Garrus and Charlie’s Story Part Seven: Building Trust

Now that the immediate medical needs had been dealt with and Garrus was set on a progress to health, we turned our attention to our other goals: building their trust, coaxing them out of their shells, and socializing them. It’s a tall order to work with incredibly shy cats but I was confident that with patience, love, and time, we could help the boys.

The boys explored our foster area (Aaron’s office) thoroughly. Garrus in particular liked the chair (a refurbished car seat).

Evidence that the boys started to feel a bit more comfortable after a couple of days.

Stay tuned for Part Eight! If you have not already read the previous posts in this series, be sure to check out Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six!

Garrus and Charlie’s Story Part Six: Trip to the Vet

I also wanted both cats to be checked out by a vet just to be on the safe side. When I brought them home, I had two immediate concerns:

  1. I wanted to get Garrus on the road to health. While we provided Garrus with wet food, as the shelter had suggested, we noticed that he did not eat much. I wanted to know if he had an underlying medical problem explaining his lack of appetite and resulting bony physique.
  2. Charlie’s left eye weeped occasionally, and I worried that he had an eye infection. If that was the case, I did not want (a) the infection to get worse or (b) to be spread to Garrus.

Having received permission from the shelter to take them to the vet, I made an appointment with the veterinary clinic the shelter used. They had a cat specialist (Dr. R), and my good friends Tracey and Sam brought their clowder of five cats there. Both of these were boded well. Of course, getting cats into carriers and to the vet is rarely a simple or stress-free experience.

Cue complete feline panic. Charlie was so utterly terrified of being taken to the vet that he had a near meltdown while we put him in the carrier, let alone when he was brought into the actual exam room. He was so stressed that he needed to be sedated for his and the staff’s safety. I was a bit mortified since I had just met this vet (Dr. R) and her staff but assured me that they were accustomed to dealing with scaredy cats. I was also a bit thrown since I had never needed to sedate a cat at the vet’s office. Charlie was a sorry sight, though, since he was not at all aggressive but clearly scared witless, highly stressed out from his time in the shelter, and in need of lots of TLC. Thankfully, Dr R deemed Charlie healthy and determined that he did not have an eye infection. A clogged duct was the cause of his weepy eye; it occasionally weeps now but does not hurt him.

After we brought Charlie home from the vet, he regressed back into his extreme hidey self for a day or so. We gave him time and space, offered him treats and toys, and provided him with plenty of safe spots to hide in if he was so inclined. Garrus immediately came over to give him a comforting lick and snuggle, so that helped Charlie calm down. He started to emerge from hiding once he felt safe again. Fortunately, he did not seem to hold a grudge against us for taking him to the vet.

Looking down at Garrus from above, you can see how gaunt he used to be.

Garrus, by contrast, was relatively docile at the vet’s office. Dr. R immediately discovered the cause during the exam: his teeth were in terrible shape and his gums were quite inflamed. He probably had been living with chronic dental pain for some time. No wonder why he wasn’t eating! By nature, cats are pretty stoic and tend to hide pain or medical issues as much as possible but we could not ignore this problem. I immediately informed the shelter and the generous Friends of the Shelter arranged necessary funds to cover his medical expenses since he was in foster care. Garrus underwent emergency dental surgery the next day. Five teeth were resected, four of them on one side of his mouth. Fortunately, the surgery went without a hitch and, after a period of observation, I took my drowsy foster kitty home.

Understandably, he was a bit out of it so I have him space and let him snooze. After he had a well-deserved nap, I came to check on him and sat on the floor. Garrus stretched, walked over to me, and gave my hand a gentle head bunt. My heart melted. Just by watching his more relaxed body language, I could tell that he clearly felt better. I took cues from him. Was he hungry? Thirsty? Did want to go back to sleep? Did he feel up to playing? I did not want him to overexert himself only hours after he had surgery.

He let me know that he was hungry by sitting tall beside the food bowl with his tail wrapped primly around his paws. He gazed levelly at me with those enormous, sad, yellow moon eyes. That was also the first time that he really looked up directly at me instead of with a lowered, shy, indirect gaze. He seemed to say, “Beg pardon but I trust that you can arrange sustenance for me? I would most appreciate it. I am a wee bit peckish.” Even after surgery, which must have felt something akin to an alien abduction to him, he was nevertheless unfailingly polite.

