Kitty Girl: When You Get The Cat You Need, Not the Cat You Want

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Guest post by Rita Atkins

On a cold November day in 2001, in a parking garage in Oklahoma City, my husband and I became the forever family of a pint-sized Maine Coon mix with a jumbo-sized anger management problem.

The rescue

Wheeling my luggage through the parking garage after returning from a business trip, my husband and I came across a small, grimy kitty who had recently given birth, looking up at us as if to say, “Great, my ride is here!” After an unsuccessful search for her kittens, we scooped her up and loaded her into the car. We took her to a nearby vet right away for a good bath and medical treatment for infected mammary glands, which had to heal before she could be spayed. The vet told us she was six months to a year old and had probably last nursed about a week before we found her. She was also the hostess of a particularly hardy tape worm that would live with her for the next two and a half years before it simply died of old age.

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We were not looking for a pet at the time. In fact, we thought at some point we wanted a dog. It wasn’t that we didn’t like cats, but neither of us were very experienced with them. We considered finding her a good home with some bona fide “cat people”, calling her Kitty Girl so as to not give her a real name and risk getting too attached.

Too late! Kitty Girl fell in love with my husband after the second day in our home. The name stuck, and so did she. To this day, over 15 years later, he is her one and only love.

Antisocial or aggressive?

Kitty Girl was, and still is, one of the prettiest cats we’ve ever seen. Her medium to long tabby with white coat, fluffy toe tufts and mane, and overall body shape (though petite) is classic Maine Coon, while her sweet round eyes and face suggest possible Siberian heritage. Regardless, she is a lovely little cat. As we soon discovered, though, her beautiful looks belied a spirit that was struggling. Not long after we declared her ours, she started displaying some aggressive tendencies, including hissing and swatting at inanimate objects that were new to her. While tolerant of people as long as they didn’t try to pet her, reaching toward her earned most a quick left hook. Not knowing any better, we attributed her antisocial behavior to simply being a cat. She definitely preferred men, making us think that maybe a woman had been unkind to her.

For the next five years or so, which included a move to Florida, then to Virginia, Kitty Girl maintained a steady pattern of being a daddy’s girl, tolerating me, and considering any other living thing something to be neutralized. People would tell us, “She’s so pretty. It’s too bad she’s so unfriendly.” We considered it just her way.

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Then something happened (or maybe several somethings) that caused Kitty Girl to start becoming aggressive toward me when I did something she found out of the ordinary. Rattling dishes in the sink, tripping over something lying on the floor, or simply answering a knock at the door elicited hisses, grabbing with her claws out, and sometimes biting. She then started directing her hostility toward me if anything else upset her. My husband dropped a book, and she turned to me, hissing and swatting. Once she got over the initial hostility, she would remain upset with me for the next day or so. It was like walking on eggshells in our home, trying not to upset her. Between these events, she seemed a happy, playful cat.

When Kitty Girl was about 8 years old, we moved to New Mexico. She had taken all of our other moves in stride, and seemed to adjust well this time. Her angry spells continued, but I could recognize their onset and separate myself from her before they escalated. Then one night, I never saw it coming.

The attack

After 3 months in our new home, I walked by her, snoozing peacefully under the dining room table. Minutes later, as I brushed my teeth in the master bath, I felt something hit the back of my leg. Seemingly out of nowhere, Kitty Girl had clamped on tight with her jaws. Once I pushed her off, she repeated a pattern of attack and retreat for the next fifteen minutes or so, eyes dilated to complete blackness, ears back, and growling. Between assaults, I managed to stop the bleeding on the back of my leg (vein wounds bleed profusely), place all of her things in a spare bedroom, lure her in with some canned salmon, and close the door.

During the whole attack that night, Kitty Girl looked miserable. She was panting between growls, and her body posture was completely defensive, as if she was the one under attack. It was heart wrenching to see this beautiful cat so out of control. Kitty Girl clearly needed help, and so did we.

