Case Study: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Abbie? Using Target Training to Resolve Fear Aggression in an Unsocialized Cat
Summary: An extremely avoidant, aggressive 7-year-old cat is fostered by a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant. Over months of careful environmental management and the introduction of regular target training, incidences of aggression dramatically decreased until eventually, Abbie is able to be put forward for adoption. Matching her with the right adopter provided another set of challenges, but with careful preparation, she was able to find a permanent home.
Before I even brought her home from Frederick County Animal Control in Frederick, Maryland, to foster for PetConnect Rescue, I knew that socializing Abbie was going to be a challenge. The 7-year-old calico domestic shorthair had spent the past two weeks hunkered down in a hide box in her cage, the shelter staff unable to handle her. In fact, the shelter veterinarian, after giving Abbie more than a week to settle in, had finally decided that she would have to sedate Abbie to examine, vaccinate, and FELV/FIV test her. Thankfully, the exam revealed Abbie was spayed, and more importantly, healthy, because no one wanted to have to try to medicate this cat. When I came to pick her up from the shelter, the kennel tech handed me the cat carrier with Abbie inside and said, “Good luck with this one” in a tone that implied “Better you than me!”
Abbie and six other cats had been relinquished to the shelter after an animal control officer had given the cats’ owner the “we can do this the easy way or the hard way” talk. Translation: If you don’t voluntarily surrender these cats, I will have to impound them and charge you with neglect. Abbie, her two littermates, and the mom cat had been living in a dank, mold-infested basement for the past seven years, a feces-filled kiddie pool serving as the only litterbox. It had probably been months, perhaps even years, since it had been cleaned, so the cats had urinated and defecated all over the basement. Three other cats had been housed in similar conditions in a bedroom. The owner had never intended for the situation to get so bad, but the combination of a hoarding disorder and severe heart disease had left her unable to provide adequate care or socialization for the cats. By the time Abbie and the other cats were removed from the home, no one had lived there for years, leaving the cats to only receive occasional visits from a neighbor to provide food and water.
In their article “Another Way Out: Friends for Life’s Fraidy Cat Program” in the November issue of the IAABC Journal, Melissa Taylor and Alese Zeman call cats like Abbie “house ferals.” These cats are as unsocialized to humans as any community cat living outside in a colony. But unlike community cats, house ferals are unequipped for outdoor life and are not candidates for barn placement or integration into a community cat colony. I knew there were no good options for Abbie if my attempt to socialize her failed.
Once I got her home, my initial goal was to keep her stress level as low as possible while giving her time to settle in. I gave Abbie a quiet room to herself furnished with a cozy hide box with her food, water, and litterbox situated close by to minimize the open territory she would have to navigate to access these resources. For the first two weeks, I only went into her room twice a day to feed her and clean her box, always at 7:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. The idea was that by keeping my visits brief and always at the same time, Abbie could anticipate them and wouldn’t need to maintain a state of constant hypervigilance. The plan was effective. Abbie consistently used her litterbox, and perhaps even more importantly, she never missed a meal, which is always a concern when introducing a stressed-out cat to a new environment. Cats that go even just a few days without eating can be at risk for hepatic lipidosis, a condition in which the cat’s body breaks down fat stores faster than the liver can metabolize them. That would have been untreatable in an unsocialized cat like Abbie.
During those first couple of weeks, Abbie only ventured out of her hide box to eat and use the litterbox. But soon she began making use of the cat tree, shelving I had installed to increase vertical space, and a window with a wide ledge for lounging and sunbathing. It also didn’t take her long to remain outside the hide box while I was in her room. And that’s when the real challenge to socialize Abbie began.
We are all familiar with the fight, flight, or freeze threat response paradigm. Abbie’s response to threat was to fight. And because her exposure to humans had been limited and inconsistent, my mere presence in her room was threatening to her. I was still only going in her room twice a day just long enough to feed her and scoop her box, taking care not to inadvertently approach her or position myself in any way that could make her feel trapped. Despite this, Abbie regularly responded to my presence by hissing, spitting, and lunging at me. Often, she would charge at me and swipe at and scratch my hands while I was picking up or putting down food and water bowls. Taking more than a few steps in any direction frequently prompted Abbie to run at me, grab my legs, and bite or scratch them. No matter how hard I tried to limit my motion while still accomplishing essential tasks, just about any movement on my part triggered an aggressive response from Abbie. I took to wearing snow pants, a long-sleeve sweatshirt, and gloves for protection, which was a little humorous since it was April, with temperatures in the 70s, and I’d often sweat profusely. But sweat was better than bites and scratches.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Abbie began to intermittently initiate less-aggressive interactions. Instead of charging me, she would sometimes walk over to me with her tail slightly up and relaxed and look at me with her ears forward, her eyes open but pupils not dilated. To reduce any threat signals, I would respond by remaining still and not looking directly at her. Abbie would pause, look up at me, and then half-heartedly swat at or grab my legs. Hardly the behavior of a cat who trusted the person she was interacting with. Still, it was progress.
To find out if Abbie would benefit from anti-anxiety medication, I took her to my veterinarian. He examined her, ran bloodwork, and consulted with a veterinary behaviorist colleague, who recommended putting her on Anxitane, the brand name for the nutraceutical L-theanine. During that appointment, I showed my vet a video of one of Abbie’s less-aggressive interactions. He hypothesized that she seemed to want to interact with me but didn’t know how, like a socially awkward kid who misbehaves to get attention.
