Case Study: Jumbo — Extreme Fearfulness in a Cat

Written by Hongfei Li CCBC

reviewed
Summary: What do you do when your newly-adopted cat refuses to stop hiding under the bed? 4-year-old Jumbo had a rough start in life, and now he was in danger of losing another home. When Certified Cat Behavior Consultant Hongfei Li was called, his caregiver was at her wit’s end because the noise, inappropriate elimination, and disruption were upsetting her and her neighbors, even forcing her to sleep on the couch every night. Over the ensuing weeks, through a few simple games, patience, and attention to the environment, Jumbo and his caregiver Poppy were able to connect and finally develop a relationship of trust. 

Subject: Jumbo

Age: 4 years old

Species: Feline

Breed: Domestic shorthair

Sex: Neutered male

History

Presenting complaint: Aggression toward the owner; hiding when people present; night howling; inappropriate elimination on the bed.

Acquired from, and age at time: Adopted from the foster family at age 4, one month before the consultation.

Medical History: Jumbo had a veterinary exam before the adoption. No previous history known.

Persons involved in care: Poppy – Owner (adult)

Housing: Jumbo was an indoor cat and the only cat in the household — a one-bedroom apartment in an apartment complex.

Diet: Commercial dry food provided all day

Behavioral history

Poppy said that she adopted Jumbo from a foster family one month ago. Upon arrival at her home, Jumbo escaped into the bedroom and sneaked under the bed, where he remained in hiding for almost two days and only came out when Poppy left home. When Poppy tried to remove him from under the bed, Jumbo would immediately hiss and growl once her hands approached. When Poppy reached toward Jumbo to pull him out, Jumbo would scratch and attack her hands. Poppy was injured because of this aggressive behavior.

Jumbo never used the litterbox in the bedroom. He came out from under the bed when Poppy was out for work and eliminated on her bed. Poppy had to move out of her bedroom and slept on the sofa. She reported that she heard Jumbo meowing and howling loudly at night, and her neighbor complained that the meowing was so disturbing they could hardly sleep. Poppy said that she was very embarrassed when her neighbor knocked on the door and asked what was wrong with Jumbo. She felt tired and upset cleaning up her bed and being attacked by Jumbo every day, so she contacted me to see if I could help her with Jumbo’s issues.

I asked how Jumbo got along with his foster family, and Poppy replied that Jumbo was rescued from a feral colony by his foster parent when he was a kitten, and remained living indoors. He spent three years living with his foster family and they reported that he really enjoyed living with people. He was sociable to every family member in the home, including other cats and dogs rescued from local streets. Later he was sent to a new family, where his behavioral issues began to show up.

At this next home, Jumbo began hiding under the sofa, eliminating on the floor, and meowing loudly at night. After about six months, the adoptive family had to send Jumbo back to the foster family. These problems disappeared once Jumbo came back to the foster family. However, his original foster parents were now too busy to take care of Jumbo, so they decided to find a new home for Jumbo again. That is when Poppy adopted Jumbo.

Observations

Poppy lived near my home, so I asked whether it was possible to visit her and Jumbo on the weekend. Poppy agreed, and we met at her apartment on that Saturday. Poppy lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and now she mainly inhabited the living room, leaving Jumbo alone in her bedroom. I asked if I could enter the bedroom to see if Jumbo was out, and she said that Jumbo hardly came out until she was out of the apartment. She explained that I would need to be careful when near Jumbo since he had previously hurt her badly when she approached him.

The curtains and the windows in the bedroom were both closed because Poppy worried that light and sound from outside might scare Jumbo. I noticed that there was a large cage next to one of the windows, and the litterbox was in the first floor of the cage. Poppy explained that she just found a job after graduation, and she couldn’t afford a cat tree. So she bought a cage as a cheaper substitute. The litterbox was a simple plastic tray with clumping litter in it. Poppy said she talked with the foster parents when Jumbo eliminated on her bed for the first time, and they suggested she try clumping litter, but this didn’t seem to have changed Jumbo’s elimination habits.

