Spirit, My Feral Housecat




Today marked a day that I knew would come, but, every pet owner dreads. I euthanized Spirit, my feral house cat. Yes, for over 6 years, I have had a feral cat living in my house. It became a joke with my friends that if I died, she’d have to go with the house sale. I saw her regularly, scampering to stay away from me. Her comfort zone was 10-12 feet from me.  Catching her was impossible without a live trap and, even then, I figured I would just catch one of the other cats. The handful of times I did catch her early on was by trapping her in a small room, but she learned NEVER to go in a small room without an escape route.

One of the only times I caught her was to spay and vaccinate her. I did keep her kenneled for several weeks and tried to make friends with her. I realized after some time, I was terrorizing her and let her free to run the house. She had friends in the cat population. For whatever reason, she adored Jigsaw, a sweet tortoise shell cat that was 4 years younger than Spirit. She would devotedly follow Jigsaw around the house with an expression of sheer joy. But, when Jigsaw would start to come to me for a pet or scratch, sheer horror would take the place of the joy, her expression changing as if her BFF was going to the hangman’s noose.

I just don’t know why she never relaxed, even a bit. I do know kittens’ socialization period is very young and that time is critical in the making of a good pet. She was only about 6-7 months when she came to live with me (I didn’t know she was feral when I adopted her ….long story). That age is well past the socialization period, but still young enough, I thought, to become somewhat friendly. WRONG.  Shortly after I took her in, it was Christmas day and I woke up with her laying on the foot of my bed. I had high hopes she would accept me, but that was as close as she ever came.

I enjoyed watching her from a comfortable distance. She loved to lay in the sun. She would sit in the middle of the sunroom floor for her bathing ritual, which I found humorous and fascinating.  Her  body position would be Buddha style, where she would meticulously run her tongue down her belly  through her long hair and roll over backwards in a somersault and then struggle up to start again. I really wanted to videotape this unusual grooming ritual, but, of course, could not get close enough.

For the last two to three weeks, I knew she was not doing well, seeming weaker and not scurrying around as much. I finally caught her last night ( a true sign that she was ill) and found a thin, sick cat that was terrified. Knowing I could not treat her illness without causing her severe  mental stress, I made the decision to put her to sleep. I am sad. I am sad for the relationship we never had, and for the relationship we did have that is now over. Rest in peace, Spirit. Please know that I did love you.

My History with Animal Behavior


I grew up with pets: cats, a dog and horses. I was truly an animal person from the beginning. Somewhere along the way I got interested in competition with my horse. I learned about training in different disciplines to compete. I learned from other people, I learned from reading and probably most of all, I learned from the horses. I paid my dues in the show ring and eventually it paid off with success. I did some judging and moved on with my life in my career as a veterinarian.

Then, I got interested in dogs. I got my first show dog and seriously pursued training as a possessed person. I read hundreds of books on different methods and styles, went to far too many seminars to count and gradually developed a feel for what it takes to be a successful, humane trainer of animals. It’s simple but not easy. It takes patience and persistence. There is no magic wand. It requires an acceptance of the innate personality of the individual animal and the ability to figure what it needs to perform well.

I have trained my dogs for conformation competition as well as rally, obedience and hunt tests. I have also done tracking as well as agility work with them. I learn from every dog. I wish I could do some things over with what I know now. With all this, are my dogs perfect? No way! But, I am not either.

More recently I have tried my hand at training the cats I adore. After all, they have always been successful in training me! My efforts worked. My kitty learned to sit up, touch an object with his nose and lay down. It was a different experience from training the dogs and horses, but certainly rewarding.

I now utilize many of these skills I have learned to help Schuylkill County pet lovers with the challenges they have with their own pets. I have learned even more in doing this. I have learned to break things down into small steps so both owners and pets can be successful. I have learned to be flexible and inventive due to constraints owners may have. It has been a challenge, but truly worthwhile when a pet loving client develops a greater bond with their dog or cat when a behavior problem is solved or successfully managed.


Dog image Sam Cockman via flickr.