My vet’s observation gave me an idea. Maybe I could use target training to teach Abbie how to appropriately interact with people. For those not familiar with this method, target training is a type of clicker training where you present the animal with a target stick, and when the animal touches it, you click to mark the behavior then give a reward for reinforcement. Because Abbie was still prone to lunging, swatting, scratching or biting me, using a normal-length target stick would place me too close to her, making her feel threatened and me vulnerable to bites and scratches. So I fashioned an extra-long target stick by taping two poles from fishing pole toys together end to end, giving me an almost 4-foot-long target stick. Suited up in my snow pants, sweatshirt, and gloves, I entered Abbie’s room and quietly held the target stick in front of me for her to approach at will. Within a minute or two, she moved toward the target stick, swatted at it and grabbed it in her mouth. She then retreated a few feet away and after a brief hesitation charged at me then retreated again. I remained motionless, and on the next approach, instead of attacking the target stick, she sniffed it. As her nose touched the stick, I clicked the ballpoint pen I use as a clicker (standard clickers can be too loud and prompt a startle response in some cats) and dropped a few pieces of kibble in front of her as a reward. After eating the kibble, she investigated the target stick again, in doing so touching it with her nose, and again I clicked then gave her a food reward. We repeated this one more time, and taking the opportunity to end on a good note, I concluded our first training session.
Target training proved to be an effective method for teaching Abbie how to properly interact with me. It gave me an opportunity to reward her for approaching me and touching the target stick instead of rushing me and swatting or biting me. The repetition of “touch the target stick, pen click, food reward” also made interacting with me a predictable experience for Abbie, providing the basis for her to learn to trust me. Once she was consistently touching the target stick when it was held out in front of me, I tried placing the target stick on my shin. This required her to come quite close to and practically touch me to touch the target stick. She didn’t hesitate. She calmly approached, gently touched her nose to the stick, and looked up at me in expectation of her food reward.
Over the next two months, Abbie made steady progress. I was able to kneel on the floor and place the target stick on my thigh, arm or hand and have her gently touch it. My moving around the room had been a trigger for Abbie to attack, so I started holding the target stick out to my side while taking a few steps. When Abbie touched the stick as she walked beside me, I clicked and then gave her a food reward. It didn’t take long before she was calmly and confidently walking beside me around the room, tail straight up with a relaxed curl at the end. She began meeting me at the door to her room with that charming mix of purr and meow some cats use as an affectionate greeting, and she would chirp and purr throughout our training sessions. I was able to carefully pet her on the back of her head and shoulders while she ate her food rewards.
Over time, the target training became more of an enrichment activity than training session. I taught Abbie to sit up, go to mat, and run a little kitty obstacle course using target training. Along the way, I was gradually able to pet her more and she responded with increasing displays of affection, rubbing on my legs and hands and purring. At that point, I knew she was ready to have her circle of trusted humans expanded. My husband, Scott, began target training with Abbie, and happily, he did not have to start at square one with her. During the first few interactions, she was more uncertain than defensively aggressive. Instead of rushing him, she would simply maintain her distance, holding back until he had been still long enough for her to feel comfortable approaching. She quickly learned to trust him through their target training sessions, an indication that she was building on the experiences she’d had with me.
It took months of daily training sessions to resolve Abbie’s fear aggressive behavior, earn her trust, and see her blossom into a happy, affectionate cat. Not every training session went well, though. Sometimes, after days of great work, Abbie would revert back to old behavior, swatting at my hands or clawing my legs. She had spent the first seven years of her life in fight mode when faced with the threat of a human, so I wasn’t surprised that her progress was sometimes halting and uneven. But after six months in my home, Abbie had become a sweet, friendly cat with me and Scott, though still shy and hesitant with strangers.
It took another nine months to find the right adopter. Transitioning to a new home is stressful for most cats and would, I knew, be especially difficult for a cat with Abbie’s history. She had learned to trust me and my husband but had not generalized her experiences with us to humans as a group. In addition to the usual strategies for reducing the stress of going to a new home, Abbie would need to go back on Anxitane (I had been able to take her off of it after six months), and she would require someone willing to use target training to earn her trust and allow her to bond with her adopter. I was also looking for someone open to doing a foster-to-adopt. I wanted to be able to provide intensive guidance and support to the adopter, and to be able to quickly and easily return Abbie to my care should I or the adopter decide the situation wasn’t working out.
Gail Chalef, a kind person who wanted to help a special-needs cat, was open to all of these requirements. And though it did take Abbie a few months to settle in and bond with her new guardian, all of Gail’s efforts—starting Abbie out in a quiet, safe room; holding daily target training sessions; having the patience to never force Abbie to make faster progress than she was ready for—paid off. Abbie has become Gail’s much-loved constant companion. She follows Gail around the house, lounging on a chair while Gail works in her home office and snuggling in bed with her at night.
Abbie’s story could have so easily had an unhappy ending. Cats that display a flight or freeze response to threats are typically labeled as shy or fearful, and people tend to be more willing to try to help them overcome their fearfulness. These cats can also be easier to work with because they don’t pose the same risk of injury to people. In contrast, cats like Abbie who display a fight response to threats often get the pejorative labels “mean” and “aggressive,” and can be more difficult to work with because they pose a greater risk of injury. But these cats are not hopeless cases. It does take resources to help them: an appropriate place to house them; shelter staff or foster caretakers with the skill to work with them, including how to use target training; and shelters or rescues that can keep them in their care for extended periods of time if necessary. Many shelters and rescues struggle to find these kinds of resources, but when they can, the effort is worth it. Abbie wasn’t a mean cat. She was a fearful, unsocialized cat who responded to threat in the only way she knew how. Happily, with time, patience, and target training, Abbie’s become a lover, not a fighter.
Kate Luse, CCBC, is a certified cat behavior consultant who has been fostering cats for over 25 years. She currently volunteers as an adoption coordinator and foster for PetConnect Rescue and is on the board of Frederick Friends of Our County Animal Shelter. You can visit Kate’s website at www.healthycattitude.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.