The bed was covered with pet diapers, new ones and used ones putting together, giving out an unpleasant smell of urine. Poppy said that she was tired, and she was already fed up with washing her bedding every day, so she decided to throw all dirty bedding away and cover the bare bed with pet diapers so she didn’t need to clean up her bed day after day. I walked to her bed, trying to look at Jumbo, and found that the hiding issue was far more complicated than I previously thought. The bed was designed with a solid-looking base, but it had broken during Poppy’s move to the apartment, so it now had a hole in one of the corners. Jumbo had managed to get into the hollow space under the bed through this hole. Looking inside the hole, I noticed Jumbo was hiding in the opposite corner. I stood up and drew a few steps back to check other environmental elements around the house as well as give Jumbo some time to calm down.

Jumbo’s bowl was placed near the bed, filled with dry food. I asked Poppy if she had noticed Jumbo coming out for food, and she replied that she had not. Jumbo only came out when she was not present, and she would check the bowl to see if Jumbo had any food today when she came back. Poppy stated that one day she put some catnip toys around the bed and the cage in the morning, hoping this would encourage Jumbo to come out. Unexpectedly, she found all of the toys were in the bed frame with Jumbo when she arrived home in the evening. The same things happened to feather toys fastened on the cage and food bags left on the floor. She joked that Jumbo was almost an “invisible” ghost cat who never appeared in front of her, but enjoyed “swaggering” very much when she was out. She said it was okay for her to take care of a cat who frequently hid as long as the cat lived happily.

I opened my backpack, took out some tuna snacks and toys, and crouched down near the bed again. Jumbo looked nervous, with his pupils dilated and ears flattened. His eyes were focused on my body. I extended my right arm to him, and Jumbo began hissing at me. The hissing stopped when I stopped approaching him. I threw a piece of tuna on the floor near him. Then Jumbo showed some interests in the food by sniffing the air with his head lowered, but still looked hesitant. I drew my hand back, and Jumbo quickly stepped forward to take the food, then retreated back to his tiny corner. He showed similar hesitating response when I presented the cat wand, but he eagerly tried to catch and bite the feather toy when it was close to him.

When I walked out of the bedroom, Poppy breathed a sigh of relief, saying that she was extremely nervous when I stretched my arms out. She said she’d tried all she could think of to pick Jumbo out of bed, including directly pulling him out, using thick gloves, and even putting ropes used for TNR trapping on Jumbo’s head and pulling him out (on the advice of Jumbo’s previous foster parent). These methods all failed since Jumbo resisted so violently that he not only hurt Poppy but also broke one of his nails when struggling. It was almost 6 p.m. when I finished checking the environment around the bedroom and interacting with Jumbo. I said goodbye to Poppy and promised her I would give her a phone call in advance and visit them again to explain these issues and their solutions around Jumbo.

Assessment

From the behavioral history gleaned mainly from the foster family, Jumbo got along with other cats and dogs. In the previous adoptive family, Jumbo also got along well with their older American shorthair but exhibited hiding and night howling consistently. These problems disappeared when he was back to the first foster home and recurred and worsened after Poppy adopted him. Jumbo’s body language, including curled body, flattened ears, and dilated pupils, all suggested that he was in extreme fear when people approached him. I contacted Jumbo’s first foster parent and she told me that she hardly invited friends to their home, meaning that Jumbo actually had no experience of how to get along with an unfamiliar person before adoption. Because of this, all signs indicated that Jumbo’s issues were caused by his fear and anxiety toward people, which has now led to fear-related aggression. The chronic stress caused by fear toward people and the lack of security are the probable causes of Jumbo’s anxiety-related problems, including inappropriate toileting and night howling.

Meanwhile, the environment around Jumbo was far from satisfying. To begin with, the bed’s bottom was definitely not a good place for Jumbo to rest in. The owner couldn’t monitor him if he insisted on hiding under the bed, and it would be too difficult to take him to the vet if he was ill or injured. The pet diapers freed Poppy from washing her bedding every day; however, to some degree this setup encouraged Jumbo to eliminate on the bed, since he could have a good view of the bedroom without the risk of being caged, and the soft, clean surface was indeed an appealing place to eliminate for cats with house soiling experience.

In addition, a lot of cats are afraid of metal cages and would be extremely anxious when trapped in one, especially cats like Jumbo who never experienced desensitization toward cages. A litterbox in a cage would not be likely to be preferred by a rescue cat with a possible history of trauma around cages. Last but not least, free-feeding from a food bowl also probably contributed to Jumbo’s consistent hiding, since feeding is often the first positive experience a new adopter can use to build a bond with a cat that fears people.

