumson would just strike out and Adam or I were usually caught completely by surprise. This led me to suspect that Rumson might have been in a home with a child or someone completely unaware of cat behavior who “wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

If you ignore a cat’s “request” to be left alone too frequently, he will eventually stop asking politely and start taking a swat or a bite to ensure you get the idea. When too much time passes and the human side of the “conversation” never responds to the polite requests, that teaches the cat that this form of communication simply doesn’t work so he’ll stop using it and just go straight to the scratching and biting.

Roslyn and I thought we understood cat body language pretty well, but Rumson taught us a new trick. We learned that we could watch his whiskers. He would pull them back near his cheeks when he had enough attention. Once that happened we knew it was time to instantly stop what we were doing and leave him to him own devices.

Our attentiveness eventually retrained him to realize that we wanted to be sensitive to his needs, and that he could “use his words” and other means to convey his wishes instead of getting all physical and violent whenever something displeased him.

The final lesson that we had to learn in order to help Rumson evolve into a contented cat was to find a safe outlet for all of that excess feline energy that had been unexpressed for so long. We bought a toy that he loves and Roslyn and I run him around the house until he is completely exhausted a couple times a day.

He’s lost most of the extra weight that he had, and this is great quality bonding time for all of us. Now he asks nicely by bring the toy over to us and looking at us expectantly. THAT’s a big step up in constructive communication!

To wrap it up, a cat with “behavior problems” can be a loving addition to your family. You just need to be sure you know what exactly those needs really are and respond appropriately. Our beautiful Rumson needed to understand that his new home had people that loved him, were not going to hurt him, and listened to his needs so that he could revert back to more appropriate forms of communication.

Little Low-Light Monsters (D800 @ ISO 25,600)
Sean Molin Photography / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Now that we are all on the same page and part of the same pride, everything is working out just fine.

I’m Roslyn Bryan, and Adam, Rumson and I would ask that you please think about adopting an older or special needs pet if you can. These harder to place pets may need a bit more attention, but they have a lot of love to give!

Roslyn Bryan had been helping animals find loving homes for more than 35 years. Please consider adopting a shelter animal. For more information please visit

For more train your cat information click here

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