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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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