Following Dr. R’s advice, we gave him wet food for kittens (which has higher fat and protein content than adult cat food) for a few more days as his mouth healed. To our relief, he had no complications and his appetite slowly increased. After his recheck appointment, we were encouraged to transition him to kitten kibble so that he could get back to a healthy weight. Dr. R said he needed to gain about 2 lbs (he had lost muscle mass as well) and estimated that it would take him at least a year to gain that amount. She also suspected that he had food anxiety, given that he had been bullied by his food-guarding previous housemates, and that contributed to his scant appetite. Getting him calm and comfortable in an established safe environment would be our immediate task.

The boys would only eat together, not by themselves. They were also seemingly perplexed the first time we offered them treats. It took them both a little while to get the idea that treats were edible. Once they grasped this concept, they were soon on board.

Stay tuned for Part Seven! (If you have not already read them, check out Parts One, Two, Three, Four, and Five.)

Garrus and Charlie’s Story Part Five: Slowly Opening Up

The boys needed time to realize that they were in a safe, quiet, and less-stressful space and were not going to be roughly handled. All of us needed to get to know one another and establish trust. In order to do so, Aaron and I spent time sitting on the floor in order to hang out with them; if we stood up, the boys scattered and hid. (Understandably, humans loom over cats when they stand up. We needed to work slowly with these guys.) We spoke in low, quiet voices to the boys as another way for them to get used to us.

Garrus was the first to come out of hiding and tentatively approached us. We moved very slowly around the boys as to not inadvertently startle them. We let Garrus sniff us and choose on his own terms how to engage with us. If he wanted to come toward us for pets, he could do that but if he chose to back off and hide, we did not reach in after him. A few hours later, Charlie emerged from his hiding spot and timidly checked us out. We noticed that he first watched what Garrus did and followed his lead. We were both quite pleased when we were able to give the boys gentle pets and strokes. They jerked away if we put our hands on either of their bodies, even to give scritches, so we worked very slowly, read their body language closely, and took our cues from the cats.

Garrus slowly started to explore his surroundings. He was the first to explore the chair and desk.

Charlie came out from his hiding spot!

Stay tuned for Part Six! (If you haven’t already read them, check out Parts One, Two, Three, and Four.)

Garrus and Charlie’s Story Part Four: Bringing the Boys Home

We brought the boys home and, knowing that they would need time to adjust to their surroundings, we set up a foster area in Aaron’s office, complete with food and water bowls, a comfy bed and chair, a litter box, and toys. Initially we closed the door so that all three cats would not be spooked by each others’ presence; later we used baby gates to separate them from Boudicca. (For her part, Boudicca was mildly alarmed when she saw carriers. Otherwise, she was confused as to why we took food into the office, did not share with her, and closed the door.)

At first both the cats hid under Aaron’s desk or bookshelves. It became evident that they were accustomed to eating and using the litter box predominantly at night, presumably because the shelter was quieter during that time. They were incredibly skittish, reacting immediately to noise, sudden movements, and any change. We had to be careful and solicitous in order to not spook them any more than they already were.

Aristotle (Garrus) was highly wary of people and hid under Aaron’s desk when we would first enter the room.

NB: Before we left the shelter, Aaron decided on the name Garrus after the Mass Effect character. That is what we called him before we properly adopted the boys so henceforth I will refer to him by that name.

Tink was initially wide-eyed, jittery, and, a bit agoraphobic, often bunched in a corner or behind whatever he could find.

NB: It took us a few more days to decide on a new name for this handsome guy. Aaron proposed Charlie and we agreed that it simply suited him without further ado.

Stay tuned for Part Five! (If you haven’t already read them, check out Parts One, Two, and Three.)

Garrus and Charlie’s Story Part Three: Free Cats!

Aaron and I continued to discuss the idea of fostering a cat, or possibly a kitten, when Aaron suggested that we visit the animal shelter and determine if we could foster one of the available cats. Incidentally, we visited during the Clear the Shelter event. When I introduced him to the various cats in the room but he was quickly drawn to the two tabby boys. No one who visited the shelter recently or during the Clear the Shelter event had wanted these guys. In fact, people rarely saw Tink since he spent most of the day hiding. Whenever I caught a glimpse of him, I saw two enormous eyes staring back at me–all pupil, almost no iris visible–and a bundle of scared cat huddled in a corner. He had definitely regressed since he had returned to the shelter.

Although Aristotle was occasionally visible, he looked pitiful and haggard. After spending three months at the shelter, he was now gaunt, and his ribs, spine, and hips jutted out. Due to high stress, he had licked off large swaths of fur around his abdomen, sides, and haunches. (This behavior is called overgrooming or fur mowing.) He crouched uneasily, always on guard. Moreover, he had a habit of staring off blankly with these huge, intensely sorrowful yellow eyes and a truly mournful expression. Both Aristotle and Tink were disconsolate.

