What are we going to do with these cats?! Case studies in difficult-to-home shelter cats.
Case 1: Oomie
I finally had a moment to get some work done on my laptop, so I pulled a chair up to the desk and started typing away. Oomie joined me. The sleek black cat jumped on my lap and settled in comfortably, purring. After a minute or two, Oomie stretched his forepaws up on my chest, looked at me contentedly—and bit me in the face. “Oh, Oomie. What are we going to do with you?” I said to my worried reflection in the mirror as I wiped the blood from my cheek.
At the time, I was managing a non-profit called the Clicker Learning Institute for Cats and Kittens, or CLICK. Funded by a wealthy retired businessman who wanted to help shelter cats in a very specific way—by clicker training them with the goal of making them more adoptable—CLICK worked exclusively with a local cat rescue and was even located in the same building. We took in a random selection of the shelter’s adoptable cats and housed them in our unit for two weeks while clicker training them and gathering data on the process. But we reserved two cages for cats that presented with special behavioral needs—cats like Oomie. These cats typically stayed with us about a month before they were either adopted directly from our unit or moved back to the shelter’s adoption room. Depending on their needs, however, they could stay with CLICK longer.
Oomie was a transfer from another northern Colorado animal shelter. The 4-year-old neutered male had been surrendered by his owners for playing too roughly with the other household cat and biting the owners. Reading through the behavior notes from the transfer shelter, I found that Oomie had narrowly missed being euthanized for seemingly random biting behavior. Yet the notes indicated he was also quite friendly and affectionate, so staff there had decided to keep working with him. Oomie had feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), however, and had been at that shelter for months with no interested adopters. Would our shelter take him?
Oomie’s life at CLICK
A limited-admissions, adoption-guarantee cat shelter, staff here will euthanize for medical reasons but in 10 years never had to consider euthanizing for behavioral reasons. Until Oomie.
Oomie came to CLICK as a behavior case due to his “over-stim” behaviors. The shelter uses the term “over-stimulated” to describe those cats that sometimes get too aroused during interactions with people and move quickly from a state of enjoying the interaction to displaying aggressive behaviors (hissing, swatting and/or biting) toward the person. What we saw at CLICK the first two weeks we had Oomie was a cat who some might label “play aggressive”: He would occasionally grab onto or nip at your hand or leg while playing with a feather toy, for instance. But the behavior seemed rather mild, and he did quite well otherwise. So back to the adoption room Oomie went, where he was soon taken home by a wonderful couple who described him as the most friendly and confident cat they had ever met. But these were only some of the words they used in their long, detailed email to shelter staff after returning him a week later because he was biting them.
Oomie’s first adoption
The adopters described how Oomie was affectionate and had happily explored their house when they brought him home. They thought he might enjoy some outdoor time in their fenced back yard, so they eventually allowed him supervised access to it a few times. The day came, however, when he jumped the fence into the neighbor’s yard, where he was enamored by their chickens. The wife grabbed a cat carrier and proceeded to collect him from the other yard; unfortunately Oomie was likely already highly aroused by his outdoor experience and scratched her significantly as she wrestled him into the carrier.
The couple took him to a veterinarian for a checkup, as recommended at the time of adoption. They described in their email how Oomie became quite aggressive during the vet visit, lunging at the technician and trying to bite her. However, veterinary staff still managed to complete a nail trim, somehow restraining him as he growled and presumably became even more aroused and upset. The veterinarian told the owners that she owned a feral cat and still had never seen such overt aggression.
During the week they had Oomie, the adopters noticed he would get over-aroused during play and try to bite them. But the humdinger of their short-lived but memorable experience with their new cat was when Oomie bit the husband on the head, drawing blood, at night while the couple was sleeping. The husband woke up and yelled at Oomie; the cat’s response was to bite him again. The man scruffed Oomie and put him on the floor. The scene was repeated as Oomie came back at him aggressively, and the man again scruffed him but this time put Oomie outside of the bedroom and shut the door. Oomie scratched at the bedroom door for awhile and then went away. The next morning, Oomie was back to being a “normal” cat, but the adopters understandably decided they couldn’t live like that.
Upon Oomie’s return to the cat rescue, shelter administrators discussed what to do with him and considered euthanasia. This upset some of the shelter staff because they all loved Oomie, whose behaviors at the shelter had not been that extreme. I offered to take Oomie back to CLICK, and they agreed. While at CLICK, Oomie learned lots of clicker-trained behaviors, and I was able to trim his nails easily while he ate baby food.
Back at the shelter
Although I was not a shelter employee, my input about Oomie was invited, and I sought advice from another cat behaviorist I knew. We all agreed that we should do a thorough medical workup to rule out any underlying conditions contributing to his behavior. The shelter veterinarian performed a sedated physical exam, bloodwork and urinalysis, all of which were normal. I suggested trying fluoxetine (generic Prozac) and staff agreed. A selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI, this medication is sometimes used to help decrease arousal and aggression in cats (AAFP, 2004; Kaur et al., 2016). This is considered off-label use, meaning the drug is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in cats, and side effects and efficacy have not been comprehensively studied. This is true for many medications used in veterinary medicine.
Unfortunately, Oomie developed urinary retention, a possible side effect of fluoxetine, and we discontinued the medication. Shelter staff and I talked about the possibility of finding Oomie a working home. We all believed he was a high-energy cat that displayed predatory behaviors in play, and perhaps giving him the chance to actually be a predator was just what he needed. As far as we knew, though, Oomie had never lived outdoors. Perhaps he had been outdoors as a kitten, since he was FIV+ (a disease seen most commonly in outdoor male cats), but even so, that would have been four years ago. His only other outdoor experience was in the back yard (and neighbor’s yard) during his brief stay at the recent adopters’ home. Since he did have FIV, an outdoor life was not ideal, both because he would be more susceptible to infections (due to a suppressed immune system) and because he could spread it to other cats he might come across if he fought with them.