Poppy’s inappropriate response to the fear-related aggression also contributed to the negative and untrustworthy relationship between her and Jumbo. She attempted to induce Jumbo out of the bed by placing food and toys near the cage, but this strategy failed. Then she tried to directly pull Jumbo out and was badly injured. Being forced to leave his shelter caused acute fear in Jumbo, and he struggled to defend himself and escape from Poppy’s hands. This negative and painful experience associated with people was repeatedly reinforced when Poppy tried different forceful methods for getting Jumbo out.  Poppy admitted that she regretted this and felt guilty when she saw Jumbo was so frightened and helpless because of her behavior, and now she simply felt desperate about their relationship. The neighbor complained about the meowing during the night to her landlord, and Poppy felt like she would have to move out and become homeless or give up Jumbo and return him to the foster home if the problem couldn’t be solved.

Negative indications

  • Poppy has a lot of stress and anxiety because of her neighbor’s complaints and her previous behavior towards Jumbo. She might have to move out or send Jumbo back if the complaints continued.
  • Poppy and the previous foster parents have not had experience of behavior modification for a frightened cat. Poppy’s pulling the cat out of her bed with bare hands and the foster parent’s advice on using the rope reflected this.
  • Jumbo was scared badly by what Poppy did, and now he had started hissing and growling no matter who tried to approach him. It could be very hard to rebuild a positive relationship between him and Poppy.

Positive indications

  • Jumbo showed signs of fear and aggression when I tried to approached him. However, he still showed interest in and accepted the snacks and toys I offered him, which suggested that his fear toward people could be reduced through food-reward training, systematic desensitization and other positive behavior modification techniques.
  • Poppy was motivated to give herself the last chance to repair the relationship between her and Jumbo. She was determined to learn more about feline behavior and training to make up for her mistakes and help Jumbo live happily in her home.

Intervention recommendations

Consult #1

Environmental modification

  • Schedule the feeding time for two or three times a day instead of free-feeding. Place the meal next to the bed, step out of the bedroom and close the door. I recommended that Poppy could consider adding a webcam to monitor Jumbo. Take out Jumbo’s bowl after he finished his meal.
  • Clean up the bed thoroughly. Don’t cover the bed with pet diapers again, instead, use a nylon oxford cloth to cover the bed. Most cats dislike the slippery and water-proof surface of nylon oxford cloth, which could be of help in modifying inappropriate toileting.
  • Remove the cage and relocate the litterbox to a wide and open space. Keep cleaning the litterbox and check the elimination every day to make sure Jumbo is in good health during the modification program.
  • Provide enough hiding areas for Jumbo outside the bed. Shopping bags and paper boxes are the cheapest and the most useful cat toys for this purpose.
  • Draw back the curtains to let some sunshine into the room. Also allow some fresh air in if possible. Sunlight and fresh air could help Jumbo establish his internal clock, decrease his anxiety, and make this environment more comfortable.

Skill building and behavior modification

Since Poppy had little experience or knowledge of animal training or behavior modification, and she has to work for almost 14 hours per day, leaving her with very limited time for training, I decided to start out training sessions with an easy interactive game using positive reinforcement.

  1. Gently call Jumbo by his name to get his attention
  2. Throw a piece of treat toward him
  3. Let him chase and eat it

In my experience, this is the easiest way for owners to start to build a positive relationship with anxious cats. I explained how positive reinforcement influences a cat’s behavior and his response toward the stimulus. I played this reward-when-called game with one of my cats and took a video of it as a demonstration for Poppy of the details of the game. I suggested Poppy record her training session with her webcam and hand in her video homework every three days. Poppy agreed and our first consultation ended with discussing the prognosis of Jumbo’s issues. Poppy was more determined to solve this problem than when we first met, which made me feel slightly relieved.

Consult #2

Two weeks after our first consultation, I gave Poppy a phone call to see how everything was going with her and Jumbo. She had handed in the homework as instructed and I checked all of her videos in advance of this session. Her homework was inspiring and careful, which was a bit astonishing since she had nearly no experience with training a cat. She called Jumbo’s name softly, gently threw out a piece of snack, waiting for him to sniff and eat the food patiently. I noticed that the environment Jumbo was in had changed to her bedroom’s floor starting with the third video, instead of the narrow and dark space under the bed. Jumbo didn’t look so timid as before; he could already sit on the floor with a confident and friendly body posture waiting for the reward. His whiskers slightly stretched out and his ears turned forward, which suggested he was engaged in the interesting game and no longer felt as fearful when he was near Poppy.

