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Research Update: So, Is That Cat Feral Or What?

We are in the middle of data collection in phase 4 of “Is That Cat Feral?,”our research on the development of a tool to identify unsocialized from frightened pet cats in the shelter. Thanks to the hard work of the team led by Dr. Slater, we are close to having an assessment and a set of behavioral scores that are pretty darn good at predicting cats who are socialized from cats who are not socialized.

It has been a long process! The difficulty of teasing out the behaviors has much to do with the lack of behavior that many frightened cats (socialized or unsocialized) show.  Many frightened cats respond by not respondingand not responding looks the same whether the cat was raised around human contact or not.

Another difficulty is, as you know, there are not 2 categoriesSocialized or Unsocializedbut instead a range with zero being a cat who has had no human contact and 10 being the gregarious house cat who was raised from birth around people.

The final piece that muddies the water is something Dr. Slater has blogged about beforethat not all cats who are acclimated to humans are motivated to be very social with us, and some social cats are too scared...  The ASPCA’s Meet Your Match® Feline-ality™ is designed to measure both valiance (a high valiant cat is likely to approach new stimuli, while a low valiant cat is likely to withdraw) and how independent or gregarious a cat is. We know that many pet cats are quite social, but may be very low valiantand respond as scared and not socialor potentially look unsocialized.

With this research we do not care if a cat is independent or gregarious, but whether he is acclimated to people.

Cat 2U in our study is a great example of a cat who required us to see through the low valiance. 

The first video of 2U is of the crack cage door assessment on the evening of Day 1. The video starts just as the door is cracked open. You will note that the kitty does not respond at all (this is a behavior we see in both cats acclimated to people and cats who are not).

While almost all of the assessments we developed simply present a stimulus (cracking open the cage door, for example, or presenting a toy outside of the cage) and observe the response, one of our assessments impacts the cat with touch from a rod. The next 2 videos of 2U are of the rod assessment.

This first one is on the evening of Day 1. Note the cat actively seeks to avoid the rod.

This next one is the morning of Day 3. 2U is going to display behavior that clearly demonstrates acclimation to humans. 

As we develop the scoring to determine if the cat is socialized, we have identified certain behaviors that we hypothesize to immediately identify cats as acclimated to humans. For example 1, observation of chirp, rub, knead or placing the tail up at the end of the interaction is all that will be needed to identify the cat as having been socialized to humans. Another set of behaviors (those considered weak behaviors, as cats who are not socialized also display these behaviors) are added togetherwith a certain number moving the cat onto the socialized part of the scale.  

Teasing these behaviors out quickly and accurately is the goal of the research, as you will then be able to confidently move cats less acclimated to humans to return-to-field programs, fast track gregarious cats and support and adopt socialized but fearful cats—a Win-Win-Win! We will keep you up to date as we progress!

Want real-world insight into saving community cats? Consider attending the week-long Community Cat Management Course, held July 29-August 2 in Gainesville, FL. Taught by instructors from Humane Alliance and the University of Florida, you’ll learn the latest on the challenges and successes in humanely managing community cats—with lectures, discussions and clinical labs for hands-on surgical training.


Register for the webinar Is That Cat Feral? presented by Dr. Slater.

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If you kept pushing a stick at my elderly tabby, she would bite the stick and when you tried to get it away from her she would take your hand off. Not sure if that means she is unsocialized or just smart. Why not use a wand with something soft or plastic "strings" instead?


Thank you for your thoughts Rose. As I wrote in the blog, what we found is that when presented with mild stimuli many of the cats simply do not respond. We need something rigid so that we observe what choices the cat makes when presented with something that moves into and stays in their space. The goal is to quickly and humanely assess the cat so that we can set him up for success inside or outside of the shelter.


I agree totally with Rose!


Wonderful! This assessment process will save so many lives! Resources to assess cats safely have been sadly lacking, and needless euthanasia has often been the result. Shelter personnel will be less fearful with safe evaluation tools, and learn to read the cats' body language with ever-increasing accuracy and confidence once the staff member's "fear barrier" has been overcome.


But what if the shelter/community doesn't have a "return-to-field program" What option will those unsocialized feral cats have then, and how will the results of any behavior testing matter at that point?


I look at it more as a way to identify cats that are not feral that initially show feral/unsocialized behavior so you can give them the appropriate care and avoid an unpleasant fate.


Great question. First, we strongly encourage folks to look for both intake and outcome opportunities that can save unsocialized cats, and the ASPCA has grant and outreach opportunities for animal welfare organizations looking for options and opportunities. Keeping an unsocialized cat in a cage simply to hold him for a stray hold (when we can determine is is not a pet cat) is not something anyone of us wants to do - it is not humane for the cat, and decreases the chances for the shy but socialized cats that enter your shelter. For sheltering organizations without return to field programs, I suggest brainstorm opportunities for how this tool could increase live releases in the individual organization - there are many opportunities.