Getting help

The next day, my husband phoned several vet offices, most of which were at a loss as to how they could help us since Kitty Girl wasn’t having a medical issue. We finally found one office that referred us to Dr. Jeff Nichol, DVM. Dr. Nichol is a member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, and specializes in behavioral medicine. After a two-hour consultation and a thorough medical exam, Dr. Nichol diagnosed Kitty Girl with fear aggression, with secondary redirected aggression toward me. He advised it would take some work, probably for the rest of her life, but there was hope that we could help her.

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Dr. Nichol prescribed a combination of medication and behavioral therapy to help her be less fearful, calm herself more quickly when she gets upset, and learn that I wasn’t such a bad person to have around. Kitty Girl was started on anti-anxiety medication, which was adjusted after a few weeks to best manage her aggression while minimizing side-effects. We changed her environment to include the addition of Feliway Diffusers, an extra litter box, and devices around the yard to shoo away any interloping outdoor felines that may be upsetting her. For four weeks, I alone interacted with her. Kitty Girl and I had several play sessions each day with wand toys (Da Bird is still her favorite). I doled out treats when her behavior was calm, and ignored her if she started to get what I call “twitchy”. I also taught her “sit”, which she is still quite good at. If I notice her getting tense about something, I ask her to “sit” and give her a treat when she complies. There is a behavioral term for it, but basically it gives her something else to do so she will forget why she is mad. With applying medication and behavioral tools, things started to slowly turn around. We could tell Kitty Girl was feeling less fearful and more relaxed, and her aggression levels decreased in turn.

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Based on our experience, we are tried and true believers in seeking professional intervention for behavioral problems in pets. We would have never been able to “self-diagnose” Kitty Girl’s fear aggression, or have had the knowledge and skills to work with her if we had not had her evaluated and treated by a behaviorist. Dr. Nichol became our partner in helping Kitty Girl, and though we have moved back to Virginia and she has a new veterinarian, we still keep in touch with him just to let him know how she is getting along.

Lessons learned from Kitty Girl

It has been over 7 years since she attacked me that evening, and her aggression is now mostly confined to using bad language and a swat or two. We weaned her off the medication two years ago and she is doing well, perhaps because she is much older now and has calmed with age, or perhaps she has developed better coping skills and we are more educated to help her. We still keep a bottle of her medication in the cupboard just in case she needs a little extra help, but so far, so good.

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Many people over the years have told me they would have “put that cat down”. While the option was discussed with Dr. Nichol, we dismissed it as quickly as it came up. Kitty Girl is family, for better or worse. Over time, I began to think about the saying, “We get the pets we need, not necessarily the pets we want”. I mused over why I might “need” a fear aggressive ball of claws and fangs in my life, and what Kitty Girl has taught me. Maybe it’s that fear is at the root of anger issues for humans as well, including people in my own life whom I have had difficulty understanding and loving. If I work so hard to find the good in a not-always-lovable little cat, shouldn’t I be working just as hard to find the good in people, too?

Kitty Girl also has led me to volunteer work in cat rescue. Because of her, I have a soft spot for Maine Coons and for special needs cats. Kitty Girl may not be physically disabled, but her emotional fragility makes her every bit as much a special need pet.

Our Kitty Girl will always have a sassier-than-most personality, but we hope that our efforts have made her life more happy and secure than it may otherwise have been. As we often say, “She’s not a nice kitty, but she’s our kitty and we love her.”

Rita Atkins volunteers with Only Maine Coon Rescue.  The group specializes in the Maine Coon Cat breed and rescues Maine Coon Cat / Kitten mixes from shelters and unwanted situations. All of their cats are lovingly cared for in foster homes until they are adopted.

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36 Comments on Kitty Girl: When You Get The Cat You Need, Not the Cat You Want

  1. Largest Cat Breed
    April 21, 2017 at 12:41 pm (1 month ago)

    Kitty Girl is as beautiful as you say. Thank you for giving her a forever home and accepting her as family.