This was a great sign for pushing ahead Jumbo’s behavioral modification program. I congratulated Poppy on her progress in getting along with Jumbo and asked for more details on the changes in Jumbo during the past two weeks. Poppy said Jumbo seemed a little nervous on the first day when she offered him meals, and didn’t eat until the next breakfast. Now he could calmly finish his meals alone on the bedroom floor. Poppy played the reward-when-called game with Jumbo before his dinner. On the seventh day after we began the training sessions, Jumbo came out of the bed and waited patiently for his reward before Poppy was fully prepared for the game, which really surprised her and inspired her. This was what I saw in the third homework video.

Poppy also told me that Jumbo adjusted to the litterbox very well, and no urine or feces were eliminated on her bed anymore. She checked the webcam in her bedroom every day, and Jumbo looked more relaxed in the daytime compared to the past. Jumbo loved jumping on the desk and enjoyed the comfortable sunshine as well as the fresh air from the window. Sometimes he would even take a nap on the desk or wander around the apartment. Poppy also reported that the times she heard Jumbo yowling and meowing during the night were decreased. Although he still tried to run away if Poppy was too close to him, helping Jumbo feel secure around the environment and his caretaker successfully was the first step to building a positive relationship between Poppy and him.

Environmental modification

I made the following suggestions to Poppy:

  • Repair the broken bed frame to avoid Jumbo hiding or getting stuck under the bed. The easiest and the most economical method is to fill the broken hole with a shopping bag containing junk mail. I suggested repairing the bed as soon as possible, at a time when Jumbo was wandering around the apartment.
  • Continue adding environmental enrichment. Add some scratching posts around the bedroom and the living room to encourage Jumbo to mark his territory and stretch his body by scratching. Place some catnip or other toys around the apartment if possible.

Skill building and behavior modification

Jumbo still showed fear and anxiety when people approached him, drawing a few steps back to keep the distance. The reward-when-called game worked well, so I was considering adding more training exercises for Poppy and Jumbo to help them get along and build a positive relationship with each other. I contacted Jumbo’s foster parent to see whether he liked wet food such as tuna or chicken paste, and the answer was yes. So I decided to use wet food as the reward in our next training session.

I visited Poppy and Jumbo when she had a day off and showed her a new training technique. Jumbo was sitting under the desk when I arrived and showed interest in me, with focused eyes, licking his mouth and sitting pretty, once I took out the tuna paste.

I put one drop of tuna paste on a long and narrow spoon, then I called Jumbo’s name and talked to him with a soft, gentle voice as offered the spoon in front of Jumbo. I waited until he finished licking the paste off, then drew back the spoon. Then offered it again with more paste, gradually shortening the distance between the human and the cat so long as Jumbo was not showing any signs of stress. This training game took more time than the last one since it required Jumbo to stay for some seconds near a person while he ate. Jumbo did so well in the demonstration with me that our training ended up with him sitting calmly about half a meter away from me.

After our demonstration, I took a cat wand out of my backpack and showed Poppy how to attract her cat by hiding the wand in one of the boxes and then making it “escape” like real prey. Jumbo liked the cat wand so much that he used all his efforts trying to catch his prey, even exposing his belly during a relaxed moment! Poppy was surprised at this, saying that she had never seen him do this behavior before. In order to help Jumbo get more used to living with people, I asked Poppy to try her best to make time for playing with the cat wand with Jumbo. It only took 10 minutes a day, but would significantly improve Jumbo’s confidence and security in the apartment by offering more chances for high-quality hunting games, rather than playing with catnip toys alone.

I also suggested Poppy that when Jumbo was able to be next to her right at the beginning of their daily training, she could try to pet him softly. The method was similar: Call Jumbo’s name, offer him some snacks, and pet him softly while he was eating. The duration of petting didn’t need to be very long; I instructed her to just start with one or two seconds and gradually prolong the time by offering more snacks and keeping him focused on the reward as long as he didn’t show dislike or fear toward petting.

