Melissa Taylor and Alese Zeman

Peer reviewed

While shelters across the country continue to increase their live-release rates, it becomes even more necessary to find new, innovative ways to save the most vulnerable populations. One population commonly overlooked as a focus of a behavior and training program is cats who are non-social or very fearful towards humans. If those cats are not viable candidates for TNR programs to live as community cats, and cannot be safely handled by shelter personnel, it can take a long time to get them adopted. This creates issues that many shelters do not have the resources nor staff training to handle and, as we have seen in frequent calls for assistance from local municipal shelters, often leads to the cat being marked for euthanasia.

At Friends For Life Animal Shelter in Houston, we frequently transfer in cats in need of behavioral assistance, including non-social and under-socialized cats, from other humane organizations. Many of these cats come to us after weeks of being left to improve on their own or under threat of release into an area unfamiliar to them. After receiving so many calls for help in 2018, we conceived of a more humane option involving a standing behavior modification system, which has come to be called the Fraidy Cat program.

Extremely fearful, under-socialized cats in our area often end up with us when they have no other options. We enroll them in the Fraidy Cat program to prepare the cat for social interaction and cooperation with a human caregiver so they can ultimately become adopted. In short, it is a socialization program. This initiative does take a great deal in the way of shelter resources, including space and skilled staff hours, but it gives the cat a way to leave the shelter system alive.

In this article, we aim to outline which cats would benefit from a shelter’s Fraidy Cat program, how Friends For Life adapted a socialization protocol to a shelter setting, and the data demonstrating the success of the program.

Figure 1. Piper before entering the Fraidy Cat program (top) and during a crate training session after graduation (bottom).

Selecting candidates for a Fraidy Cat program

At Friends For Life, we have a structured process for moving cats into the appropriate program based on their individual needs. The Fraidy Cat program is meant for severely under-socialized cats who cannot live outside safely. It is where cats are placed when all other options have been exhausted. The intake flow chart in Figure 2 demonstrates our decision-making process.

Almost every cat placed in the Friends For Life Fraidy Cat program is a previously owned, “indoor” cat who, for one reason or another, demonstrates extreme fear of humans. A large portion of these cats have only known one caregiver their entire lives and do not readily accept contact with other humans; other program cats were picked up from feral colonies as a well-meaning, but failed, attempt at socialization, sometimes as adults. These cats enter the shelter so severely under-socialized to humans that they cannot be put “on the show floor” to comfortably meet with potential adopters. Without behavior modification, they would have slim chance at adoption and suffer an inordinate amount of stress as they waited for placement.  If they did get placed in such a fearful state, adopters do not typically have the skill or knowledge to make these cats truly comfortable in their presence.

This extremely fearful category of cats may engage in one or several of the following behaviors, over long periods of time, despite efforts at providing a comfortable living environment:

  • Hiding from caregivers for weeks, months, or years
  • Not eating, drinking, and/or performing other survival functions
  • Only eating, drinking, and/or performing other survival functions when all humans are gone
  • Inactivity and/or freezing behavior when humans are present
  • Defensive aggression (lunging, growling, hissing, swatting, etc.)

Cats exhibiting these fear-based behaviors need professional behavioral help. It is a false assumption that they will reliably overcome their fears with just time, space, and treats. Before our department had developed a focus on behavior modification in cats, we had some under- or unsocialized cats who were not comfortable with humans, sometimes for years, despite being provided with ample amounts of time, free-roam space, and freedom to choose whether or not to interact with caregivers. However, after the advent of the Fraidy Cat program, every single one of these long length of stay cats soon demonstrated reliable pro-social interest in both their established caregivers and novel human acquaintances.

We at Friends For Life do not recommend socializing community cats unless it is a life-and-death situation where the cat is unable to thrive outdoors. TNR is the best option for the emotional and mental well-being of community cats. Of the 5,320 cats to enter our TNR program, only a single cat was diverted into the Fraidy Cat program. He had sustained a critical injury and was not going to be able to survive outside again. Despite being truly feral and having had minimal interactions with humans, it was in this cat’s best interest to become socialized to humans and get adopted into a home (which he did). It is important to emphasize that this was a rare case, and Friends For Life does not recommend regularly converting community cats into indoor cats.

