What Are We Going to Do With These Cats?! Case Studies in Difficult-to-home Shelter Cats: Murray

Written by Cheryl Kolus, DVM

Murray was probably the scariest cat I had met in my five years of working one-on-one with shelter cats. The handsome 5-year-old neutered male Nebelung (a breed I’d never heard of before!) was surrendered by a married couple who was going to have a baby. Although they loved Murray very much (they drove an hour to our limited-admissions, adoption-guarantee shelter even though there were several open-admission shelters in their area, and they called several times over the next few weeks to see how he was doing), the couple knew Murray was aggressive toward strangers, and they were afraid of how he’d do with a new baby.

Murray spent the first couple weeks in the shelter intake area where staff hoped he would calm enough so they could perform an initial exam. He was very stressed and aggressively lunged at the cage door when someone came near. (If we could rewind, I would have suggested twice daily gabapentin, a prescription medication with anti-anxiety effects that some shelters are starting to routinely give cats during their first few days to help them adjust to the new environment.) At that time, he had a Kuranda bed in the cage with a towel draped over it, so he could choose to hide, and then staff added a cage curtain on his door to shield him from all the stimuli in that rather busy room. Eventually they sedated him to perform the exam and give him a lion cut to remove his matted fur.

After about three weeks, Murray began to soften up and would occasionally rub his head against the door and allow petting from some staff. I saw him briefly once during his time in intake, but I really didn’t know too much about him other than he was soon to be transferred to the Behavior Center that I managed. The Behavior Center is a separate unit of the shelter where we could house up to 12 cats in need of extra behavioral help, although typically we had six to nine cats at any one time so that all or most could have double cages. Here, I and a small group of volunteers worked with each cat individually on a behavior modification plan. In addition, the space was quiet, with fewer people and more out-of-cage time than the main shelter, all of which seemed to help most cats adjust better to the shelter environment.

Murray was not a happy camper when he entered his new cage from the carrier, growling and hissing quite loudly. Figuring he must be going stir crazy having been caged for so long, I let him be the single cat out overnight that night. I didn’t really consider how I was going to get him back in the next morning!

When I arrived the next day, I found Murray looking fairly content lounging on the window ledge with his rear end hidden behind the bunched-up curtains. I said a quiet hello to him but just ignored him while doing the morning cleaning. Then my volunteer and I decided it was time for him to go back in his double cage so we could mop the floor and give other cats a chance to explore.

His cage was on the bottom row, so he could easily enter again on his own. And although that was our plan, it certainly wasn’t his. With almost every other cat we’d had in the Behavior Center, whether they were fearful and shy or aggressive, we could usually get them back in their cages with either food, toys, or by walking toward them. Occasionally, I’d have to towel a cat as gently as possible to return them. Murray was not interested in food or play, and when I walked toward him, arcing behind him to try to drive him toward the open cage, he stood his ground on the windowsill, becoming increasingly agitated and growling and hissing up a storm.

Okay, I thought, I guess we’ll have to go for the towel. Again, Murray was going to have none of that. As I came slowly closer with a towel at the ready, he lunged at me and jumped on the floor. My volunteer and I decided to try herding him with our bodies and by dangling the large towels. That just made Murray more aggressive. At this point, however, he appeared to be looking for an escape from us, and he made a slow but steady beeline to the open bathroom door. The bathroom here is not a bad place for a cat, with a shelf by the window they can hang out on. So Murray chose the bathroom as his new home, like a couple of his predecessors had done.

Stressed out and hissing on the window ledge

Stressed out and hissing on the window ledge

During this time, Murray mostly stayed perched on the high shelf, and we tried negative reinforcement with him by moving out of his sight if he showed any signs of relaxation. This may have helped a bit; at least it let him know we weren’t going to try to touch him. He still hissed when he first saw us though, and in the bathroom there wasn’t room to move farther away to start the process where he was more comfortable, which would have been ideal. Murray did like to eat, but hissed at me if I tried to offer him canned food or baby food on a tongue depressor, which was my next step in trying to help him be more comfortable in his new situation.

Although the bathroom door was usually kept closed since other cats were often out, Murray was still on the rotation to be let out over lunch or overnight, and even sometimes when I was there just working on the computer. Occasionally he did come out into the main room, but other times he remained in his spot on the shelf even with the door open. During the couple weeks he lived in the bathroom, he was getting more used to me, and he finally showed some affiliative behaviors when I approached him; I eventually was able to pet him sometimes, and he was more willing to take food from me.

