Closer look shows cat fears cars, guests

12/3/95

Dear Dr. Spiegel:

A year and a half ago our daughter and her family moved to another state when her husband was transferred by his company. Prior to that, they had found he was allergic to cats so they left their cat, Gucci, with us at the time of the move.

She had been adopted by them as a kitten at about the same time they purchased a golden retriever puppy soon after their son was born. During the following six years a daughter arrived. The cat had been declawed and was strictly a house cat; she and the dog enjoyed each other's company as they grew together and she seemed quite content. On the rare occasions the family would visit our home for particularly long holidays, they would bring the cat and dog. Invariably, when they were ready to leave Gucci would hide from them.

Three or four months after their move, they returned for a short visit. We expected Gucci to welcome all of them, and particularly the dog. To the contrary, she ran and hid. When she finally ventured forth and met her old buddy, she hissed and tried to scratch him while totally ignoring the humans! Subsequent visits produce the same behavior.

My husband and I have grown very fond of Gucci; she is a very nice, well-behaved cat, but we are perplexed at her reaction to her former family. Has she grown so fond of her new home she is afraid she will be taken away, or could she possibly resent their having abandoned her? We would be most grateful for your opinion.

Sincerely,

J.B., Smyrna


Dear J.B.,

There are times when human sentiments can be attributed to animals. And I was a bit intrigued as to what Gucci might have been thinking when encountering her former family (as you have described). But, before drawing any conclusions, there were some major pieces of the puzzle that first had to be found.

That is why I contacted you by phone. For the benefit of the rest of the readers, here are some of the questions I asked and your responses:

Q: How far away was your daughter's family before the move? A: A few hours.

Q: How was Gucci in the car? A: She never liked to travel; She never would go into her carrier. She would go off and hide. And when she did go in the car, she wouldn't sit still.

Q: While still a member of your daughter's family, how was she with visitors? A: When we (J.B. and husband) would visit, she'd go off and hide. If approached, she wasn't friendly, but she allowed us to pet her.

Q: When you have had other visitors, what does she do? A: She goes off and hides.

Q: Have you had other "groups" of people arrive at once? A: Only my other son and his wife and their son, and Gucci leaves when they come in.

So, what do you think?

As I was asking these questions, and getting these answers, the picture became quite clear. Gucci is a cat that has always been frightened of the arrival of visitors. When she became a member of J.B.'s household, this did not change. When her old family arrived, she was afraid, and so she ran and hid, as she would typically do. When she finally ventured forth, she was still scared. When you approach, or attempt to pet, a scared cat, you can expect one of several things: Most commonly, it will run away or it will become aggressive, usually by hissing and swatting.

When her old buddy, the golden retriever, approached her (which was probably quick and excited, as can be expected from a dog seeing an old friend), this was too sudden for a frightened Gucci; hence, the hiss and swat.

And, as for Gucci running off and hiding whenever J.B.'s daughter and her family would leave, this does not mean that she liked it better at J.B.'s house and didn't want to be taken away, but rather that she wanted to avoid having to go into the car for a most unpleasant ride.

Any questions?