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Unfortunately I've messed up and don't really know how to remedy the situation, I need some suggestions and help.

The situation is as follows: my in-laws are vets and do a lot of pro-bono work. One day they had a small (feral) kitten in their clinic that had suffered a rectal prolapse and had been brought into them after being found and (unfortunately) after she'd seen some rough treatment at the hands of the cattery's resident vet, that had apparently stitched her anus shut without anathesia. Anyway, once they remedied the situation and repaired the damage, she was a fairly normal kitten and I took a shining to her, so after a few months that she went unclaimed I took her home.

She's developed normally and is now about a year old. I've had her for about seven months now. She's extremely skittish and has always rushed under sofas and beds to keep out of our way, but simultaneously seems OK with us when we're stationary and she is being the active party. Honestly she seems better with my partner than with me, but then again she has a good way with animals. The cat has her litter box and uses it very effectively, eats and drinks, plays around with stuff, and often sleeps with us. First thing in the morning she's always very affectionate with head bumping, licking, and miaowing.

Anyway, I was trying to use the "gently confine a kitten" method to teach her she had no reason to run under the furniture all the time. That wasn't working so while I was at it I decided to comb her because she was shedding loads. She never much liked that and probably that was the wrong thing to do because it lead to her suddenly defecating on me, which lead me to scream and jump up, she ran scared, etc., and then I tried to catch her because she was leaving shitty skid marks wherever she went.

That must have terrified her and I regret it. Now she's extremely wary of me (I don't blame her, I would be too) and whenever I approach her in a manner she deems threatening (quite difficult not to approach her in a two-room apartment) she pastes herself to the ground, puts her ears back, and flicks her tail in a classic display of submission. She becomes totally non-interactive so I can't even successfully get her to take a treat and defuse the situation. She's never been the smartest cookie in the jar (sometimes can't even find treats that are offered to her on the palm of one's hand).

Anyway, I know I screwed up, and I would like to know where I can begin to rectify the situation and regain her trust.

Thanks for taking the time.

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Ok, this might take a while to fix, but it is fixable.

First things first, when the cat shows fear like that it's going to be essential to signal that you are not a danger, then leave her completely alone. No kind of interaction except signaling your disinterest. There is no way to interact in a positive way once the cat has taken this position.

Also, if you are walking towards her and she becomes scared, again signal disinterest and then go out of your way to walk around her as much as possible, give her as much room as you can.

Signaling being disinterested and non-threatening consists of a few parts:

  • Don't look her in the eyes. (Cats have excellent peripheral vision and looking directly at someone you aren't very familiar with means you are considering it for food or similar.)
  • If you do by accident, slowly blink, then look away. (Once you two become more comfortable with eachother this will be a very friendly way to communicate that you notice her, but not in a threatening way.)
  • Yawn! (This signals boredom, which to cats is bliss. You can't be aggressive and bored at the same time according to cats)
  • Do NOT rush. when walking, stay calm and try not to make any fast movements, especially not in her direction.

Now, for interaction: Avoid going to your cat for interaction, instead try sitting down a non-threatening distance away (I'm sure you've figured out how far that currently is already, this distance will lessen over time), then bring out some (smelly!) treats, a toy, or just tap/scratch the floor/chair/sofa to get her attention. Allow her to come to you for playing, treats, or petting. Important here, move slowly when she does come to you, unless she's completely focused on a toy that needs a bit of speed to operate.

If she doesn't come after a few minutes just get up and ignore her for a while, then try again later.

Eventually you will begin to build her trust, and she might even become a true cuddly kitty, but it will take time, maybe weeks, maybe months.

EDIT #1:

Rereading some of the medical stuff, there is a possibility that you didn't really scare her into defecating, but due to the medical procedure she has an "eject button" (or just a really painful spot!) in the form of an exposed nerve or somesuch, which could explain the cause of the incident.

As for the "gently confine method" you mention, I've never heard of it, and doesn't seem to be a very enjoyable experience no matter how much your cat trusts you. Cats will sometimes run and hide, this will resolve itself over time as trust is built provided no stimuli reinforces the behaviour.

Background: I have a cat that used to be really skittish, with major abandonment issues. She'd run and hide when I moved around, or when strangers were around. And she'd only approach me when I was stationary.

After a 2 years she'd actually sit on my lap, after 3 or 4 she'd accept strangers. These days she's the first to greet visitors, she's hard to keep off my lap, and she sleeps on the bed next to me almost every night. I even get to cut her claws without her mauling me!

  • I do still “slow blink” at my cat but she does it back less frequently than she did before, I’ve never thought of yawning at her but I certainly will! I will try to not look at her directly either. She always seems very relaxed when she is not the centre of attention. – James Junghanns May 3 '17 at 12:51
  • Thank you for your reply. I’m pretty sure the defecation wasn’t due to some kind of medical hangover but was actual fear, sadly. – James Junghanns May 3 '17 at 14:55
  • Either way I wouldn't be too worried. Will have to be aware about giving her space, being non-threatening, and just give it some time. Everyone scares their pets once in a while by accident which can leave them distrustful for a little while. This lasts longer the less experience the cat has with you, meaning stepping on the tail of your cat of 10 years will only be cause for a few hours of distrust, while for a kitten this could last days or weeks. – Stig Tore May 4 '17 at 7:18
  • Thank you very much, I will try all of this. I wish to add that I am sure that the defecation incident was fear and not a hangover from the medical problem she had had earlier in life. Furthermore, she and I are still on good terms -she comes up close on the sofa when I am watching TV, curls up in physical contact with me, and purrs; bumps faces; & cetera- but she is decidedly wary of me and runs off at the slightest suspicion that I might be out to "get her", which broadly means me being the active party in taking interest. I'm very uspset I've traumatised her. – James Junghanns May 4 '17 at 12:36
  • Don't worry too much, she's a bit nervous about you, not traumatised. With care this will definitely pass. – Stig Tore May 5 '17 at 11:47
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having had big problems with a nervous 3 yr old rescue cat, I am sure that the Feliway plug-in device noticeably helped his situation.He is still wary and we let him approach us, and don't make sudden movements if possible, but we guess that he has been very badly hurt (emotionally??) in the past, and we have to win his absolute trust. It is improving inside the house and the garden, and I didn't really believe it when everyone said 'give it time' but now I agree Good luck!

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