Kitten

Common Rescue Cat Behavior Problems

Cat behavior does change after time in a shelter. Here are some ways to help your new rescue overcome these issues.

Rita Reimers  |  Sep 29th 2019


It’s a well-told fallacy that cats who wind up in the shelter do so because they have behavior issues. The truth is, this is usually not the case. Some cats (and dogs) find themselves being left in shelters and rescues for reasons that have nothing to do with their behaviors at all. But that’s another discussion …

Sadly, what does tend to happen is that some of these cats live in the shelter for such a long time awaiting their forever homes that their behaviors begin to change. What may result is the development of specific issues borne of displacement and panic.

These are the cats who need to be adopted the most desperately, so they can get past their newfound issues and become the loving pets they once were. Although these cats are usually overlooked, they’re the ones who tend to become the most loving kitties you could ever wish to adopt. (I can attest to this firsthand).

Here are a few issues you may discover once you take your rescue or shelter kitty home, and how to help your new buddy to overcome his nervousness and fall in love with you.

1 Apprehension of others

Your new cat may have once been a spoiled and much-loved cat by his previous owner; he may have been a neglected street cat; or he may be one that’s been in the shelter/rescue since birth and never got handled very much.Either way, unless they have been lucky enough to live in a foster situation, shelter/rescue cats usually don’t get much one-on-one interaction with people, let alone with one steady person with whom they can bond and form trust.

Shelter situations can be particularly frightening, with all the noise and commotion going on, from the people coming in to look at them, to the noise of other pets who reside there, especially the barking dogs (sorry, fellas!).

2 Aggression or isolation

Isolation and aggression are both part of how cats in distress protect themselves. Your new cat may feel overwhelmed in his new surroundings; he may not have ever been inside a home before, especially if he was born and raised in the rescue or shelter; hemay never have bonded with a human before or, if he has, he doesn’t understand why he isn’t with that person anymore. The fright he feels in his new circumstances may cause him to physically lash out, growl and hiss when you extend a loving hand toward him. He may recoil and make himself as small as possible, an attribute that preserves cats from harm out in nature.

cat hiding under bed

Change and cats go together like, well, water and cats! Cats have a hard time with change — even if it’s positive — because it threatens their world, so your new cat may hide away and/or lash out at you as part of his survival instincts. Not knowing the new territory means not knowing if he has enough resources, not to mention what other threats may await. Every domesticated cat still has these same instincts as their wild cousins.

You will win him over, with time. Keep talking to him in a calm, soothing voice, and offer him treats, good food, soft bedding and some toys to play with when you are not around. Stay consistent, and by all means don’t avoid contact with him. He needs to know he is safe and that you are someone to be trusted. Be available, but don’t push physical contact until he lets you know he’s ready.

3 Not eating

A very alarmed and confused cat may well refuse to eat at first. He most likely won’t eat with you watching him, so provide access to food, water and a litter box that is close to his current hiding place. Hunger is a great motivator, so he will probably decide to eat when the rest of the household is sleeping, and he knows that no one will be coming to bother him.

Keep offering him fresh food and water and treats, too. Some smelly foods like tuna may also tempt his appetite. If you don’t see signs of food being eaten or the litter box being used within two days, call your veterinarian for help, as fatty liver disease can begin in as little as three days without food. If he has a respiratory infection, which can occur from stress, he may not be eating simply because he cannot smell his food.

4 Inappropriate elimination

More due to not knowing the territory and fear of exploring the house, yournew cat may start eliminating in places besides the litter box. In his first few days especially, keep a litter box close to where he may be hiding. If you make him travel far in this “unknown land” to find a litter box, he’s more likely to just “go” right where he is rather than risk exposing himself to the rest of the home before he’s ready.

After a while in your home, if he is still avoiding the litter box, have him examined by your veterinarian to rule out any illnesses that could be contributing to the problem.

5 Separation anxiety

Once you do bond, a new issue may appear: separation anxiety. If your cat was once in a loving home, he may become upset and agitated when his new favorite person isn’t around. He may also lash out at other people in the household if he’ afraid of being taken away from his new, now secure, surroundings again.

One way to stop this anxiety from happening in the first place is to have more than one person in the household taking care of him. Have everyone in the household share feeding and playtime duties. That way, there will always be someone around that he feels comfortable with, so he won’t freak out when one of you isn’t at home.

Getting past the abandonment and fear your shelter/rescue cat may be feeling takes time and patience, plus the ability to truly empathize with your new cat. Put yourself in his place for a moment: Imagine how you would feel if you were suddenly removed from your home, away from your people, then placed in a cage, finally to be whisked away to a brand-new place with people you don’t know. It would be overwhelming, to say the least, and scary.

Once your cat realizes you are there to provide him the stability, love, food and companionship he once had (or maybe never even knew), he will come out of his shell and become your best friend for life.