Any cat who is extremely fearful of humans yet cannot survive outside is a viable candidate for our program. A team of behavior professionals can provide them the intervention they need to get adopted and live happily in their new home. Muffin is an excellent example of this. Muffin was 13 years old when she came to Friends For Life. Her elderly caregiver had died and she had nowhere to go. Relatives told us that Muffin had been adopted as a kitten and had not experienced social contact with other humans since. She was also declawed, which likely contributed to her defensive behavior. After being relinquished to the shelter, Muffin would growl, hiss, and lunge at the animal care specialists from 6 feet away, even though her kennel was covered and she resided in a relatively quiet part of the building. That was in mid-September.

By the first week of December, Muffin had graduated from the Fraidy Cat program, readily soliciting affection from a variety of unfamiliar people on the first meeting. She became known for stationing herself on a bed by the door to the communal room where she lived, always ready to greet visitors.

Socialization protocol

The goal of the program is to transition cats from a severely fearful, defensive state to one of pro-social interest to humans, able to tolerate day-to-day handling and interactions. The process is not identical for every cat and is adapted to best serve each individual.

The Friends For Life Fraidy Cat program was inspired by Beth Adelman’s presentation Using Negative Reinforcement to Work With Scaredy Cats1 and is based on the Fearful2Friendly protocol created by Angela Rentfro.2 Rentfro and Adelman’s publications already provide in-depth explanations of the exact steps to socializing extremely fearful cats. In this section, we explain how we adapted their approaches to an actionable program in a shelter setting.

It is important to emphasize again that socializing feral-presenting cats involves much more than just time and treats. We have heard from far too many well-intentioned caregivers who brought one of these cats inside their home, just to live with a severely fearful “house feral” for years. Socializing these cats is an intensive process that requires a skilled trainer and set of guidelines. A detailed plan must be made with the known history and needs of that individual cat in mind. Mistakes here can be costly – for these especially vulnerable cats, once a human is associated with an unpleasant experience, it can take tremendous effort to overcome that pairing.

Phase I: Pre-treatment

As with any behavior modification, we get as detailed a history of the cat as we can. In the absence of reliable data, we rely primarily on what our moment by moment observations.

Setting up the proper environment for socialization is crucial before the cat arrives in the living space, to avoid disrupting the settling in process by invading their space. These cats require the amenities all other shelter cats require:

  • At least 11 square feet of floor space in their living area in the form of a double kennel, either with both units elevated or offering the cat the ability to choose between ground level or above
  • A variety of food choices
  • Water
  • Soft bedding options
  • Perches
  • A litter box separate from other resources
  • Scent and gustatory enrichment items
  • A variety of toys
  • Feral cat dens or other hiding options

Figure 2. A Fraidy Cat kennel unit, set up for an incoming cat.

Another key component of the Friends For Life Fraidy Cat program setup is our signature red polka dot kennel cover (see Figure 3). We chose this design because it stands out and signals to shelter staff and volunteers that the cat is part of the Fraidy Cat program and that the towel is only to be adjusted by behavior team members. When a cat begins living at the shelter, the towel is secured over the front of the kennel door, providing further privacy and aiding the cat’s acclimation to the shelter. When the cat is reliably performing all essential functions (eating food, drinking water, etc.), we open their field of vision 2 inches every day.

Figure 3. The signature polka dot towel reserved for Fraidy Cat program kennels

Phase II: Negative reinforcement

This phase is a prime example of the Humane Hierarchy at work. As LIMA trainers, we are ethically bound to use interventions that are the least intrusive and minimally aversive. It is helpful to explain this within the roadmap representation Friedman and Fritzler created (see Figure 4).4 There are very few situations where our behavior department ventures past “Exit 4” (differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors.) With cats in extreme enough circumstances to enter the Fraidy Cat program, however, those options are limited.

Figure 4. Roadmap representation of the Humane Hierarchy.

Every cat receives a thorough veterinary evaluation (“Exit 1” in Figure 4). If any issues are found, we prioritize the medical intervention over the behavioral. There is a possibility their fearful behavior stems from physical pain and will improve when they recover.

Every cat also receives care and intention surrounding their antecedent arrangements (“Exit 2”). We limit the cat’s exposure to triggers to the best of our abilities – we give them visual barriers, a place to hide, limited human interaction, and so on. We also start each cat with training after shelter hours as often as we can so there are no humans in the shelter except the trainer.

“Exit 3” and “Exit 4” (positive reinforcement and differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors) require us to be able to deliver a reinforcer to the cat. Unfortunately, the cats in this program are so fearful that they will not accept treats, toys, affection, or any other traditional reinforcers from us directly. The most desirable thing for the cats in the Fraidy Cat program is for us humans to leave them. So, that is what we give them.

