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The power of a gentle touch

By Heidi Jeter

one cat’s journey from a hoarder’s house to a loving home

Lovey is a beautiful white cat who lives with his little cousin Pepsi in a wonderful home where he helps his owners care for foster kitties. He’s earned the nickname “therapy cat” because he is able to befriend any animal who enters his home. And this remarkable cat is so attuned to his human family that when their daughter was bedridden from a bad cold, Lovey stayed by her side giving her comfort and love.

His life sounds picture perfect, but Lovey likely wouldn’t be alive today if it hadn’t been for a unique Morris Animal Foundation study led by researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia. Lovey was rescued from an animal hoarder, in a house where most of the 50 cats were living in holes in the walls. Lovey had mites, fleas and internal parasites. He was missing patches of fur, was very dirty and had overgrown claws. He was so terrified of humans that he wouldn’t let himself be touched.

Fortunately, after receiving medical attention, Lovey entered one of the Foundation’s Helping Shelters Help Cats studies, where he was soon under the care of Nadine Gourkow, a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. Gourkow says that although she has worked as a shelter professional for more than 12 years, she would not have believed that cats like Lovey could be rehabilitated, but as part of the Foundation–funded study team, Gourkow has discovered a lot about the resiliency of cats when handled with love.

handled with care

Under the mentorship of Dr. Clive Phillips, Gourkow is evaluating the effectiveness of a process called “gentling,” which involves touching the cat in a way that resembles grooming by other cats. Cats receive short sessions that include petting and massage several times per day. Gourkow pets the cats on the head and under the chin using a circular motion. The key is to pay close attention to the cat’s response and pull away as soon as it seems agitated. Petting and food gifts are always given together.

When he first entered the shelter, Lovey spent most of his days hiding under his bedding and would eat only when food was placed under his blanket. He would only let himself be stroked through the blanket, and even then he would flatten his body and try to crawl away. Eventually, Lovey let Gourkow touch him on the forehead and behind the ears, though still only through the blanket.

After a few days of gentling, Lovey began to relax, and Gourkow could pet his body directly. Near the end of the study, he would crawl toward the front of the cage, though still under his blanket, and he would start purring and kneading when Gourkow talked to him.

“Every day was a miracle with this cat,” she says.

a healed soul becomes a healer 

When Lovey was ready for adoption, he was transferred to a communal area with some of his brother and sisters from the hoarder’s house. The care team then learned that Lovey had a special talent. He very quickly gravitated toward Theo, an aggressive and fearful cat who had been at the shelter for several months. Lovey jumped on Theo’s perch, cuddled in close and licked the terrified cat’s forehead. In less than a week, Theo was a transformed cat and was able to be adopted.

“We could put Lovey with any cat who was terrified, and he would take care of them,” Gourkow says. “He has a beautiful soul and he’s just a helper.”

Lovey later went to live in a foster home, where his caretakers quickly saw how his unique gift to calm other cats could help other foster cats in their care. They decided to adopt him so that he could continue working to help other cats become more adoptable. “Had it not been for the gentling, Lovey might not have survived the trauma of sheltering,” Gourkow says. “I feel privileged to have been part of his life and to have been there for him when he needed a little human therapy.”

Lovey is just one of the cats that have gone through the study that would have been deemed unadoptable and likely euthanized under usual shelter conditions. Gourkow plans to use the results from this study to develop practical training manuals and videos for shelter personnel. These educational materials will help shelter personnel identify the types of emotional states of cats in shelters so that they can take the right approach to rehabilitate them—and get them into happy, loving homes.

Posted by MAFon May 17, 2011.

Categories: Animal health, Cat diseases, Cat health


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Submitted by white cat at: August 25, 2011
This article is just what i needed today. What a special angel Lovey is. Thanks to everyone for rescuing him giving him a chance. He is paying it forward. I have heard of gentling before, and have used it in our shelter on the very shyest of cats. It is a miracle. It worked on 2 of my white shelter cats. I will send this article to everyone I know.
Submitted by Melissa at: May 19, 2011
I read this in the nick of time. I work at a shelter and was about to euthanize a shy cat who was unresponsive to almost all of our attempts to break through her shell. She would take a couple of swipes at a straw when we attempted to play with her, but no sweet talk or petting was making a difference. I tried circular movements on her head - two minutes later she was purring and lightly kneading her paws. This was yesterday. Today she is purring almost immediately, leaning in to my hand when I scratch her chin, and actually starting to ask for more petting when I stop handling her. I am thrilled to see glimpses of a sweet, adoptable cat! And I anxiously await Ms. Gourkow's findings.
Submitted by Maureen Kelly at: May 17, 2011
Absolutely beautiful. Lovey has the perfect name... so touched and pray that this will have far-reaching ripple effects for many, many more cats and their privileged humans.:)