    Reply
    • rita
      April 23, 2017 at 6:40 pm (1 month ago)

      Thank you!

      Reply
  2. Judy
    April 16, 2017 at 6:23 am (1 month ago)

    I adopted my cat from a HS when he was 3 & 1/2 years old.He looked to be pure NFC.
    He must have been abused because he had a fear aggression to feet and hands near his head. He would grab your leg when passing him and bite, even through jeans,as his mouth opens wide.If you try to pet him near his head he now will duck out of the way,but doesn’t bite the hand anymore. He stopped biting but will hiss if you walk passed him.I started years ago saying “excuse me” and stopping before walking past him and within a year the biting stopped and he trusted me.I had to use a squirt bottle occasionally.
    I never raise a voice nor hit an animal. He is now 12 years old and if I had listened to my doctor (concerned about all the cat bites on my hands and legs),the vet,and friends telling me to put him down,I would have lost out on all these loving years with him.
    He owns me,is jealous of my cat Tigger who was here for 2 years before him,and hisses at any other cat.
    Feliway spray and plug ins didn’t calm him. It took love and patience.

    Reply
    • Rita
      April 17, 2017 at 4:59 pm (1 month ago)

      Aww, Judy, what a happy story. That’s amazing that you were able to work with him and help him to trust you. He just needed to right human to adopt him and give him a chance, and then you came along! NFCs are so gorgeous…I bet he’s a handsome fella, too.

      Reply
  3. Suzanne
    April 15, 2017 at 8:15 am (1 month ago)

    Thanks so much for sharing this story; I was so very touched by it. It’s the first time that I felt that someone else was going through the same thing and I feel so much better knowing that “it’s not me”. I have a 3 year old Siamese, who is beautiful, loves my husband but is aggressive towards me. I so could relate to walking on eggshells. I can’t tell you how many people have told me to just “get rid of her”. I also had a vet tell me that I should give her to someone else where she might be “happier” with someone with a “stronger hand”. And he was a holistic vet but not a cat lover. Nonetheless, I love my girl and will do whatever I can to make it better. I’ve been using several Bach Flower Remedies daily to help and I also know the triggers, and signs of an impending attack, which are less and less frequent now. But I do want to learn more strategies and training methods because I think these would definitely help. I hope to find a behaviourist like your Dr. Nichol in my area. I do think that she’s in my life to teach me about compassion and unconditional love, albeit not in the way that I expected!

    Reply
    • Rita
      April 15, 2017 at 11:19 am (1 month ago)

      Thank you, Suzanne. It is so great that you are working with your girl early in her life and are already seeing good results. I winced when I read about a vet recommending rehoming her to someone who would deal with her with a “stronger hand”. From my experience, negative reinforcement is never successful and can make matters far worse. Your instincts are spot-on!

      Dr. Nichol also has a website (linked in the article) and is very responsive to emails. He may be able to give you some information about behavioral medicine vets in your area.

      Thank you for hanging in there with her. She is blessed to have such a wonderful family.

      Reply
  4. Elizabeth
    April 14, 2017 at 2:51 pm (1 month ago)

    I too have a similarly hostile Main Coon. Though over the years, I honestly think he has begun to love me. Where before, I couldn’t so much as pet him, now he will come to me when called, and sit beside me. While he will never be a lap cat. While he intensely hates my youngest cat. I have to keep them separated. I know he is worth it. I too have been told to put him down, or to make him a barn cat. To those I say, NEVER! I am his third and final home. When he dies, he will die knowing that he has someone who loves him, hairy warts and all. Isn’t that we all want, in the end?

    Reply
    • Rita
      April 15, 2017 at 11:27 am (1 month ago)

      That’s wonderful, Elizabeth, that your boy (and his hairy warts 🙂 ) has come around over the years, and is expressing his love for you in his own unique way. My brother-in-law once said of Kitty Girl, “She wants to be a nice kitty, she just doesn’t know how,” and I think that is so true. Thanks for hanging in there with your kitty, and giving him the understanding he needs!