In this case, the least intrusive, minimally aversive intervention is to use negative reinforcement. We do not take this mode of training lightly; we use the utmost care to make sure the cat is as comfortable as possible. We orient ourselves sideways to the cat and as far away as we can, though admittedly we are not always able to get the same distance outlined in Rentfro’s protocol. Sometimes, we are only able to reach a maximum of 6 feet away from the front of the kennel, depending on its location in the shelter. We wait for them to perform any desirable behavior – usually, it is blinking. When the cat blinks, the trainer leaves for at least 20 minutes. As the cat learns it can control the trainer’s departure and offers the blinks faster and more often, the trainer can start to decrease the distance slowly. We switch to positive reinforcement as soon as the trainer is close enough to deliver treats comfortably and the cat readily takes food in the handler’s presence.

Phase III: Positive reinforcement

At the point where food rewards are accepted, we elect to positively reinforce a behavior that is different from that which we negatively reinforced in the prior phase. We want to establish clear communication with the cat – Behavior A will make the trainer go away or stop an interaction, but Behavior B will make the trainer offer a food reward. We most commonly elect eye contact as the first behavior we positively reinforce because it is typically freely offered at this stage and the cat can elect to maintain their distance and posture while simultaneously making eye contact.

We usually use food rewards as the reinforcer in this phase. It should be noted that we do not deprive the cats of food to exploit their motivating operators. We have found that high-value treats like meat-only baby food and cat treat purees work well without any deprivation. To bridge the distance between the front of the kennel and the cats, we dispense the food rewards typically on coffee stirrers or wooden chopsticks (see Figure 5). If the cat has a preference for dry treats, it’s possible to “glue” the treat to a stirrer with a tiny drop of lickable treat or deliver it with a gentle flick off of the thumbnail, though skill and accuracy is key here. As with all training, we suggest trying several options and seeing what works best for the individual animal.

Once the cat is offering eye contact freely, we can use their rate of behavior as a barometer to measure their level of comfort as we venture into future exercises. When the cat offers eye contact, instead of giving a food reward, we introduce one repetition of another exercise, for example counter-conditioning and desensitization to the extension of the handler’s hand. If we are working slowly enough and below the cat’s threshold, then the cat will continue to offer eye contact at the same rate or faster. By continuing to give the handler eye contact and having the ability to opt out by offering other behaviors, the cat is in control over their exposure to a potentially stressful stimulus.

Through the process of autoshaping, the association between the handler’s extended hand and the food reward causes the cat to offer behaviors like approaching and touching the offered hand. We continue to use eye contact as a “green light” behavior and watch the cat’s body language very closely to ensure our safety and the cat’s feelings of security. Once the cat is reliably offering nose targeting of the hand, we can shape this behavior into touching the hand with the whisker bed or forehead, which typically becomes headbutting or bunting.

We have seen a few cases, especially in cats with little to no early exposure to humans, where social behavior does not automatically evolve after contact behaviors are shaped and contact remains purely transactional. In these cases, such as with a warehouse colony cat named Puu, the cats have been counter-conditioned and desensitized to petting.

The cat is ready to move to the next phase once they are showing any signs of pro-social interest, including approaching, rubbing, trilling, and so on.

Figure 5. Fraidy cat Neville training for positive reinforcement

Phase IV: Pro-social interest

At this phase, the cat is typically soliciting affection and enjoying receiving affection from the handler. In fact, in many cases, including that of Piper in figure 1, the petting becomes more reinforcing than food rewards and can be used as a reinforcer for further exercises. In Piper’s “after” photo, her reward for entering her crate is scratches under her chin. Typically, the cat is offered free roam time in an area of the shelter, with a goal of at least two hours a week of out time. During this time, the cat continues to bond with their handler through play and training exercises, with the goal of learning to be comfortable while exposed to more of the handler’s body and movements. It’s important to remember that much of the work up until now has been stationary on the part of the trainer. Once the cat is showing no signs of stress around their original handler, they are ready to move to the last phase of the program.

Figure 6. Fraidy cat Puu building an association between human contact and lickable treats.

