How Two Scared Cats Were Freed from Their Fears

March 9, 2022

Shortly after Larissa De Oliveira began working as an Integrated Care Assistant at the ASPCA Animal Hospital, two fearful cats were admitted to the ASPCA’s Animal Recovery Center (ARC) for care and behavior rehabilitation.

The cats were brought to ARC by members of the ASPCA Community Engagement team after their initial owner—an overwhelmed caregiver with multiple cats—was referred to us by Adult Protective Services.

“These cats stood out to me right away,” Larissa says. “Behaviorally, they were shut down and scared of everything and everybody.”

Larissa would eventually be tasked with caring for the young cats—named Ritz and Takis—who were housed in an office with plenty of places to hide. The goal was to get Ritz and Takis used to their new surroundings.

“I’d seen cats like this before,” says Larissa, who grew up on a farm in Brazil and moved to New York when she was 12. “When I met these two, they struck a chord in my heart. They were like wallflowers to me; I just wanted to help them.”

Coming Out of Their Shells

On two separate visits, Community Engagement Managers Mohamed (Mo) Khaled and Lisa Kisiel met with the owner at his apartment, which was in deplorable condition. With help from Marny Nofi, Director of Feline Behavior, and Luisa Germain, Community Cats Manager, 12 cats were eventually collected and transported to the ASPCA.

For Ritz and Takis, who were fearful and hiding, humane traps were set. The traps successfully captured each cat, and on May 18, Mo and Zina Robbins-Maldonado, Community Engagement Coordinator, transported them to the ASPCA.

Ritz, left, with ear tip, and Takis, right, were fearful and hid when they arrived at the ASPCA; right: Ritz was the first to show social behavior.

“We knew going in these cats would be challenging,” says Marny. “They were highly stressed, which contributed to why they were so difficult.”

At the ASPCA, both cats were placed on gabapentin, a medication used to treat anxiety and fear, which was offered in their food to eliminate having to administer it by hand.

Marny slowly worked on getting them used to the presence of people.

“They needed one consistent person working with them on a routine basis,” says Marny, whose progress over the next several weeks included having both cats approach her and allowing her to handle them.

“Ritz came around first,” she says. “She tolerated petting and explored more. Once Takis saw Ritz enjoy being around people, she started to come out more and eventually warmed up to petting.” 

Another strong influence on both cats was Churu, puréed lick-able treats, donated via the ASPCA’s AmazonSmile Charity Wish List

“Those treats opened up a whole new world of possibilities,” Marny says. “The cats found them so rewarding they were willing to respond more during their behavior modification treatments. They eventually tolerated medical handling by a familiar person and having their nails clipped—all thanks to Churu. Finding that right reinforcer made all the difference.” 

Patience Pays Off

During her night shift, Larissa took over the cats’ play sessions. She was patient, understanding the cats needed time to feel comfortable and safe.

“I was super slow in my approach, giving them treats every time I saw them,” Larissa says. “It took a long time to break through. Takis stayed out of arm’s reach, but we seemed to understand each other on some level.”

After a few weeks, Takis approached Larissa after watching her pat Ritz.

“Ritz helped Takis come out of her shell,” Larissa says. “She looks to Ritz for guidance and mimics her behavior. It’s almost like she’s thinking, ‘My sister did this, so it must be safe.’ After Takis began interacting with me, they both started soliciting attention.” 

Going Home with a Familiar Face

Larissa told Marny she was moving to a larger apartment in early December and wanted to adopt the pair.

“It was perfect timing,” Marny says. “They were already used to her presence, so the transition was seamless.”

Larissa covered both cats’ carriers before transporting them to her apartment.

Although both cats reverted to their fearfulness in their new setting at first—hiding under Larissa’s bed—they began to adjust after only a few days.

“They were intrigued and curious, exploring more every day,” Larissa says.

“They especially like to play at night. Sometimes it feels there’s a hurricane in my room. But I wake up to them sleeping on my bed which is always a pleasant surprise.” 

Skateboards serve as shelves in Larissa’s room so the cats can perch.

Larissa slowly introduced her roommates to the pair, as well as the resident cat, Osito. Larissa’s father modeled her skateboards into shelves on her wall so the cats could perch on them. Both cats love gazing out the windows.

Left to right: Ritz, Takis, and Osito

Larissa re-named Ritz, who is now Jupiter, and Takis is now Lua, which means moon in Portuguese.

“I wanted to honor my upbringing in Brazil,” says Larissa. “My favorite anime series is “Sailor Moon,” so I named them after a planet and the moon.”

Larissa says she always wanted to adopt a cat she personally helped or rehabilitated. Now, Jupiter and Lua are constantly in her orbit.

“I absolutely adore them,” she says. “Having them home with me is truly a gift.”