      Reply
  5. Diane Ricciardi Stewart
    April 12, 2017 at 8:15 pm (1 month ago)

    Ingrid, thank you for sharing this wonderful story! I, like the couple in this article, NEVER give up on my *kids*. There is usually a really good reason an anipal behaves a certain way. We all need to give them the benefit of the doubt and work with them to try to help them as best we can. I will never give up on any of my *kids* if they suddenly have a behavior change. Fortunately, my 13 adopted/rescued kitties and I get along really well. They communicate very well with me — and I with them. I still think they believe I am a ‘Mom Cat” — LOL!! ♥♥♥

    Reply
    • Rita
      April 15, 2017 at 11:29 am (1 month ago)

      Wow, Diane…13 kitties and everyone gets along! You are a Super Mom Cat, for sure. 🙂

      Reply
  6. Rita
    April 12, 2017 at 3:57 pm (1 month ago)

    Thank you so much, Ingrid, for sharing Kitty Girl’s story! I am humbled reading everyone’s comments about their own cats who have had issues with fear and aggression. It is heartwarming to know that so many are so dedicated to making sure their cats have a wonderful life.

    Reply
  7. Nel
    April 12, 2017 at 2:19 pm (1 month ago)

    Thank you for sharing you story. It makes me feel more comfortable with the decision we made to keep our “aggressive ” Sammy when others said he should be put down. We didn’t go to a behaviorist because it was $600 per hour minimum with no guarantees of a positive outcome. Instead we implemented strategies used by Jackson Galaxy which includes more play time, a better cat environment and training of the pet caretakers. I am also using outdoor cat deterrents to keep the neighbors’ cats away. So far it’s working but I have his prescribed Prozac on hand for him in case he reverts to unprovoked aggressive biting attacks directed only at me. FYI, I believe Sammy also has some obsessive/compulsive tendencies as he very much dislikes his daily routine disrupted. The right cat has come to me to help me better understand anger and to have compassion for humans with anger issues.

    Reply
    • Rita
      April 12, 2017 at 5:47 pm (1 month ago)

      Oh Nel, I’m touched that reading about Kitty Girl has resonated with you. I’m so happy that you’ve been able to work with Sammy, and the techniques you are using have been helping so much. Those are definitely some of the same things we used with Kitty Girl. Prozac worked really well for her…it took the edge off of her fear/anxiety just enough so that other therapies could work but let the good parts of her personality come through. Each cat is different so it is important to partner with you vet to find what works best.

      I’m so happy that Sammy can help you better understand human-related anger issues, as well. It’s amazing how much we can learn from our pets. All the best for you and Sammy!

      Reply
  8. Jenni
    April 12, 2017 at 1:19 pm (1 month ago)

    I’m currently fostering a street kitty rescue who is having nearly identical episodes!! The rescue I’m with is amazing and paying for his therapy and medications. I hope he can eventually be adopted but I’m worried that nobody will be brave enough to take him on.

    Reply
    • Rita
      April 12, 2017 at 5:51 pm (1 month ago)

      What an amazing foster mom you are, Jenni, and what a wonderful rescue. I hope your foster kitty will make great strides. It will take a special family to adopt him, but I’m convinced that there is a perfect match for every cat. It just may take a little time. Thanks for being there for him now!

      Reply
  9. Suellen Scott
    April 12, 2017 at 12:01 pm (1 month ago)

    Thank you so much for not giving up on her.

    Reply
    • Rita
      April 12, 2017 at 5:53 pm (1 month ago)

      Thank you, Suellen!

