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Apr 3, 2024

On Moving a Cat

The first time I saw Sam he was hiding under a bed. Described by his loving owner as very shy with strangers, Sam’s decision to be unavailable during the meet & greet was expected. Yet on my first visit to care for him, he completely surprised me by coming out of hiding to roll on the carpet. We have been friends ever since.

On Moving a Cat

That was the opening paragraph to a story written about Sam almost a year ago. I am revisiting what was then his period of adjustment in a new home in an attempt to better understand what Sam was feeling.
During our first visit my fingers discovered matted fur under his ears leaving me to hope Sam would enjoy brushing. No way to know without trying and a few visits later I showed up with a dollar store hairbrush, sat down next to him on the floor, and after a single brushstroke I waited for Sam to decide. Within seconds he was rubbing against me wanting more.
His owner’s heavy travel schedule offered lots of opportunities to indulge our new pastime. Sam was almost 7 years old with an unknown grooming history and, like all cats, his beautiful face admitted nothing. Together we worked out the body language of do’s and don’ts. Topping his list is the need to be on all fours during brushing, walking back and forth next to me while I brush one side and then the other. Sitting down is his cue to stop. Laying down is no-touch-me-time. Finger work of the ears, cheeks, and chin is the exception and (almost) always welcome. My only don’t is chewing the brush. If Sam reaches for it, I twist my wrist to turn the bristles away and he helpfully takes the hint.
I had written about brushing Sam when he suddenly turned and scratched my hand springing a leak. I felt little discomfort yet was shaken by the suddenness and intensity of Sam’s action. For a moment he was spitting mad. Of course I linked his behavior to the brushing and slowed my approach. The result was lots of grooming progress yet that single event has been living in my head because the behavior was out of character for the Sam I knew.
RULE of 3/3/3 FOR CATS

Being moved from one place to another is a huge deal for most cats. The average feline adjustment period is 3 days to decompress, 3 weeks to suss out the new environment and learn to trust it, and 3 months to feel comfortable and completely safe in their new home.
Sam had to navigate the same process, though his timeline was longer. I met with his owner at the six week mark and by that time, Sam had soiled the living room sofa twice. The last time I cleaned the sofa was at 4 months.
My care of Sam began in March. The timing is important because Sam moved from a spacious home in a tranquil suburb to a sky high Uptown apartment overlooking a stadium. He had yet to experience the long season of outdoor activities, roaring fans, and fireworks heading his way. In the meantime Sam was acclimating to an apartment building humming with machinery and high-rise life with fewer places to hide. His sensory super powers worked against him creating anxiety that too often felt perilous.
Usually Sam was under the bed when I arrived. That tendency persisted for months though sometimes he would be hiding in the master closet behind his owner’s neatly pressed dress shirts. I would assume a bigger, scarier thing had happened. From the doorway I would call his name and he would respond with a tiny meow before dropping down to follow me out. On some visits Sam would stay close while I moved about cleaning up. Always we would settle down near the balcony for a grooming session and quiet time.
My mistake was not paying more attention. Did I hear fireworks the night before? Was there evidence maintenance had entered the apartment? Had he been hiding in the closet? I now believe Sam was having a very bad day — one disturbing thing piled atop another — and the brushing was stimulating enough to push him over the top. Lashing out was a release.
He has come a very long way since then. Against the balcony doors is a plush bed that surrounds Sam like a hug. It’s a favorite spot for napping or taking in the view. Next month he will be 9 years old. Happy Birthday, Sam!

Did you know?

Moving to a new home is one of the most stressful events in a cat's life. Few manage the change with aplomb.
Every day cats tag baseboards, balusters, windowsills, mantels, closets, doorways, and outside corners with their unique scent while creating a (mostly) invisible network of pussytoe prints. Times the scent marking by months or years of daily repetition, add on deeply scented hideouts for shy cats like Sam, and your pet’s degree of scared is easier to calculate. Cats surround themselves with regularly refreshed scent because it is essential to their sense of safety and well-being.
On moving day that carefully maintained feline security system is abandoned.
While you and your scented belongings are indeed comforting to the cat, the new home smells completely alien. You can smooth the transition by wiping your cat with a cloth and using it to scent your new windowsills, balusters, and doorways at cat height. You could also wrap the cloth around a Swiffer and scent the floors. Repeating this process every few days will refresh the scent, just as your cat will when s/he feels more at ease.
The weeks of acclimation are the most difficult for a cat, sometimes triggering behavior issues like peeing on a sofa.
If I had it to do over, I would have showed up with a hairbrush and a feather toy. Sam may not have been interested in the toy but it’s always worth trying. Prey play does wonders for a cat, particularly when under stress.

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