Still, I remained wary of him. One day, he was out in the main room lounging on the Kuranda tower by the front window when I needed to get him back into the bathroom. He looked pretty comfortable on the tower and was not interested in the treats or toys I was trying to lure him with. So, in a lesson in extreme patience (plus a lot of luck), I very gradually slid the tower side to side a few inches at a time, trying to avoid causing him to jump off, until we had moved about 15 feet across the room to the bathroom entrance. Murray seemed curious but remained still, with his front feet dangling off the edge. I stood there for a moment, thinking, “Am I going to have to slide the whole tower through the doorway and into this narrow space?” But instead, I decided to chance it—I quickly but gently picked up Murray and with a simple turn of my body placed him on the bathroom floor. It was done! I had not only been able to pet him the last few days, but now I had even picked him up! And he didn’t seem to mind; he just calmly sauntered back toward his shelf. Whew! We were making progress!

Affiliative behavior on the bathroom shelf

Affiliative behavior on the bathroom shelf

A few days later, Murray came into the main room while I was working, and I noticed he was limping significantly on his right front limb. I was about to go get the shelter veterinarian (although I’m a vet, I stick to the behavior side of things!) when he seemed to work out of it, and I was much less worried. However, it was difficult to monitor him the next few days, because once he went back on his shelf, he decided to stay there. And I do mean stay there—Murray would no longer come down to eat his food placed on the floor, and he even started peeing on the shelf! I suspected he injured himself jumping down from the shelf that day he started limping and was now scared to do it again. I knew something had to change when I was wiping up the pee on the shelf next to him and he proceeded to defecate right in front of me. Poor Murray! He was really not comfortable jumping down from there! I cleaned up the poop, then decided he needed to come live in the main room.

Instead of one of the regular cages, I set up an extra-large wire dog kennel, complete with his litterbox, food and water dishes, toys, and a carrier with bedding that he could either rest in or on. I also hung some towels and cage curtains to partially cover the sides of the kennel to give him privacy if he wanted it. (We had an even bigger, multi-level cage we dubbed the Pink Palace—because it was pink, of course—but with his potential sore limb, I didn’t want him jumping that much, if he even would.) I thought this would also be good for him because now he could be involved in our day-to-day activities; most cats at the Behavior Center, once they get used to the environment, seem to be interested in watching what’s going on around them.

So back I went into the bathroom. After some petting from me and friendly behavior from Murray, I was easily able to pick him up and place him into his new cage. Such a different boy he had become! Although he was still aggressive to everyone else, he was starting to be very loving toward me. He seemed to really enjoy his new home in the main room, too, and it was pretty easy for me to get him back in that cage. It was still a problem for others, however, and the weekends when I wasn’t around were a bit tough. He had to be out of the kennel for the staff to be able to scoop his litterbox and spot clean, but luckily one of the weekend employees wasn’t afraid of him (many of the other staff members still were, and understandably so!), and if she ignored him while he was out, he seemed to leave her alone and go back in willingly for his breakfast.

Murray lounging in his kennel

Murray lounging in his kennel

Now that Murray had been at the shelter for about eight weeks, including the last five with me at the Behavior Center, he had started living up to his breed behavioral profile. I learned that the Nebelung is a rare breed that began in the 1980s with two similar-looking and related cats that had long, silky gray fur. By adding Russian Blue genes, the breed was further developed and became recognized in 1997 by The International Cat Association (TICA). The TICA website describes Nebelungs as “Devoted to their owners and family members…[but] can be shy with strangers and young children.” The website also states that “they are active, affectionate, good-natured cats that prefer the company of their own family to that of visiting strangers.”

The World Heritage Encyclopedia concurs: “Nebelung cats are lively, playful, affectionate, good-natured, and intelligent,” the website states. And, “Nebelungs prefer their own families and often keep a distance from strangers. They tend to bond with a select few humans and stay loving and devoted throughout their lives…It enjoys sitting in a lap and being petted, and will follow its favorite person devotedly from room to room. This is a cat that likes routine, and may require a little time to adjust to changes in the household. Early socialization can help it become more adaptable.” (Well, yes, we could argue those last two lines apply to many cats!)

While every cat is an individual, I felt that I was seeing a lot of these breed characteristics in Murray. He had become very affectionate with me, but nobody else. (Of course, I was the one he interacted with most since I was there at least 40 hours a week.) I could pick him up, carry him around, pet him, and even vaccinate him by myself while he was eating. So the challenge was now: How do we get this guy adopted?

