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Pets Large & Small

"Mandatory fun"

Michael Hillman

(7/2017) Anyone who has introduced a new cat into an established cat population knows the process is tricky at best. Kittens are never really an issue as older cats quickly calibrate them as to who is in charge, an imprint that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Introducing a mature cat, however, takes some strategy, patience, and most of all, time.

Such was, and still is, the case with "Q."

As noted in last month’s article, "Q" showed up at our farm as a stray. As we already had our full complement of house cats, "Q" was destined to become one of the cats that used our farm as a stopping off point to fill up his belly and quench his thirst while making his daily rounds. That all changed however, when "Q" showed up one evening, sick.

His gentlemanly conduct at the vet office, followed by his picture perfect acceptance of being locked up in our barn’s tack room for follow-up care, earned him a home as a barn cat - the only complication however, was that he would have to share the barn with "Will" – who had no interest in sharing ‘his’ barn with anyone.

Well, that’s not entirely true – a year ago someone ‘dropped’ off a litter of four kittens. We found homes for three, but after failing to find a home for the fourth, we tested to see if Will would accept him – which he did. Unfortunately, the kitten made it quite clear he had no interest in being an outside cat (he had gotten a taste of indoor life while we had searched for a home for him), so rather than force the issue, we allowed the kitten back inside, and Will lost his friend.

Fortunately, we have several large outbuildings on the farm that allow Will multiple sleeping places depending on the weather. When "Q" showed up, Will was camped out in my second story carpentry shed, which allowed us to lock "Q" away in the tack room by himself.

The first indication of how things would go was when the pair caught sight of each other through the tack room windows. Will hissed at the intruder in ‘his’ tack room. "Q" hissed back.

I steeled myself for a long introduction process.

When "Q" had recovered sufficiently, we began to allow him some out time. Having trained indoor cats to be outdoor cats, we knew our game plan: teach "Q" to accept a harness, then learn to walk on a leash (Yes, cats can and do walk civilly on a leash when taught properly!).

It quickly became apparent that "Q" was not only a sweet cat, but also a smart cat. Once he figured out that the harness meant going outside, he quickly took to it, and was more than happy to explore his new domain on the leash. Will was never far away, sizing up "Q" – not quite sure if he was a friend or foe.

At first, every time "Q" saw Will, he would lunge at him, only to be yanked back when he hit the end of the leash. Of course Will would always bolt off at the initial lunge, but soon grew confident as the lunges never materialized into an actual fight. As time progressed, "Q" realized the lunges where futile, and ceased them, and the pair began to show acceptance of each other, often lying within a few yards of each other.

As their acceptance grew, "Q" was allowed more and more time to roam free – albeit still attached to a leash that he drug around behind him so we could readily retrieve him if necessary. Our plan was working perfectly up until the time Will decided to try to play with "Q."

Let’s just say the resulting cat fight left both a bit bloodied and us back at the starting box.

With winter now rolling in, it was clear we were going to have to divide the tack room so both cats could have a warm spot in the winter. The door on two unused cabinets was removed and replaced by wire mesh, and a connecting ramp was installed to a cage on the counter for "Q". While it was not as nice as having full run of the tack room, I kept telling him he had more room than he would have if he were in a shelter.

Being locked together in the tack room at night gave the pair time to sniff each other up and close through the safety of the wire mesh. During the day, each was allotted their own outdoor time. While indoor, I noted that they always chose to sleep in the other’s space – in doing so, the tack room began to take on the feeling of ‘neutral ground.’

Which made me think – maybe I could build upon it that feeling of safety they both attributed to it … my solution? "Mandatory fun."

The nice thing about having horses is you are never at a loss for girls to help do the odd chore in exchange for an opportunity to ride. Instigating and supervising "Mandatory Fun" for Will and "Q" immediately rose to the top of the list.

During ‘Manadatory Fun" both cats were allowed to roam free about the tack room. The students would engage one, then the other, then both in games of ‘bat a bird,’ ‘Stick under the rug,’ ‘lazer light,’ ‘string on a stick,’ and a host of other mindless games to keep the pair focused on something other than the other.

Both cats loved the games, and sat patently for their turn. As time progressed, they moved closer and closer to each other in an effort to get in on the other’s game. But instead oh hissing at each other, they exchanged friendly sniffs. When a hiss did occur, the offender was quickly sent back to his corner and the games resumed. Soon the pair learned that if they wanted to play, they had to play nice.

In the evenings I made it a point to spend an hour playing with them. When they grew bored, I would often sit back and read a book, allowing the two supervised interactions with each other. And that’s how I spent the winter.

As the distances between them closed, play occasionally broke out between the pair. Their favorite game usually involved them sitting on different sides of a cabinet door and playing ‘paw’ underneath it, or playing ‘king of the box.’

It wasn’t long before I found myself trying to remember the last time they had hissed at each other. While not friends, Will and "Q" had finally accepted each other.

When Spring finally arrived, we returned to their scheduled separate times out, but opted to keep them together in the evenings in the tack room so their budding acceptance of each other would not be lost. And yes, "Mandatory Fun" is still enjoyed by all.

As the spring wore on, we relayed the rules a bit. When Will had put himself to bed after his time out, "Q" was let out – but Will was not locked up. Inevitably, "Q," when done with his time out, would seek out Will’s sleeping spot, and would sleep near him, and vice versa – Will was almost always on "Q’s" bed, and "Q" was only too happy to claim "Wills." It soon became a commonality to see the pair peacefully asleep on the other’s bed – completely unsupervised. When one got up, the first stop was invariably a pause to sniff the other as if to say hello.

As the spring continued on, an evening joint ‘out’ was added to their daily routine, and instead of chasing each other, they now lounge away in flowerbeds enjoying the picture perfect barn cat life. In the evenings, they eat out of the same bowl and eagerly await mandatory fun time

Will "Q" and Will ever become true friends? I don’t know. I for one hope they do – for I think they both would like a friend. Will demonstrated it with the kitten, Q when he showed up and hung out with the cats in the enclosure.

But I’ve learned the hard way, you can’t force cats to be friends– you can however, create an environment that will allow them to be friends – the secret ingredients of which are time and patience.

Of course, any true cat lover knew that already!

Read other articles by Michael Hillman