by Laurie Raymond
When it comes to making that rough diamond of a shelter cat into a polished model of feline deportment, you’ll be working in two areas: management and training. Ideally, management begins even before you bring your new cat home, and it involves all those steps with which you set the cat up for success and eliminate opportunities for him to mess up. He should have at his fingertips food, water, a clean litter box, something to sleep on or in, a post to scratch, some toys, a high place from which to view his surroundings, and a nook or two where he can hide and feel secure (such as a large grocery bag or cardboard box.) Prized possessions, like your favorite velvet drapes or leather sofa, should not be available to him at all, at this stage.
During his first several weeks, he should be encouraged to use all the items you have provided for him. Find out what he loves to eat the most, and give him effective rewards for scratching his post, playing with his toys, etc. He’s forming new habits as he settles in, and behavior that gets rewarded is likely to make up his standard repertoire.
Sometimes people have trouble getting a cat to accept wearing a collar and tag, and frequently give up on this very important item of ID. Just putting a collar on and turning him loose is likely to result in the cat’s giving his full attention to ridding himself of the nuisance immediately. It’s better to put the collar (without tags) on just before mealtimes, feed the cat something extremely yummy, and remove it as soon as he’s eaten. After several days, leave the collar on after feeding, and engage the cat in active play for awhile, and then remove it. For several weeks, whenever the cat comes to you for attention, petting, play, put the collar on before you give it to him. You are teaching him to associate the collar with good things, and getting him accustomed to wearing it as he does his normal activities. As he shows less interest in the collar and less inclination to get it off, leave it on for longer periods. Only after he has become thoroughly used to the collar should you add the tag.
Once your cat has established good habits, reinforced by you, for eating, sleeping, scratching and playing where you want him to, you can bring back the treasures he hasn’t been exposed to yet. The trick is to bring out the thing you want him to leave alone with one or two other new objects you don’t care about. Allow him to investigate all the objects (being too anxious to keep him away can backfire, arousing his curiosity and deviousness to circumvent you), but reward him when he plays with the extra objects and ignore him (or distract him) when he goes for your antique umbrella stand or lace tablecloth.
If the cat does develop a strong interest in an object you really prefer him not to touch at all, you have 3 choices. 1. Remove the item from the part of the house he has access to. 2. Cover it with something the cat will find unpleasant – like a plastic shower curtain, or a mesh cloth his claws will catch in, or make it smell disgusting by squirting it with a citrus-scented spray. 3. Arrange to have something really bad and scary happen to the cat whenever he goes near the object. The catch to the last one is, there must be NO WAY for the cat to associate the bad thing with your presence! And it must happen EVERY TIME he approaches it. Since the third choice is completely impractical, try 1 or 2.
Of course, you might find that the cat is so cozy and adorable curled up in your prized leather chair that you decide it’s not such a big deal, after all.