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I love my cats so much I’ve been doing this for 18 months

This month we have a guest blog from cat mum and holistic groomer Emma Chapman. She shares with us what she has been doing for her cats for the past 18 months which is a testament to how much she loves her cats.

In July of 2019 my two cats suffered a traumatic event. In brief my two 4-year-old female sisters Vyvyan and Nyx were attacked in their own home by a third cat.

The result…my sister cats were extremely scared in their own home. Vyvyan relaxed very quickly once she realised the threat had gone. Nyx on the other hand, who is a sensitive soul, unfortunately needed treatment for a cat bite on her foot during this time and it took a few weeks for her to relax.

The girls seemed to settle, and we thought all was well. Then 3 months later in October 2019 the full effects of the trauma began to manifest.

Early one morning they had a serious altercation in the living room. We were not in the room, but we heard it! When we found them, we had an extremely terrified Nyx and a very confused Vyvyan. Nyx was hiding on top of the cooker in the kitchen, hissing, ears flat, petrified. We knew right there and then we had a serious issue.

We moved a litter tray into the kitchen, shut the door and separated them. We needed to give them time to calm down and to process what had happened. This was the start of our lives changing.

I’ve introduced cats before in the past, all done gradually, always worked out. What we didn’t realise at the time is that we were dealing with a cat that had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

So, we started reintroducing them right from scratch after they’d both had a few days alone to chill out. And when I say we started at the beginning we really did. We cracked the kitchen door for 30 seconds a day and gave them lots of treats to help embed a positive association between the two of them. They weren’t right at each side of the door, but we made sure they could see each other.

You could see the worry on Nyx’s face, her eyes were wide, and she was really trying to figure out if Vyvyan was a cat she knew or not. We stayed at this stage for around 2 weeks until Nyx was completely comfortable with it. We purchased a baby gate and continued with the slow introductions. About a month in we had both girls eating treats at each side of the door. They’d had some polite nose sniffs, all seemed quite calm so we took it a step further and opened the gate to offer treats as ‘normal’.

Vyvyan couldn’t wait to get in the kitchen and Nyx walked off the opposite way down the hallway. For a brief moment I felt hopeful.

Sadly, then it went wrong. Vyvyan walked back into the hallway and because the context was different Nyx didn’t understand who she was or where she had come from and panicked again! Cue the hissing, wide eyes etc and she flew back into the kitchen. Vyvyan just ran off to avoid a confrontation. We closed the gate hoping Nyx would come round fairly quickly but Vyvyan appeared at the other side of the gate and Nyx freaked out again. This was the point we realised Nyx needed extra help. 

She had a massive case of non-recognition aggression and was obviously traumatised from previous events. It was like she really didn’t understand who her sister was and felt threatened by a strange cat in her territory.

We needed help so I spoke to my vet. After many discussions between me and my husband 3 weeks later Nyx was put on anti-anxiety medication.  An extremely low dose that does not make her sleepy or change her personality. I have to say, it’s changed her way of thinking and instead of reacting aggressively, she’s able to think things through before deciding what to do. It’s like we were able to communicate with her again as she was no longer in the perpetual fight/flight mode. We could reach her.

So, we got to work again with the introductions. As me and my husband both work full time we were limited as to how much time we had to do ‘cat stuff’. Every day after work we began letting Vyvyan into the kitchen and letting Nyx get reacquainted with her in the that one space.

We got to a point where they would share space for 30 minutes! It was a mini miracle. All the while making sure they had tasty treats and distractions – I’m holding my breath. I’m watching them so closely for signs of stress or anxiety, it was hard work.

Nyx was good at taking herself up onto a table to watch Vyvyan and you could tell she was comfortable when she ignored her sister and would eat the treats quite relaxed. Some days she would be on high alert watching Vyvyan and keeping a wide eye on her.

When she had days like that, we just reduced the duration of the interaction as we didn’t want to push their limits. Through all of this Nyx has never once been bothered about having smaller living quarters, it’s like she felt less overwhelmed in a smaller space.

Weeks went by and we were happy with the girl’s interaction in the kitchen, so we began expanding their little meeting sessions into different parts of the house. The hallway for starters, then the living room, halfway upstairs and so on until over the course of a few months we had them sharing treats and space in each room. Another miracle!

We incorporated play into these sessions, which was mainly Vyvyan playing but it gave Nyx the opportunity to stay and watch if she wanted or leave the area. Although she didn’t get involved it was another example of a positive association of her being around her sister without any signs of conflict. Occasionally she would play a little if she relaxed enough. These sessions always finished with Nyx going back to her safe space for some alone time.

All of this took a good couple of months.

Now onto phase two: We would wait for Vyvyan to settle in the office with my husband and close the door. This gave Nyx the chance to explore the house by herself without us watching her every move and not worrying about them bumping into each other. This also allowed Nyx to start relaxing in different parts of the house without feeling overwhelmed. We did this for around two months.

When the March 2020 lockdown happened, it was an absolute god send for us as it enabled us to move to Phase three: letting them spend the daytime together in the house. We did this under supervision of course to make sure Nyx was comfortable and so we could assess how things were progressing between the two of them.

We have been doing behaviour modification and re-introducing the two girls for the past 18 months now. We’ve had a couple of setbacks along the way as is standard with introductions. Nyx had an odd hiss or growl at Vyvyan if she didn’t want her near her.

But the difference was that Nyx wasn’t panicking and freaking out, she was simply communicating how she felt. Thankfully, Vyvyan would listen and walk off and Nyx would stay where she was, she was in control of the situation. Still up to this point we were randomly rewarding them for being in the same space, throwing a few treats their way to make it a positive experience.

This then led on to Nyx spending an odd night sleeping in the house with us and then a few nights sleeping back in the kitchen, we were super conscious not to overwhelm her and change things too fast. It all seemed to be going in the right direction, finally.

Then we had a setback on Christmas eve 2020. Nyx appeared to have what we can only think was a panic attack and completely freaked out. We very calmly separated them and kept Nyx in her safe space for a couple of days. She calmed down and ‘came round’ very quickly and now we are back to a fairly normal routine. She’s out in the house with Vyvyan all day and sleeps in the kitchen overnight. This seems to be working at the moment. They’re happy with this, so we’re not in a huge rush to get Nyx sleeping out overnight again. She seems to appreciate her alone time.

We respect her needs and don’t force her to be or behave in a way that we want. We respect her boundaries and limits.

Along our journey we have also supported Nyx with Bach Flower Remedies, cat massage and we tried an anxiety herb garden from Naturally Cats.

We’ve used remedies that support trauma and fear, and we feel that alongside the medication and slow environment changes Nyx is coping well.

This journey has been a long one and we are under no illusion that it’s over, we don’t take for granted that everything is fixed. Nyx still very much needs her own space and time as this helps her cope with sharing space with her sister.

We have no idea how long her PTSD will be present, but we will help her as much as we need to. It’s been a tough time on the whole household, and I am taking steps to be aware of my anxiety too as I know cats pick up on our emotions and energy.

Who knows what the future holds but for today we are working with our two girls and helping them the best way we can.

Just know this…introductions and behaviour support doesn’t happen overnight with cats. We need to give them time, patience, love and understanding. The more we can support their needs rather than putting our wants onto them the happier a home it will be for everyone. 

It’s been a journey that we have all learned from and are still learning from every single day.

Emma, Nyx and Vyvyan x

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