This is a concept, as you may have guessed by the title’s language, of Jackson Galaxy, the celebrated cat behaviourist. He needs to be listened to because of all the cat behaviourist he has the most experience both in cat shelters and in dealing with private clients. He spent many years in cat shelters where he used his best efforts to try and recover the Mojo in rescue cats, living in cages in the shelter, by encouraging them to cross the “Challenge Line” as he describes it. I would like to discuss that phrase.
The Challenge Line
This is an imaginary line which a retiring and anxious cat needs to cross perhaps over and over again as the line is pushed further away taking the cat into a full life where she can maximise her experiences and recover her Mojo. In Jackson Galaxy’s experience a lot of rescue cats have trusted in the human environment at one time or another but have suffered bad experiences as a result. This has driven them to retire into their shell, to become “wallflowers” or “cavers” as he describes them. Wallflowers are people (and domestic cats) who want to merge into the background and become invisible. Cat cavers are those who need to live in metaphorical caves which in the home means under the bed or other items of furniture where they feel secure. These are timid and nervous cats. Their timidity having been brought about by bad experiences in the real world. This may have resulted in them being relinquished to shelters.
Obviously the behaviour of a domestic cat is built upon genetic inheritance and life experience. So not all feline cavers have had terrible experiences but in general it is likely that they will have had these experiences which makes them hard to adopt. Galaxy wanted them to cross the challenge line to make them adoptable, to perform as confident cats in front of potential adopters who come to the shelter.
Daisy and Dexter
In his book Total Cat Mojo he writes about a cat called Daisy (a pseudonym to keep the cat anonymous?). She had a cat friend called Dexter who helped to open up her character and become more adventurous. When Dexter died she returned to her timid, cave-like existence. Her human guardians perhaps could not cope and simply supported her desire to remain in a safe place the rest of her life. Galaxy wanted to tease her out of her shell to live a full life. He wanted to “un-cave” her. He describes it as a gradual process and it is because it is about desensitising a cat using exposure therapy to gradually remove the fears that a cat has developed. He does not force cats to cross the challenge line but encourages them to do so. The objective is to expand their “safety bubble”. In the most fearful cats their safety bubble is almost a second skin, he says. As each challenge line is crossed it is a minor triumph which adds to their confidence.
Blocking off hiding places
Good cat guardians know the benefit of providing hiding places for timid cats. However, where a cat hides because of past experiences rather than current experiences there is a need, Jackson argues, that these places should be blocked off to gradually encourage a wallflower cat to blossom. It should be done gradually and alternative places to hide which are under the control of the cat guardian should be provided. These places, I would suggest, should be a little more open but adequately protective on an emotional level for a cat (high places?).
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Play as a means to get them across a challenge line
It goes without saying that plenty of play with your cat helps them to recover their Mojo. When playing they are forgetting their fears because the instinct to play is based upon hunting and that instinct is immutable and deeply ingrained. Even fearful cats will often come out of their caves when encouraged to play. The beauty of playing with your cat is that the cat is involuntarily interacting with a human which means they are becoming socialised to that human and therefore humans in general at the same time. This helps them cross another challenge line.
Cat owners play their role
He also refers to cat owners who are reluctant to do this. And I understand that. It can seem hurtful to push a cat from the safety of their “cave” and become more outgoing. However, in the long term it is much better for the cat, obviously. They need to live a full life to be more content. Is important for a cat guardian to embrace the idea because the outcome will be positive. It is, however, important that the cat guardian is themselves confident. If they exude negativity or anxiety it will be picked up by their cat. Galaxy describes domestic cats as “energetic sponges”. If a cat guardian projects an expectation of failure and impending danger the cat will absorb this feeling and respond accordingly, he says.
Cats will mirror confident behaviour in the human companion. It brings to mind the stories that I have read about the socialisation of feral cats. Feral cats really are fearful in the human world. They have eked out a way to survive and become confident in that respect that it but it is a parallel world to that experienced by domestic cats. They, too, have their challenge lines and when a person with great patience socialises a feral cat they have pushed those challenge lines outwards to the point where the cat becomes domesticated and no longer fearful of humans.
The underlying objective is to give a fearful wallflower domestic cat the confidence to express their natural desires as inherited in their DNA, in their forever home i.e. nice, friendly environment. When they do this they are at their most contented. The goal of cat guardians is to make sure that their cat is safe, healthy and contented.