Phase V: Generalization

In this phase of the Fraidy Cat program, the goal is for the cat to socially approach a variety of novel humans and actively solicit interaction. This is accomplished through a ritualized stranger introduction geared toward increasing the predictability of interactions with unfamiliar people on the part of the cat. Each introduction is broken down into stages and is different for each cat, depending on their individual protocol. For one cat, we may start with free treats, then rewarding eye contact, next hand/finger targeting, then affection. We only move to one step of the introduction when the cat is comfortable (demonstrated in body posture and fluency in carrying out the behaviors) with the prior step. If possible, we start with practice strangers that the cat may already be familiar with, then we expose the cat in the same ritualized manner to unfamiliar people of gradually increasing levels of novelty. Thereafter, we invite unfamiliar, but experienced, behavior volunteers to come introduce themselves to the cat on their own using written guidelines of the meeting ritual. It doesn’t take too long before adopters and visitors to the shelter can interact with our new “Fraidy Cat Graduates” and they are none the wiser.

A critical post-graduation part of the Fraidy Cat program is pre- and post-adoption support. There is extensive behavioral counseling, including at least one home visit by the cat’s primary handler, involved in helping adopters of our graduates integrate their new family members into their homes successfully.

Figure 6. Polar enjoying pets in a communal cat room after graduating from the Fraidy Cat program.

The data behind the program

Friends For Life began its Fraidy Cat program in March of 2018. Since then, 81 cats have entered the program. 70 of those cats have “graduated” and been placed in our adoption program, and 11 are currently progressing through the protocol.

The outcomes of the graduates are shown in below.

OutcomeNumber of Cats
Currently Awaiting Adoption8
Adopted57
Returned from Adoption, Currently Awaiting New Adoption2
Deceased While in Shelter Custody2
Reunited with Original Owner1
Total70

The results of the program are overwhelmingly successful. Every single cat in the Fraidy Cat program was able to develop pro-social interest to humans and enter a traditional adoption program. There were no cats who had to exit the program and be labelled “unadoptable.” This is pending, of course, the 11 cats who are currently enrolled in the program, but they are progressing at a steady pace and we fully expect all of them to graduate.

Not only are the cats graduating successfully, but they are getting adopted successfully. The return rate of cats who went through the program is identical to the general return rate of all cats at our shelter (5%). Furthermore, we are placing our extremely fearful cats into adoptions sooner than we ever have before.

It does take resources to accomplish these results. The average amount of time it takes for a cat to graduate the Fraidy Cat program is about 12 weeks. We spend approximately 15 hours per week on their training, although this number varies depending on the number of current enrollees.

The time and resources spent on these cats is all worth it. We are able to provide these cats a live outcome where before there were no options.

Conclusion

Even if a cat does not fit into our main shelter programs, they still deserve a chance at a forever home. That is the mission of the Friends For Life Fraidy Cat program. Our data shows that it is not only possible to make these cats feel comfortable with humans, but it is sustainable to do so within a shelter setting. With a skilled trainer, some time, and the right protocols in place, these cats can be socialized so they can thrive in an adopter’s home.

References

  1. Adelman, Beth. Using Negative Reinforcement to Work with Scaredy Cats [Webinar]. IAABC.
  2. Rentfro, A.D. (2013) Fearful to friendly (F2F): A constructional fear treatment for domestic cats using a negative reinforcement shaping procedure in a home setting. PhD Thesis, University of North Texas, Denton.
  3. Friedman, S.G., and Fritzler, J. (2019). “Hierarchy Road Map.” Behavior Works.

 

Melissa Taylor is the Behavior and Training Manager at Friends For Life Animal Shelter in Houston, Texas. Melissa has logged more than twenty years in shelter animal behavior, starting with an internship at the ASPCA’s Animal Behavior Center in New York City. She developed a lasting love for cooperative care from training livestock and wildlife as the Coordinator of the Behavior and Training Department at the Houston SPCA, and applies the same principles to the dogs, cats, exotics, and humans she works with now at Friends For Life. Over the course of her career, she has focused on the development of shelter humane education programs, particularly those for volunteers, with the intention of mentoring new companion animal trainers and behavior consultants with practices steeped in evidence and based on building trust, security, and partnership. Melissa has started several shelter behavior volunteer programs and consults with other humane organizations on starting such initiatives of their own.

 

Alese Zeman, CPDT-KA is the Outreach Coordinator at Friends For Life Animal Shelter in Houston, Texas. Most of her career has been spent teaching mathematics in public charter schools where she learned to deliver excellent content and drive community change. She has earned several education awards, leadership roles, and her Master of Arts in Teaching. Zeman has since turned to animal behavior and sheltering. She now uses her education skills and animal behavior knowledge to share the innovative, evidence-based practices used at Friends For Life.