      Reply
  10. Catherine J Stout
    April 12, 2017 at 11:53 am (1 month ago)

    So glad you persevered, and didn’t put Kitty Girl down..She can’t tell you what she went thru in her younger life..She probably needed that aggression to survive, and you are to be commended for keeping her and getting help for her..She is very beautiful..I have 7 cats..Years ago I was given Nella..She was about 7 years old and was abused by her owner, the baby’s mother, because of the new baby..Whenever she approached the baby, or entered the babies room, she was hit, or kicked..The first day I got her she bit my hand viciously, but I imagined how lost and hurt she must have been, to lose the home and love she once had..She hated all the other cats too, and they were intimidated by her..She did calm down overtime, but she was always very feisty..

    Reply
    • Rita
      April 12, 2017 at 2:44 pm (1 month ago)

      Thanks, Catherine. Nella was sure blessed to have you!

      Reply
  11. Georgia
    April 12, 2017 at 10:50 am (1 month ago)

    Wonderful story! I admire you for your compassion with this kitty and so glad you gave her a chance to live a loving life.

    Reply
    • Rita
      April 12, 2017 at 2:45 pm (1 month ago)

      Thank you, Georgia!

      Reply
  12. Nora
    April 12, 2017 at 9:41 am (1 month ago)

    Thank you for sharing. Kitty Girl is as beautiful as you say. Thank you for giving her a forever home and accepting her as family.

    Reply
    • Rita
      April 12, 2017 at 2:46 pm (1 month ago)

      Thank you, Nora!

      Reply
  13. JB
    April 12, 2017 at 9:38 am (1 month ago)

    Sounds similar to our experience with a 2-month-old stray (or feral?) my kids found across the street. She was sick with feline herpes and riddled with round- and tapeworms, but was so mellow we thought she’d be a good pet and kept her. However, once the worms were gone, we learned her “mellow” nature was just because she had been so ill after being on the streets. We’ve since discovered that she has fear aggression and bites frequently–particularly targeting my 10-year-old daughter, for some reason. It’s very frustrating and we use treats and “time out” to try and address the problem. Some days, Sprinkles does okay and other days she’s a huge pain in the butt.

    Funny thing, though. When we first took her to the vet, the vet gushed about how gorgeous the kitty was/is and asked if Sprinkles is a naughty cat. Surprised, I said “no,” since we’d had no problems (yet). The vet replied that, often, the cats that are beautiful seem to know they’re beautiful and act like real pills. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, her comments turned out to be true.

    Reply
    • Rita
      April 12, 2017 at 2:52 pm (1 month ago)

      Sprinkles is so blessed to have you all for her family. “A real pill” is definitely how I would describe Kitty Girl sometimes. LOL! If you feel like Sprinkles needs a little extra help, do reach out to a certified behaviorist/vet who practices behavioral medicine. That was invaluable to us!

      Reply
    • Elizabeth
      April 14, 2017 at 2:58 pm (1 month ago)

      JB: Kitty prozac has done wonders for my main coone, though he still hates my cat, Lovie. It takes several months to see the full effect, but it is a cheap and pretty much side effect free way to help quell cat aggression. There is also a product called FEELIWAY. It is a plug in diffuser that puts pheromones in the air that are supposed to calm cats.. Whatever you do, don’t use calming collars as they are very toxic . After just a day in one, my Hershey was practically in a coma like state. NOT GOOD!

      Reply
  14. Janine
    April 12, 2017 at 8:30 am (1 month ago)

    Kitty Girl is beautiful. I’m glad you gave her a chance at a good life even through her aggression. I adopted my last cat from a rescue and became good friends with the girl running it and eventually started volunteering with the rescue too. It all happened when i was going through depression after losing my best friend/cat Nani. So, I believe it was all planned out too. I needed a new cat (who still makes me laugh at her silly antics) and a good friend.

    Reply
    • Rita
      April 12, 2017 at 2:56 pm (1 month ago)

      Thanks, Janine! I am so sorry that your Nani had to leave you. That’s wonderful that she led you to your volunteer activities and your new best friend.

