Low-cost ways to help a skittish cat

Dear Thomas, Sinéad and Siouxsie,
Hi! I have two lovely kitties, Leo (3) and Lily (2), who I adopted from an awesome shelter in September. We had planned to just get Leo, but Lily is in love with him and gets depressed when he's not around. She's extremely affectionate with him, but not us. My best friend adopted a kitty from there too, Sheba (2), in October, and they just moved in last month. Leo's friendly with humans, but the girls are skittish and scared -- Lily more so. She is getting more and more comfortable though, and has gone from hiding all the time to playing right in front of us -- as long as we don't move!

Lily hasn't seemed too thrilled about Sheba moving in. We were hoping that their previous living-together experience in the shelter would help. She growls at her, but is never really aggressive. Sheba enjoys chasing Leo and Lily up and down the stairs, which Lily loves to do to Leo -- but she doesn't like it when Sheba does it to her. She often growls or swats at her for this, but Sheba doesn't really seem to get the hint. I think she also gets a bit jealous when Leo and Sheba are hanging out. Everything else is normal, but I just don't think she's terribly happy with the new arrangement. It's only been a few weeks, though, and I have no clue how long it may take to adjust. (Leo, for the record, enjoys having Sheba around and the two of them play just fine.)

Feliway's a bit on the expensive side, and I'm not sure that it's necessary, but what do you think? And are there any other ways to make Lily more comfortable with Sheba? And do you have any tips on helping Lily be more affectionate with us?

Any advice you have is greatly appreciated!
--Sandhya

Sinéad: Well, Sandhya, it's not all that unusual for two female cats to have difficulty getting along together, even if they knew each other previously.

Siouxsie: All kinds of territorial issues need to get sorted out when a new cat moves in, and usually it's the cats of the same sex who will have the most trouble accommodating one another. But don't fret, they will learn to get along after a while -- it'll just take some time and patience on everyone's part.

Thomas: I think it's more common for cats of the opposite sex to bond together, too. The only exception to this is when the cats are littermates, like Sinead and Siouxsie -- then they keep their kitten bond together throughout most of their lives.

Sinéad: Cats of similar status and temperament will usually get along better, too. Since Leo is more outgoing and may be higher in the kitty hierarchy than Lily, it's pretty natural that the Leo and Sheba would bond first. It's going to take Lily longer because she's more shy and sensitive.

Siouxsie: It's not unusual that Lily would swat Sheba for doing to her the same thing that she does to Leo. It's just another manifestation of the territorial power struggle.

Thomas: You don't mention that it's come to screaming and flying fur, so that's a good sign. It means the cats are working things out in their own time and using their own process.

Sinéad: You can help the cats bond with each other by helping them mix and distribute their scents. There's an easy way to do this. First, dampen a washcloth with warm water -- and I mean on the almost-dry side of damp, not the dripping-with-water state that some humans call damp. Then wipe one cat's face, primarily along the cheeks and the place between the eyes and ears where the fur is thin. Of course, you want to be very gentle and make affectionate and loving noises while you do this.

Siouxsie: We cats' Happy Scents come from our heads and cheeks. You've probably noticed that happy cats rub their heads and cheeks on pieces of furniture, or on your clothes, or on your hands. This is why you "collect" the scents from the cat's head.

Thomas: When you have collected one cat's scent, share it with the other cats by allowing them to sniff at the cloth. Rub the cloth along each cat's head and shoulders, helping to mingle the smells. You can also rub this dampened cloth on wood fixtures, scratching posts, cat condos and the like. This will help to mingle the scents everywhere and help all the cats understand what constitutes "neutral territory."

Sinéad: Since Feliway is basically a feline facial pheromone analogue, you'll be mimicking what Feliway does by using this wiping-and-sharing technique -- putting scent markers around the house that say "happy and contented cats live here."

Siouxsie: One warning, though: If there are places that you know "belong" exclusively to one or the other of your cats, do not rub the multi-cat-scented cloth in these areas. If you do, you're more likely to aggravate territorial problems. Rub the cloth only in spaces the cats share.

Thomas: On the subject of helping Lily to be more affectionate with you, I think that's just going to require patience.

Sinéad: It sounds like Lily is a cat with a lot of anxiety, and in order to get her to come out of her shell and not be afraid of you, it's crucial that you make her feel safe. Don't try to pick her up without her permission, keep the environment quiet, and allow her to come to you on her terms.

Siouxsie: Skittish cats really benefit from being allowed to grow slowly. One technique that Mama has used with anxious and/or previously abused cats is the Wait Patiently With Food (Or Treats) method.

Thomas: Basically this involves you and Lily spending time each day in one room, when the house is quiet. Bring a can of her favorite food or some special kitty treats (anything you know she loves -- I personally prefer Kookamunga chicken-catnip treats, but you know which yummies your cat friends like best). On the first day, put the treat or food close to where she's hiding. Then sit down in some place comfortable and read a book, work on the computer, meditate, or listen to music VERY QUIETLY.

Sinéad: This will work best if you're sitting on the floor or in a low seat like a beanbag chair. Basically, don't focus all your attention on her. Stay in the room with her for about half an hour at a time. Say nice things to her on occasion in a soft, low and loving voice. You want to be still when she's in the room, so doing yoga or aerobics is not a good idea -- the motion will spook her and make her feel unsafe.

Siouxsie: Each day, bring the food or treat a little bit closer to where you're sitting -- a few inches to a foot or so at a time. Remember to maintain your quiet and calm attitude, keep your patience and broadcast "I love you, you're safe here" vibes to her.

Thomas: Ideally this will culminate with you having the treat in your lap and Lily coming up to your lap to eat it.

Sinéad: Whatever you do, don't be too hasty in reaching out for Lily to pet her! You'll sabotage all your good work if you do that, and she'll retreat back into her hiding place. If this does happen, whether you make a mistake or whether someone shows up suddenly and decides to turn the stereo up to 11 and yell over the sound of it, while the smoke alarm goes off and....well, you get the idea...just be patient and start back wherever Lily needs to start again.

Siouxsie: Once Lily gets comfortable on your lap, reach out very gently to pet her, and only touch the top of her head. She may run away at this touch, but put another treat on your lap and make more loving noises, and she'll come back.

Thomas: Mama did this with an abused cat her mother adopted, and she had that cat purring on her lap in about two weeks. It takes patience, but it's so worth it when a formerly skittish cat curls up in your lap with her purrbox rumbling in joy.

JaneA: Something else that might help you in working with skittish cats is a book by Temple Grandin called Animals in Translation. Temple Grandin is an autistic woman who became a facility designer for cattle processing plants; her specialty is creating ways for the cattle to get from Point A to Point B without becoming overstimulated and agitated and terrified. She credits her ability to relate to animals' way of viewing the world to her autism and believes that animals' response to the world is much like that of an autistic person. One of my LiveJournal friends, who happens to be autistic, pointed this book out to me as well as an interview she did at KUOW-FM on Jan. 21. To find the interview, simply click the archives and search for Temple Grandin. Then click the link to the Jan. 21 edition of "The Beat." The interview with Grandin is the first part of the show.

Sinéad: Good luck, Sandhya, and good luck to Leo and Lily and Sheba, too!

Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail Sinéad and Siouxsie at advice@paws-and-effect.com. None of the advice in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.