Blink — It Could Save a Life!
You may have been following work we have been doing around the development of an assessment process to distinguish feral cats from frightened pet cats. Our team has been hard at work on the analysis of the second large experiment, where we measured behavioral responses in unsocialized, semi-socialized and pet cats. Our first data set identified some assessment items and behaviors that helped to predict social status, and this data set will help us to verify those conclusions.
Many folks have connected with us in hopes that the tool is complete and ready to use in the shelter environment. The ability to quickly identify unsocialized cats from frightened pet cats would allow shelter professionals to house, care for and decrease the stress of both populations – with a greatly increased likelihood of live release for all.
The data set is very large – and quite complex. With an amazing team led by Dr. Margaret Slater, and including Dr. Kat Miller, Natasha Drain, Nora Tane, Dr. Kathleen Makolinski and myself, the data is being meticulously coded and crunched. We have a few manuscripts in process around the first data set, and hope to finalize this data set to be able to report to you over the next few months.
While we await the findings of that data, I wanted to share a subtle feline communication you can use to help bring out those fearful but socialized cats in your shelters. Blinking can be a powerful hint as to the socialization status of a fearful cat. For those dog people, you have heard us note that a soft, squinty eye presented to a dog can help a fearful dog understand that you are not a threat. A blink can do the same for a cat. Blinking in a cat is an affiliative behavior, a signal of – in anthropomorphic terms – “Hello, no harm meant…”
When observing that fearful or seemingly “shut down” cat in his cage, watch for a slow shutting and opening of the eyelids – a slow blink. You can see an example here.
And for those same kitties – whether they blink at you or not, take the time to give them a long, slow blink. Simply look directly at them – right into their eyes with a soft, almost sleepy gaze, and slowly blink. Observe the cat’s response. He may blink back, he may soften his body, maybe you will hear a soft brritt (sometimes called a chirp, which is an affiliative communication) – all signs that this cat may be a fearful but socialized pet cat.
Cats who respond in this way may be quickly transitioned into a foster home or given one-on-one time with a cat-savvy volunteer who is willing to sit and read a book out loud in a room with the cat a couple times a day. Another handy trick is finding a stinky and tasty cat treat and simply placing the treat in the cage when passing.
Also note, these cats should not be pulled from their cages for cleaning (instead, spot clean). For all cats, vaccinations and exams should take place at intake so that the cats do not learn that people approaching their cage can result in something that does not feel good. Once those fearful cats can predict that something good (or at least neutral) happens when people approach, the more likely they will quickly turn around.