Murray being friendly and relaxed with me

Murray being friendly and relaxed with me

Like others of his breed, Murray was a very good-looking cat, despite his shaved fur and the fact that he was overweight. And some people are drawn to rare breeds. But we had to be careful—potential adopters had to understand his personality and needs, and not just be enamored by his breed and looks. We decided to make Murray available as a foster-to-adopt cat, whereby an interested person could “try him out” as a foster cat and see how he fit in their household before making an adoption commitment. I also made a video to showcase the affectionate side of Murray, which might not be obvious during a visit with new people! As a testament to his continued behavior challenges, I needed to record the video when he and I were alone.

As we had done previously with some special-needs cats, staff agreed that potential adopters must chat with me first by phone and then set up an appointment to visit him. This way, I could tell them all I knew about Murray and weed out those who weren’t up for such a challenging cat.

Well, that was the plan, anyway. Apparently before this was communicated to the adoption staff, a woman saw him on the website and came to visit, and they sent her down to the Behavior Center. I was alone and Murray happened to be out and about when there was a knock on the door, and she entered. I admit, I was a bit worried and immediately told her it would be best to ignore the cat who was out. She then told me she was here to visit Murray, and I pointed to the big, gray cat sizing her up. Murray kept his distance, with an occasional hiss at the intruder. Despite the lack of feline friendliness, she remained interested in him, and I told her all about him. I offered her a feather toy to play with him, but he just hissed at her. Still, she was intrigued! She lived an hour away with her fiancé. She said they had no plans to have children, and they had a quiet household with few visitors. Of course, any of this could change, but it was starting to sound like the perfect home, and the woman was going to tell her fiancé about Murray. I heard from her the next day, and they wanted to visit Murray together on Saturday. I agreed to come in on my day off and meet them (anything to facilitate Murray getting adopted!).

Showing up early Saturday, I let Murray out and played with him a bit before they arrived. Before the couple came, I returned him to his cage so he would be in his safe space and hopefully less overwhelmed by visitors. Also, I assumed this would encourage less initial interaction by the potential adopters and allow Murray at least a few minutes to get used to them being there.

This strategy seemed to work. We talked for awhile, and I again shared Murray’s history and behavior to make sure the fiancé had all the information. I also discussed body language with them—both feline and human—so they could have a better idea of how best to interact with him. Finally, I told them that our foster-to-adopt protocol required a home visit first; they couldn’t take him home today. Since they lived an hour away, I knew this would be difficult for our busy foster coordinator to manage, so I had offered to do the home visit if needed.

After this discussion, I let Murray out. He approached them, sniffed and hissed, and then lounged on the cat tower. But this time, when I offered the man the feather toy, Murray engaged in play with him. After several minutes had passed, the two stepped outside to talk it over. Would Murray have a new home, or at least a possibility for one? Or would he remain at the shelter for who knows how long? All my fingers and toes were crossed in hopes the former would happen!

It was even better than I expected; the couple wanted to adopt him outright. They realized he would take some time to settle in but felt confident he would come around. They were ready for a “project cat” and wanted to give Murray a chance. My heart leapt, while at the same time I had to wonder how this was really going to turn out.

To help Murray succeed, we agreed to send them home with Murray’s wire kennel, cat carrier and bedding that was already familiar to him. It was easy to get Murray into the carrier, since he remained food motivated and was already used to sleeping in it. For me, it’s always bittersweet to see a cat that I’ve bonded with leave, and I was going to miss him for sure, but this was such a happy turn of events (and in a relatively short time for a cat with his behavioral issues) that I couldn’t help but feel elated!

So off Murray went with his new family. I checked in with them via email the next week and they said he was settling in rather well, exploring their apartment but somewhat hissy. They gave him his space as we discussed, and sometimes they confined him in his familiar kennel so they didn’t have to constantly be on guard. But later that same week, they emailed saying that Murray had “decided to give up being grumpy” and was now sitting on their laps and enjoying petting! Over the next couple weeks, they had trained Murray to accept a harness and leash, and he was happily walking down the hallways of their apartment building.

A few months later, I left my job at the shelter to pursue another adventure. I miss the cats with all my heart, but I took away some amazing memories and the realization that there truly is a home for every cat. Sure, occasionally this is a working home, but for the majority of socialized cats—even those who have behavioral challenges—this can still be an indoor home, because people are just as amazing as the cats they adopt.

A relaxed and handsome Murray

A relaxed and handsome Murray

Cheryl Kolus, DVM, KPA-CTP, is a veterinarian with a special interest in behavior. She worked as the Behavior Center Manager for the Fort Collins Cat Rescue and Spay/Neuter Clinic in Colorado, where she not only directly helped shelter cats with behavioral challenges, but also pet owners in the community by providing in-home consultations and monthly pet behavior seminars. From 2012-2014, Dr. Kolus was on the Executive Board of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, and she remains an active member.