There is no doubt that it is an honorable choice to take in rescue cats and cats that have come from abusive situations. However, it is also important to note that taking in cats that have been in such circumstances comes with its own set of trials and tribulations.
If you adopt a cat that has been through years of abuse at the hands of an abusive owner, you may find that the cat refuses to trust you because of what they have been through.
No matter how hard you try, the cat may not be willing to open up to you, leaving you wondering whether or not cats are able to forgive abuse in the past.
The first thing to note is that all cats are different, just like people are. Some cats are able to trust again after prolonged abuse, while other cats may forever remain aloof no matter how much time has passed.
The most that you can do is establish supportive behaviors and engage in practices that show your cat that it is safe. Whether or not the cat is willing to trust again depends heavily on the nature of the abuse, how prolonged it was, and the cat’s own personality.
How to Help Cats Overcome a History of Abuse
Cats, by their own nature, are animals that learn to associate behaviors with actions. For example, if a cat was beaten with a stick, it has come to associate most stick-like objects with the act of being beaten, even if you are holding up something harmless and moving calmly with it.
The first step to helping your cat forgive past abuse it has suffered is to try and help it relearn that its triggers are no longer something that it needs to associate with harm.
This process takes patience – a lot of it. It can take weeks, months, and even years for some cats to fully relearn that the objects or actions that lead to the abuse do not always lead to harm.
A cat that has been abused may always bolt if you raise your hands too fast, or it may come to learn that a raised hand may not always lead to pain and violence.
To help a cat move forward, you need to do two things:
- You need to respect the cat’s boundaries, even if this means that you cannot get as close to the cat as you may want to.
- You also need to identify what the triggers are for it to run away or to react out of fear.
Depending on the circumstances, you may already know what the cat is scared of. Other times, you may learn by mistake if you accidentally move the wrong way and the cat bolts.
Knowing what the cat is scared of will help you identify what you need to avoid to show the cat that there is no danger.
Do Cats Hold Grudges?
Another aspect of forgiveness that you need to be aware of is a cat’s ability to hold a grudge. The idea of a grudge for cats is different from the grudges that people will hold with others.
A Short Memory
Cats typically don’t have that good of a memory. Studies range in determining exactly how limited a cat’s memory is, but their working memory lasts under a minute and studies on their long-term memory have it between 10 minutes and 16 hours.
For humans, grudges are held in long-term memories, but for cats, it is a bit different.
A cat that has been abused may not remember what exactly happened. It may not remember why the abuse occurred or how long ago it happened. What it does remember is the learned association between the actions taken before the abuse and the feeling of the injuries sustained.
Much like children learning about the world around them, when a cat learns to associate these things together, it becomes something that a cat has to relearn over a period of weeks or months. This is what could be considered a grudge in a cat’s mind.
Learning from Humans
One thing to note is that seeing their person’s response to the behavior that a cat has learned is bad will help the cat gauge its own behavior.
As an example, consider when a person accidentally steps on their cat’s paw or tail. If the person acts worried or scared, the cat will respond in turn to those heightened emotions.
Part of helping a cat to let go of a grudge is to limit your own emotional responses when interacting with the cat so that it does not feel overwhelmed. It is widely believed that if you keep a calm mood while providing positive reinforcement and removing the negative stimuli from the environment, this helps a cat to get over its grudge more quickly.
So, What Should You Do?
There are a few ways that you can help a cat recover from abuse. The most important thing to remember is to always respect the cat’s boundaries, even if you don’t quite understand them.
Depending on how traumatized the cat is, accommodating the cat’s boundaries will range from giving it its own room without interaction with people and just food, water, and litter, to simply making sure that you do not engage in actions that you know the cat is afraid of.
The goal of teaching a cat to no longer be afraid and to associate the once-problematic actions with positive stimuli is to help it understand that it will not get hurt.
Reward Them for Pro-Social Behaviors
If you notice the cat crossing the boundaries it has set up, you should reward and praise the cat.
For instance, if the cat is afraid of interacting with people and it comes up to sniff you, leave treats for the cat as a response. If the cat interacts with an object that it is typically scared of, give it treats and pets (only if it is willing to let you touch it).
You should reward them every time they push the boundaries of their comfort zone so that they learn to associate something that was once hurtful to the cat with something positive.
Doing this is a gradual process, as a cat who has been abused is likely not going to be keen on exiting its comfort zone any time soon.
You shouldn’t try to encourage the cat yourself, especially if the cat is scared of interaction and being near people. You should let the cat move at its own pace and set its own rules.
Depending on the cat, this can take anywhere from weeks to months to years for your cat to adjust as much as it is going to. It is also important to remember that some cats never fully “forgive” the abuse that they have endured and this is something that you should be aware of when you are adopting a cat out of an abusive situation.
Caring for a cat is a huge responsibility. This is even more the case for cats that have been traumatized and need to learn their way around the world again. Just be the supportive, loving hand forward, and they will make it through alright.