Play Therapy in the Socialization Process

Socialization seems to be going well with the kittens. Pendragon and Vivan are perfect. They are crazy, playful lovebugs. Pendragon in particular loves nothing more than to be cradled in an arm getting his belly rubbed. Their sister Morgan, on the other hand, is taking a little longer to come around.  She had a bit of a rough start though, so I can completely understand her being a touch more nervous. When I first caught them Morgan was the very sick one, and she was immediately taken into the vet, where she was handled and poked. I brought her home only to repeatedly be forcefully held and get medicine crammed down her throat and in her eye, eventually she also had to be force fed, so I can completely understand her reluctance to approach people.

Morgan, clearly starting to feel more comfortable

Moran is getting better though. She comes out to play with her brother and sister when people are in the room. She doesn’t automatically try to hide when people come in anymore. She will sniff hands and  feet. I even got to pet her tonight and coerced a purr out of her with some neck rubs which she claimed to hate. It took me three days and two different rooms to finally get rid of all the hiding spots she found. After two days of unsuccessfully trying to fill in every nook and corner under couches and behind furniture in the basement, I finally moved them upstairs to a smaller room. Unfortunately there are still several good hiding spots in there, namely the giant chest of drawers, and it took several more attempts to completely block that off, little Morgan is quite the sneaky one and she managed to find, or make, the smallest little gaps in the stuffings and squeeze her way underneath. Fingers crossed she has not found any new gaps or hiding spots today.

It is so important that they don’t have any place to hide when doing play therapy, and throughout the socialization process in general, because a cat with an inclination to hide is not going to socialize. She is going to constantly retreat to her hiding spot whenever she gets nervous. And if her instinct is to hide when she gets nervous, she is never going to learn that people are not scary. Of course, you also can’t just dump a terrified feral or shy cat into a wide open room at first. This has to be a gradual process of removing hiding spots. Not all behaviorists would agree with me on that, but, at least initially, they need to have some little hiding nook (but make sure you can find them and get them out if need be). Once they are adjusted to the new space then I slowly take away their hiding spots.

Now that I appear to have gotten rid of all the good hiding spots I am going to amp up the amount of one on one playtime she gets. Pendragon and Vivan love to play, and Morgan will usually join them in a game of chase the mouse or chase the sparkle ball, but she will not really join in group play time when it involves the Cat Dancer or the Cat Charmer. So Vivan and Pendragon get locked up in their cage when it comes time for play therapy.

How does play therapy work? The toy of choice is a Cat Dancer. Whomever invented this toy is a genius and a Godsend! Sit on the floor with a towel or blanket over your lap and just wiggle the toy around gently. It looks like a bug when it moves and most kittens and cats can’t resist it for long. The urge to pounce is just to great.  Slowly get them comfortable playing with it and lose themselves in the game. When you get to this point start to move the toy closer to you, so they have to approach you to pounce on it. When they get close enough for you to touch them, wait until the exact moment they pounce on the toy, then reach out and touch them. Just a gentle stroke! Since their neurons are already firing off positive chemicals from catching their prey (the Cat Dancer) they begin to associate your touch with the positive chemicals in their brain. Neat little trick huh?

Pendragon and Morgan in their socialization cage

In order for Play Therapy to work though, you have to get rid of all the hiding spots and have a nice quiet, calm environment for them to play in. My problem with Morgan has been that she wouldn’t come out of hiding to play, if she did she wouldn’t play because her rambunctious brother and sister were jumping all over the place to get the toy, preventing her from having a turn. So I removed all the hiding spots, including her favorite little plush kitty cube bed, so she has no place to hide when playing. Then I lock Pendragon and Vivan into their cage and spend some time just playing with Morgan.

Since she is still so unsure I am taking my time to just get her interested in playing. She loves to play by herself with a mouse or a sparkle ball, and she loves to wrestle with her brother and sister but only if one of them starts it. And she is very interested in watching the Cat Dancer and Cat Charmer when I wiggle them around, but she is very hesitant to play with them. It takes a good few minutes of just wiggling the toy around to get her to even swat at it.  So the past day or so I have been lucky just to get her to play a little bit, and I haven’t really attempted to make her approach me when playing. That will come, hopefully by the end of the week.

I used play therapy to work with Pendragon and Morgan as well, and it took two, maybe three days of playing with them and sitting downstairs while they ate to get them to be comfortable enough to approach me. I am doing the same thing with Morgan, but she is still just a little slower to come around. Today though she made some amazing progress though. I played with them, and she plopped herself  on top of the cage and played!  She was very playful, swatting and powing at it furiously. But she was still reluctant to approach me while playing. She did play with me and got a little closer than before. She even continued to play even after I locked Pendragon and Vivan into their cage.  I have been able to pet her more and was even able to hold her a tiny bit. So she is making finally making progress of some sort.

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