After much deliberation, the cat rescue stuck to its “adoption guarantee” mission and decided to market Oomie as a working cat, with full disclosure to potential adopters about his past and perceived behavioral needs. Meanwhile, Oomie enjoyed his time at CLICK….
Oomie learning to weave
Oomie was a very smart boy; I was in the process of shaping him to weave through poles when, lo and behold, he got adopted!
Oomie finds the right fit
A family who lived two hours away in a rural area was looking for a cat to live and hunt mice in a large workshop they had on their property where the husband spent a lot of time. Their previous mouser had recently passed away. They also had a couple of dogs, chickens, and indoor cats. Shelter staff talked at length with the wife about Oomie, and I did as well. They were willing to take a chance on him.
I will forever remember the day they came to get Oomie. The mother and tween-aged daughter arrived in an SUV with a fairly large plastic dog crate for Oomie to ride home in. Oomie greeted them both, friendly and curious. They loved him. Oomie willingly went into the carrier, and I helped load it into the back seat. The last memory I have of Oomie is seeing him sitting at the front of the carrier, looking around as if to say, “Oh, boy, a new adventure! Let’s do this!”
The rest, as they say, is history. The new owners were great at keeping us updated as to how Oomie was doing. They set him up in an ex-pen in the workshop, which he willingly went in to sleep and eat but easily got out of right away. He quickly learned how fun it was to scale the high shelves. After only one night there, the family saw evidence of a mouse kill, and it seemed Oomie finally found his true home. Soon, Oomie was riding around on the husband’s shoulders and going with him in the truck to check fence lines on the property.
Later that summer, Oomie even enjoyed going camping with all of them, something he has done many times since. Oomie’s family found a veterinarian who was willing to work compassionately with Oomie, and they keep up with his medical care.
Oomie originally came to the cat rescue in February 2016, was adopted three weeks later but returned in seven days, then adopted into his working home two-and-a-half months later. His owners send email updates every winter, complete with pictures. Seeing photos of Oomie perching happily on someone’s shoulder or surveying his kingdom from a high tree branch just makes my day.
In his new forever home, Oomie has the freedom to be active, climb high, engage in social interaction (or not), sleep 20 feet up, act as a predator, and simply observe the natural world around him. He has many natural outlets for his energy and a great deal of mental stimulation. Because of this, and because he has a family willing and able to learn his signals indicating over-arousal, his aggressive behaviors are greatly decreased. He has learned that running up a tree or stalking a mouse is a much more reinforcing experience for him than biting people. Having more options for Oomie to choose from to satisfy his behavioral needs has encouraged more desirable social interactions with his family.
Certainly not every shelter has the means to give cats like this the time and effort needed to find just the right home. Perhaps knowledgeable foster homes can help. But sometimes being willing to take a chance and try something new can result in a happy outcome for all involved. I think Oomie would agree, don’t you?
Stay tuned for the next article showcasing another challenging case.
Owner email excerpts (reprinted with permission):
“The most noteworthy thing is that he has become a “shoulder cat.” Yep, he likes to ride around on our shoulders. This time of year is perfect, because we tend to wear hoodies and he literally uses the hood like a hammock for his butt and rides around. This would be mostly with Jason, since he is the one working out in the shop all the time…one night Oomie rode around on him for about 30 minutes while he worked…So everything is going great, we just absolutely adore Oomie and he seems to be happy as a clam.” – Dec. 11, 2016
“Oomie is doing great and continues to be an absolute delight. In 2017 he settled even more into his routine of being our outdoor patrol and resident rodent hunter…He is doing really well with his social skills and I can’t even remember the last time he bit unappropriately [sic] or without warning. He does still bite, but it’s always predictable and mostly avoidable, as it’s definitely play to him. He’s pretty easy to read, and typically corrects well before teeth or claws come into play. Sometimes not, but that’s just Oomie and probably always will be…The really big step for him is that he is able to come into the house for visits and is learning to share time and space with our four house cats!…In addition to becoming a social butterfly, he’s enjoyed more camping…climbing trees and hanging out with his best buddy, Jason. He still loves riding in the car and sometimes jumps in just to ride along for quick trips around town…We just love Oomie and we don’t know what we’d do without him. Some days it makes me nervous that he’s an outdoor cat, but I know he wouldn’t be happy any other way.” – Jan. 1, 2018
Oomie is not a huge fan of the wind and has realized that being inside is really OK when the weather is crummy. So, when we are home and the weather is windy or bitter cold, he frequently comes in the house for the entire day on the weekend, or evening during the week. The other cats treat him like a celebrity, immediately converging on him and following him around for the first minute or two he comes in—we call them his paparazzi…Oomie is, very honestly, the smartest, most athletic cat I’ve ever had, and he does a great job controlling our rodent population too. He is an amazing creature and we are so thankful every day that he came to [your shelter] and got into your program…People seem to understand that dogs can be rehabbed, but for some reason they don’t see that the same holds true for cats. I tell people all the time that I have a “rehab cat” as well, and he’s been a remarkable success story…Oh, and his FIV+ status has not (knock on wood) been ANY issue at all…Frankly, he is one of my healthiest cats. – January 2, 2019
Cheryl Kolus, DVM, KPA-CTP, is a veterinarian with a special interest in behavior. In her current position as Behavior Center Manager for the Fort Collins Cat Rescue and Spay/Neuter Clinic in Colorado, she not only directly helps 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.