Aaron discreetly took the boys out, one at a time, into the little rooms we have available for potential adopters to spend quiet time with cats. He spoke soothingly to each of them and let them explore the cat tree and toys available in there. During a lull between visitors, he came up to me with his expression and tone serious. “We have to help these cats.”

Suddenly quite verklempt, I asked, “How?”

“They are obviously not doing well here and look pitiful too, especially this scraggly one.” He gestured to Aristotle, who looked rather sickly with his knobbly back and patchy fur.

“I agree, both of them look absolutely miserable.” Those big eyes pulled at my heartstrings. “I know Tink from his time as a foster in the library. He needs a buddy cat. I don’t think it would be a good idea to separate them. Tink is very shy; having a buddy cat makes him feel more confident. He lost his previous buddy recently too, so there’s been a lot of upheaval in his life. It’s been fortunate that the shelter was able to match him with Aristotle so quickly.”

I took the boys individually out of the condo and into the solo room to spend one-on-one time with them. I had worked with shy shelter cats before so the experience was not entirely new. Tink was jumpy from overstimulation but, if given a chance to settle, did seem amenable to quick, gentle pets. I knew that he could be affectionate if given time, space, and quiet. Aristotle was more interested in exploring the cat tree than hanging out with me but he did stop and seemed to enjoy me petting his back. He might have sneaked in a fleeting tail hug or two as well. When I put Aristotle back into his pen, he resisted (not that I blame him) and gave me such a crestfallen look when I closed the door.

Aaron and I discussed how we could help these cats while being cognizant and respectful of a senior resident cat’s needs. Adopting a cat, let alone two, is a serious commitment and we did not take it lightly. Aaron was definitely interested in Aristotle but slightly reluctant to take on the idea of becoming a three-cat household. I, too, had think seriously about this prospect since I had never had boy cats, shy cats, or more than two cats at a time. While I am tenderhearted, I am also practical and know that I simply cannot provide a home for every cat or dog that needs it. I wanted to be sure that these cats were placed in the right home with the right owner, even if that meant it was not my own. That was one of the reasons why I volunteered at the shelter in the first place.

Aaron and I broached the idea of fostering instead of immediately adopting. We had discussed possibly fostering as an extension of my volunteer work before but had never done it. I knew that several of the volunteers and shelter employees regularly fostered cats, kittens, and dogs. I was familiar with how the library fostered cats and the occasional guinea pig and rabbit. I had bottle-raised Nala and was interested in expanding my knowledge of pet care. One of my good friends, Christine, is a foster mom extraordinaire, devotedly taking care of countless shelter kittens. I regularly ask her for advice. I also talk to Tracey about her five cats. I have several other friends with whom we frequently discuss our journeys as pet owners (or as some of us call it, pet parents).

After some discussion, Aaron and I decided that we could foster these cats to (1) get them into a quieter, less stressful environment, (2) have an opportunity to socialize them in said quiet environment, and (3) determine if we were a good fit for these cats and vice versa and, if not, find them a proper home together.

We approached the receptionist and said that we were interested in fostering Aristotle and Tink. Her eyes positively lit up. “Fantastic! They so need a home. I’ll get them ready right now!” While she did that, we filled out placeholder adoption applications. Foster parents get first dibs on the animals in their care. Word spread fast in the shelter; two employees came over and thanked me for fostering the cats.

When the bewildered and nervous cats were brought out to us in their carriers, Aaron turned to me. “Will helping these cats make you happy?”

I could not help but to smile wide. “YES.”

Garrus (Aristotle) would hide but would also remain visible but aloof and wary.

Charlie (Tink) was quite the scaredy cat when we brought him home. He hid under the bookshelf behind a box or under Aaron’s desk.

Stay tuned for Part Four! (If you haven’t already read them, be sure to check out Parts One and Two.)

Garrus and Charlie’s Story Part Two: Becoming Acquainted

I first met Tink in November 2016. He and his buddy Pan were the first cats fostered at the Pflugerville Public Library. We had just started an awesome foster program in alliance with the shelter, and the library director, a huge animal lover and very experienced pet owner, asked for the “hard cases”, or cats that needed socialization or other help in order to find a home. Pan and Tink were exceptionally shy and skittish, so the library staff had their work cut out for them. As a library volunteer, I visited the foster cats and helped socialize them. At the time Tink was a true hidey cat but if presented with rubs, he immediately started to purr. He was a sweet cat that incrementally came out of his shell as long as Pan was around. Having a buddy cat nearby was akin to a security blanket for him. Tink could be quite affectionate and less shy, especially if given sufficient time to get to know someone.