      Reply
  15. Laura
    April 12, 2017 at 7:57 am (1 month ago)

    Rita.
    Kitty Girl story was very moving. I’m also myself a volunteer at a cat sanctuary in Puerto Rico and also feel very attracted to help special needs cats. They all deserve a second chance and someone as compassionate as we are to give them the love they so desperately need and deserve. Thank you for rescuing her, helping her, and not for a moment considered putting her down. It is with those divine encounters that we meet the assignments of our soul. Blessings, Laura

    Reply
    • Rita
      April 12, 2017 at 2:59 pm (1 month ago)

      Thank you, Laura. What a lovely way to describe being led to that which we are meant to do. Bless you in your work at the cat sanctuary. 🙂

      Reply
  16. Sandy A
    April 12, 2017 at 7:10 am (1 month ago)

    What a wonderful and heartwarming story. Thank you so much for not giving up on her.

    Reply
    • Rita
      April 12, 2017 at 3:04 pm (1 month ago)

      Thank you, Sandy!

      Reply
  17. Serbella McGee
    April 12, 2017 at 6:43 am (1 month ago)

    For 3 years I lived with The Terror, AKA The Queen of the Red Zone. Cherub had been horribly abused by humans. Her fear reactions were human based, her motto was “I will get you before you get me.” When I adopted her I took her to the vet and because of that she stayed angry with me for three whole months. She tried to attack me. She hissed and clawed at me.

    Then she calmed down. I still don’t know why.

    I named her Samirah, which is Arabic for Entertaining Companion, and she was certainly that. Life with her was never dull. We had three wonderful years. She never again laid a claw on me. Never hissed at me. She died of a heart attack last November. I miss her terribly. And then I went out and tried to get another cat just like her, the cat I wanted.

    Instead I got the cat I needed. Oddly enough, he’s a big orange part Maine Coon, 13 pounds 2 ounces, 3 years old. He hates having his feet touched and he has a fit whenever I pick him up. We’re working on that.

    I named him Loki. Little Orange Kitten, even tho he’s not Little and he certainly isn’t a Kitten. He also tries to be a trickster but he’s not very good at it. He doesn’t meow or purr, he squeaks and screeches like an owl. I get the feeling that he’s constantly asking questions because he just doesn’t know what to make of living here.

    I can really relate to this article.

    Reply
    • Rita
      April 12, 2017 at 3:12 pm (1 month ago)

      Thank you Serbella! How wonderful of you to give a forever home to Samirah. I’m so sorry she had to leave you. It sounds like you had 3 wonderful years together, and that you filled her life with the love that she never had before she found you.

      She must have known that you and Loki needed each other. Such a clever name for your “Little” orange “kitten”. 🙂 All the best with your big, chatty fellow!

      Reply
      • Serbella McGee
        April 12, 2017 at 7:22 pm (1 month ago)

        Thanks, Rita. Samirah and I had some times. It was wonderful to watch her relax and know peace at last. She was estimated to be 17.5 plus years old. She could have been 20 for all the shelter knew. The abuse took place in the first decade of her life.

        I’m so glad you posted your experiences with Kitty Girl. She is a beautiful cat. She has the same slightly annoyed expression ringed with black eyeliner that Loki has.

        And thank you for providing the link to your Maine Coon Rescue group in the article. Now that I know that Loki is singing the song of his people when he screeches and squeaks he’s become even more endearing to me. I had no idea that Maine Coons make noises like that.

        I’d like to think that Samirah came down from the Rainbow Bridge to check on me after she left. I was an emotional wreck. She didn’t care much for other cats but when she saw Loki she probably decided “What the heck, I’ll give him some pointers to make life easier on Mom.”

        Reply
        • Rita
          April 16, 2017 at 8:59 am (1 month ago)

          Samirah did a good job, bringing you and Loki together! Maine Coons are known to “talk” with their little trills and chirps. Loki will keep you very entertained with lots of lengthy discussions. Bless you both! 🙂

          Reply

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