Re: Fern's changed so much - is this to be expected?
I think some cats just take a bit longer to "warm up" to their environment. I can't say that we've had any that took forever. Well, I guess I need to take that back! Malibu and Pretty *did* take fairly long amounts of time to get used to us and our way of handling them.
Comparing Malibu and Pretty, Mallie caved in quickly while Pretty was a tough nut to crack. The turning point for Malibu, who was fine with being petted but didn't particularly care for being held or snuggled, was when she became deathly ill and I had to be very aggressive in saving her. She developed Hepatic Lipidosis and because of $ issues at the time, I had to treat her at home. My vet was not very confident she would survive and was very happily surprised (astonished, more likely) that I pulled Mallie through. It took about a week and a bit of me force-feeding her and visiting her fairly often through the day, just to let her know I cared and loved her and wanted her to fight to live.
That week of such close contact really bonded her to me.
I was certain it would drive her away from me, but it actually had the opposite effect. After that, she became *my* cat and would follow me around, be sure she was relaxing in whatever room I was in and would sleep with me every night. When I'd lay on my stomach and read in bed, she was curled into the crook of my side/arm and usually had her head on my shoulder so I could turn my head and kiss her nose. After my surgery it isn't comfortable to lay on my tummy and read, so I lay on my side and she curls up against my belly and sometimes lays over my hip. To sleep, she either sleeps ON my head. (I know, but it's nice/warm in the winter) or up against my belly and I cover her with my covers and both our heads stick out. I usually also wrap an arm around her and stick my nose into the fur of her neck or shoulder. Lately, she has become very 'bossy' and demanding (yowling/crying at me) to come to bed both at afternoon nap-time and at night-time bed-time.
Pretty was *very* feral and took a very, very, long time to socialize. We lost Dusty at the first of the year and she became a little lost. We also had to force her to stay inside as a tomcat moved in and would try to fight with her. She began to bond to me, and then to Floofy...and though Floofy enjoyed the attention at first, he is now a little wary of her because she can kick his butt in a wrestle-match! My husband began a campaign to win her over and she is now becoming VERY comfortable around him, and that is nice to see. My husband said she snoozed with him (against his legs) when he fell asleep watching TV this afternoon. She is turning out to be a well-rounded and relaxed cat and will even let company approach and pet her.
I am fairly aggressive when working with socializing foster cats/kittens because I need to get results quickly. I need to get them to as high a plateau of handling that I can get them, as fast as I can, and keep them there to reinforce that kind of handling and give them plenty of time to trust and then get that relaxed and trusting behavior stabilized and part of their 'normal' before they go to the adoption center. My own cats, I tend to handle in the same ways, but it isn't as critical that I get the fast results. So, while I don't work through the steps as aggressively, they still do get worked through them with our everyday handling of them. It just happens to be how I handle them and it is only with the fosters that I really stick with any regimented 'program'.
I bet your continual handling of Fern helped cement in the facts that you both are caring and can be trusted. Also, the constant handling, and handling only what she would tolerate at that moment, probably helped her to relax and realize you wouldn't force anything beyond what she wanted to do...but by continuing to always handle her, when she finally *did* relax and give herself up to your handling, you didn't miss it because of being stand-off-ish and letting her completely call the shots...the frequent handling allowed you to keep close and monitor her levels of tolerance so when she did allow more, you were able to notice it and build on it. I'd say you guys did a great job with her!