While in foster care, Pan was adopted and returned more than once while Tink remained at the library. Every time Pan left, Tink regressed into himself, despite the valiant efforts on the part of the staff, who offered him lots of love and patience. Some cats prefer to be only cats while others prefer company; Tink was definitely in the latter camp and was noticeably lonely without his buddy. For no fault of his own, Tink, then only two years old, had spent 18 months in the shelter or foster care and had been adopted and returned three times, the last time in May 2017. The longest he spent with any owner was less than two months. So clearly he had not found his furever home yet. To make things worse, he was separated from Pan and regressed to his previous skittish, hidey cat self back at the shelter.

I met Aristotle in the summer of 2017, after he had been surrendered by his owner in June along with his two housemates. The housemates were fostered at the library. These cats were moody, skittish, and quickly shut down when overstimulated. They were apparently unused to being handled or even pet very much, and it was apparent that the trio had not received regular veterinary care prior to their appearance at the shelter. I learned that the two housemate cats fiercely guarded their food. Being less assertive and consequently the least dominant cat, Aristotle had apparently been bullied by his housemates and ate when he could before another cat chased him off. He came to the shelter very thin, with little appetite even after he was no longer exposed to bullying cats.

Animal services employees put a Feliway pheromone collar on Tink and Aristotle (a common practice), which seemed to help somewhat, but Tink definitely did better with a buddy cat. Knowing that Tink loved being with other cats, the shelter director introduced him to Aristotle. Thankfully, both cats immediately hit it off.

I got to know Aristotle that summer when I volunteered in the cat room. When I opened the pen door, Aristotle did not bolt out like many cats did. Occasionally, he was not in the mood to receive visitors; I suspected that he did not always feel well. It took some time for him to size anyone up and determine if he liked them or not, and this included volunteers. If he warmed to a volunteer, he would bunt their hands when they came to pet him. He also followed volunteers around the cat room, not in a clingy “don’t leave me” way but in a polite “I’m helping and supervising” manner, rub against their legs (or rather, polish their ankles), and liked to bat at ribbon toys, although he did not play with toys when I visited.

The cat room volunteers, including myself, were familiar with these cats and felt sorry for them. They had been in the shelter longer than cats usually stay, and poor Tink had spent most of his life in the shelter. While it was fortunate that the boys had one another, they definitely needed a respite and, with luck, a home. However, no one was interested in either of these two tabbies that summer. That is, until the Clear the Shelter event on Saturday, August 19, 2017…

Tink and Aristotle resided in a cat condo very similar to this one. Considering that there were two of them together, the boys were given a large condo with multiple cubbies, which were excellent hiding spots.

Photo courtesy of Pinterest

Stay tuned for Part Three! (If you haven’t already read it, be sure to check our Part One too.)

Garrus and Charlie’s Story Part One: Considering Fostering

In January 2017 Nala, my 16-year-old cat, crossed the Rainbow Bridge. It was incredibly difficult saying goodbye to Nala but it was the best thing for her. I had Boudicca, then approaching 17, but I had to realistically start thinking that I would eventually have to say goodbye to her as well since she, too, was not immortal.

Aaron and I started discussing the prospect of fostering cats or kittens as an extension of my volunteer work but had so far never done it. Animal shelters frequently need fosters to take in animals, especially expectant or new mothers, puppies, kittens, or animals with special needs. I was familiar with how the library fostered cats and the occasional guinea pig and rabbit. With the help of my aunt and mother, I had successfully bottle-raised Nala. In the same vein, I was interested in deepening my volunteer work as a foster and expanding my knowledge of pet care.

One of my good friends, Christine, is a foster mom extraordinaire, as she devotedly takes care of countless shelter kittens. I regularly ask her for advice on cat matters and had conversations with her about the ins and outs of fostering.

Aaron and I discussed at length what we had to offer if we decided to foster a cat. This is what we came up with:

  • Quiet household. No kids. 🗹
  • Stable routine. 🗹
  • Moderately experienced cat owners. 🗹
  • Patience. 🗹
  • Safe spaces. 🗹
  • Time. 🗹
  • Abundant love. 🗹

(Don’t worry. I’ll discuss things to consider before fostering and how to foster cats specifically in a subsequent post.)

But who would I foster? A kitten? A cat that needed socialization? A pregnant mama cat that needed a safe place to have her kittens? There were so many possibilities.

In the summer of 2017, I was quite surprised when two tabby cats pulled at my heartstrings…

This was Charlie’s shelter profile picture. At the time he was called Tink.

This was Garrus’s shelter profile picture. At the time he was named Aristotle.

NB: I realized that the boys’ story would be long so I broke it down into a multi-part series of posts. Stay tuned for Part Two!