By the time he was first surrendered into BC SPCA care, 5-year-old Layne was troubled. Although friendly with other cats, he had lived confined in a room for most of his life with minimal socialization with people. As a result, he was fearful of people and couldn’t fully trust them, including the staff and volunteers who were working hard to provide care to him.
Things looked good for Layne when he was adopted, but shortly after, he was returned after biting his new adopter. Back in the BC SPCA Richmond Animal Centre, he spiralled further.
Centre manager Krista Shaw was concerned, “He had multiple bites and if he had continued to bite, he would not have been adoptable,” Shaw says. However, Shaw and the centre staff didn’t want to give up on Layne. He had formed bonds with two staff members so Shaw decided to get professional training advice for Layne to see if it could help him learn to trust more people.
Getting help from a trainer
Shaw contacted AnimalKind trainer Bernadette van Klaveren from DAWG/Best Paw Forward in Nanaimo.
Although van Klaveren typically works with dogs, she jumped at the chance to use her behavioural knowledge to help a cat find their forever home. She was also up for the different challenges that come with working with cats. “Cats tend to have a faster negative emotional response when reacting to fear than dogs, and their intensity, and sharp teeth and claws, makes them a force to be reckoned with!” she says.
Starting with a behavioural modification plan
Layne had difficulty being comfortable when an unfamiliar person entered his space. He often resorted to aggression, even if the person did not attempt to interact with him. Working remotely over video calls, van Klaveren assessed Layne and devised a behavioural modification plan for him.
According to van Klaveren, cats communicate their stress by “hissing or meowing, but often their body language is the only visible sign,” which includes stiff body actions, high arched back, and fur standing out. These observations were showing centre staff that Layne was becoming uncomfortable and at that point the options were to “either remove the trigger or help Layne to turn around and move away,” says van Klaveren.
The plan for Layne included desensitization by having an unfamiliar person stand inside an X-pen so Layne could see them but not get close. Layne was then encouraged to visually explore and sniff the space while one of the people he trusted would roll tasty treats away from the “scary” new person. van Klaveren explained that at this early stage, the team’s goal for Layne was to “observe and inspect, but not get too close and lose his composure”.
Once Layne was becoming more comfortable, counter-conditioning techniques were introduced, which included “pairing the new person becoming visible or becoming a bit more active, with fun games such as flirt pole chasing and food treats,” says van Klaveren.
Shaw added that Layne was provided with “a target mat that he would go to for interactions and to show he wanted to be interacted with” and a cat tree that he could retreat to for alone time. “He was extremely food motivated, which helped!” she said.
Layne’s second chance
Dedication and teamwork paid off as this careful training saved Layne’s life. He was adopted by Erin, who was willing and ready to provide the extra support and patience that Layne would need, and who also had another cat for him to play with.
His new family was immediately charmed by Layne, “We were in love with how quiet and silly he was. We knew we wanted to take him home after that first meeting,” Erin says. “We thought he was so funny, so cute, and just needed a home.” As in any adoption story, there was an adjustment period, “In the 2 months we’ve had him he’s learned how to play, how to trust, and how to be loved,” Erin says. “It’s been amazing to see him become so much braver and to see him interact with strangers.”
It takes time, but it’s well worth it
When it comes to cats like Layne, who have been undersocialized and possibly experienced trauma, understanding their needs is essential for reaching a positive outcome. Shaw recommends potential adopters recognize the importance of “giving them space and time and not pushing them pass their threshold. There might be some blood, sweat, and tears but it will be worth it!”
van Klaveren echoed that advice, “Training cats to become better adjusted to living with humans is a labour of love and requires patience, understanding of body language and emotional responses plus an ability to see even tiny bits of progress”. She also notes that a “small lick of food or rolling a treat to chase or a game of flit pole chasing can go a long way!”
As for Layne, he is living life to fullest now. His family describes him as “a sweet, hilarious cat” and report that Layne’s favorite things are “playing with his feline brother Keith, cuddling with his parents, eating, and sitting on the patio watching the world”.
This story is a true testament to the power of second chances as after overcoming his fears, Layne now has his second chance and is bringing so much joy to his new family. The happy end of Layne’s story is a new beginning of his new happy life!
Learn more about BC SPCA’s AnimalKind at animalkind.ca