Hi. Very interesting research! Congratulations! To my experience, there are cats that really need a very long time to get acclimated to humans. Even if they are being offered food and water and being treated with respect, patience and calm.

Each cat's acclimation seems to look like a gaussian distribution, to me. The smaller the standard diviation, the easier the cat gets used to humans. The larger the sd, the longer it will take for the cat to 'accept' humans with the horizontal line being the represention of the asymptotic behavior (no contact at all for ever....)....


Don't forge the genetic component. A detainled study (I believe by Gray) have indicatd that the behavior of the father (typically unknown)plays a role as well as early socialization. So, you could have a truly feral ca and yet it is easily socialized. My point being that feral or fearful, you train to improve confidence and sociability. So while fearful cats who haev had human contact are more difficult to place, we seek to improve their chances. This could jsut as well be done with "ferals". I'd like to get ride of that feral title once and for all.


This is great. I look forward to more. I think the second video pretty much answers the feral vs acclimated to humans when the cat offers to investigate the wand by sniffing and is no 'frozen'. In my experience, ferals are hesitant to sniff any offering of objects or hands in the first few days. Cute tabby!


Andrea! Thank you for your comment! We had thought sniffing would be a great indicator to tease socialized from unsocialized cats too - but the data told a different story as both socialized and unsocialized cats sniffed.


Some of our "ferals" took months to come around. I know of no sweeter cats now! I know this test is supposed to be "snapshot," but some kitties just take longer to trust you...


What I find most distressing about all this is the recent trend toward "neuter and release," i.e. turning domestic cats into feral ones, when they have nothing but instinct to find food. Our Charlie was found by a friend on a busy bridge in downtown Kansas City, almost invisible among piles of trash. She called to him and he jumped into her car. He had been neutered at 3 months, his ear clipped to signal this (unnecessarily, as anyone looking at his bottom could tell). He could never have survived on his own on downtown streets. He ended up with us because, allergic to cats, she couldn't keep him though he and her daughters and their dogs got along very well. So she brought him to us, and he fit right in with the 3-year-old brothers we already had. They both died prematurely, so he is now no. 1, dominating our latest acquisition, yet another shelter adoptee.
I am very glad to hear about the quick and easy way to distinguish truly feral from just frightened domestic cats. But if you're going to neuter and release, do it to the feral ones, and release them in rural areas where they can survive but not breed. Do not send the domesticated ones out into the cruel world, especially downtown. Better a painless death by lethal injection than a slow one in agony from a crushed pelvis.


A cat with "unsocialized" behavior could be explained to a clinical or subclinical process. As the cat comes to the shelter with signs of agression, is left in a cage without a physical exam done. After the stray period is gone , the cat is euthanized due to behavioral issues. Once the cat is euthanized, the physical exam reveals a medical issue ( ie. severe tartar/gingivitis, ulcers in mouth enlarged kidneys.... Processes that can cause a cat ( socialized or unsocialized) to be irritated , agressive or unresponsive to stimuli. How does your research contemplate this variation considering that a lot of shelters can not bring every cat that enter in the premises to the vet?. Thanks


Your question is exactly why we are conducting the research. We want to know what are the true predictors of unsocialized status?


two thoughts In your research do you take into account how the rod smells or how intently the tester stares at the cat? These are two of the many things that will influence the cats behavior. & two: if you think releaseing a cat into a "rural area" is more humaine than an urban area then you have forgotten that racoons carry rabies and coyotes eat cats and untreated disease kills.


Good job Emily, my shelter works extensively with ferals from the public shelter and there is so much misinformation out there. Thank you for helping to provide organizations with tools. About 70% of the feral cats and kittens I receive from the public shelter are not, and go on to be adopted as house cats.


This information is very helpful! I volunteer at my city shelter and I love to work with the challenging cats. We get a lot of owner surrenders who are fearful in the cage and I always start with a long, plastic wand so they can sniff me. I will rub it behind my ears and just let them sniff it until they feel comfortable. Sometimes it takes a few days but after awhile, they will start rubbing their cheeks on the wand and they come out of hiding. 

I want to remind everyone who is posting about TNR that the goal is to not just save the lives of the cats but also to prevent the population of homeless cats from rising. Even if you round up feral cats and euthanize, you won't catch them all. It's like the "band aid on a bullet wound" cliche. It takes one male and one female to spawn thousands of unwanted kittens. We do feral freedom in my city and we can see a measurable decrease in the number of kittens who come into the shelter. With TNR you can control a population and reduce the impact of "kitten season".. Living as a feral cat may not be ideal, but it's a better solution than euthanasia. Feral cats have been euthanized for decades and we've only seen the population rise. Research the cities who have feral freedom programs and you will see the difference.


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