Consult #3

Poppy went back to her parents’ home for holiday for a week, so our third consultation was delayed for quite a long time. I asked Poppy to hand in her video homework every time she finished one and tried my best to give her more specific suggestions about their training sessions before the next appointment.

The training worked so well on Jumbo that he no longer attempted to escape or hide when Poppy approached him. Combined with the desensitization toward petting, Jumbo would now stay next to Poppy and meow softly, begging for more petting and food rewards. Poppy reported that she had one of her friends to take care of Jumbo when she was out for holidays, Jumbo was nervous and shy when her friend visited the apartment, choosing to stay about one meter away from the visitor, watching her adding foods and scooping the litterbox carefully. Jumbo became more friendly and relaxed when Poppy’s friend visited him the next day. They had a good play and this really astonished Poppy when her friend showed her the video. When Poppy was back, Jumbo warmly welcomed her by lifting up his tail for greeting, sniffing on her shoes, and then rubbing his head on Poppy’s hands. For the next few days, Poppy said she slept better at night and she hardly heard Jumbo meowing as he had before. I was really glad to see her getting along well with Jumbo, and I wanted to know exactly how things were going in the home, so I decided to have our final session be a home visit to evaluate Jumbo’s progress.

Poppy and Jumbo greeted me when I arrived at their home, and Jumbo was very interested in my backpack, which contained snacks and different toys; he kept sniffing and trying to open my bag while Poppy and I were talking. Poppy showed me that she cleaned up and repaired the broken bed so Jumbo wouldn’t get trapped under the bed again. She added a large litterbox in the living room and noted that both litterboxes were used normally. Poppy managed to get a second-hand cat tree from her friend and placed it near the window. Jumbo loved the cat tree so much that he spent almost all of his sleeping time on the top of the cat tree. Poppy also showed me that she did some research on the internet and bought some puzzle toys for Jumbo so he wouldn’t get bored when she was out at work. Then Poppy showed me how she got Jumbo’s nail trimmed following a similar method to the one I taught her to help Jumbo get used to being approached and petted. She picked up Jumbo gently and offered him some meat paste. While he was eating, Poppy could trim his nails. He kept purring when being held by Poppy and didn’t show any stress-related or anxious body language during the whole process. I was very satisfied and inspired by what Poppy had done. She couldn’t afford too much for environmental management and enrichment but was able to provide Jumbo with a comfortable home and a positive relationship with a human.

Conclusion

At the end of our last session, Poppy burst into tears when I was about to leave their apartment and say goodbye. She said that it was a really hard time when Jumbo arrived. She hadn’t wanted to give up Jumbo since he had already been rejected by one adoptive family and he had nowhere to go if Poppy decided to send him back. Poppy was grateful to have me helping her with these issues and she was determined to learn more about feline behavior and feline training in the future; she hoped that through her experience with Jumbo and further understanding of feline behavior, she could help more owners become aware of the importance of their cats’ mental health and help their cats live happily in a low-stress environment.

Although she had no former experience for taking care of a cat, Poppy exhibited an excellent ability to grasp the fundamental aspects of feline behavior such as the body language, vocalization, and environmental enrichment techniques. She also had a great insight for making use of positive training methods in different circumstances under my assistance. To help her achieving the goals for helping more owners and their cats to live a positive and stress-free life, I recommended several books about the behavior of the domestic cats, the modification of common behavioral problems in cats, and related topics. I also suggested she view more information on the internet about behavioral issues in cats including My Cat From Hell and other famous feline behavior consultants’ video channels, which could help her learn more about other problematic behaviors that she might not have encountered before.

We have kept in touch till now via the monthly check-ins I do with my clients. Fortunately, Jumbo has had no further behavioral issues, and Poppy’s neighbor stopped complaining about the noise to her landlord. Poppy found a new job recently and she has more time to care for Jumbo, as well as the new kitten she rescued  from her office building. Jumbo accepted his new buddy gladly. Poppy was doing great with the kitten’s socialization, and since Jumbo seemed to enjoy playing and cuddling with them, she decided to keep them together.

TO CITE: Li, H. (2022) Case study: Jumbo — extreme fearfulness in a cat. The IAABC Foundation Journal 24, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj24.10

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