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Getting to Know Dr. Margaret Slater

Ever wonder what life is like for a feral cat? Or if there's a definitive way to determine if a feline in your shelter is feral or just frightened? The ASPCA's Dr. Margaret Slater, DVM, PhD, Senior Director, Veterinary Epidemiology, focuses much of her work on these questions and others surrounding free-roaming cats. Prior to joining the ASPCA in 2008, Dr. Slater taught epidemiology at Texas A & M's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and today her emphasis is on research, including assessing fee-waived cat programs and the impact of spay/neuter on shelter intake. Today we pick her brain about recent developments in the ASPCA's "Is That Cat Feral?" research project and what shelters can do to help free-roaming cats.

Shelter's Edge: So what is life really like for a feral cat?

Dr. Margaret Slater: I think that depends a lot on where the cat lives and who is looking after the cat. Cats in well-managed colonies where they are neutered, vaccinated, fed regularly and looked after with shelter and health care live rather good lives. Even in big cities or northern climates. I’ve seen fat feral cats in northern Canada. And I’ve heard a lot of stories about how ferals who are well cared for will play and sun themselves a lot and just hang out now that their health and food and social needs have been met.

Shelters' Edge: What's the latest update on your "Is That Cat Feral?" research project?

Dr. S: We are actually working on three different parts of this enormous project! First, we are looking at our owner/caretaker survey, which helps us determine a cat’s level of socialization toward people in his/her familiar environment. We are working to decide how accurate and consistent this survey is, so we are comfortable that the caregivers’ assessment is sound. Second, we are working on summarizing, analyzing, presenting and writing up our results from our evaluation of more than 250 cats in the Humane Alliance facility in Asheville in a shelter-type in-cage setting. From this, we know that the more we interact with these cats safely (like touching or stroking with a rod or dangling a string), the more they show their true colors and their real socialization. We also found that a number of behaviors like ear, body and tail position and attention toward the person are associated with being more or less socialized.  I’m still working on the statistics part to try to develop as accurate a scoring system as possible for use in shelters to correctly identify the least socialized cats who would best be handled through a TNR program. Third, we are in the process of repeating the three-day in-cage assessment to validate our previous work and our draft scoring system. It’s been a gargantuan project with many folks helping with it.

Shelters' Edge: Have you been surprised by anything you've discovered during this research?

Dr. S: I think the biggest thing is that is hasn’t been MORE surprising. That’s a good thing, in that it means that our ideas about predicting socialized cats in a shelter are tending to be correct. But it is a bad thing because we also figured this would be a really hard research question.  That is true, and it is proving to be difficult to accurately separate out the frightened and non-valiant cats from the truly feral cats in a shelter setting within 3 days' time.

Shelters' Edge: What's one thing that shelters can do to help feral cats?

Dr. S: Don’t accept them in for euthanasia unless they are really ill or injured. Really, if shelters are able to partner with a local TNR organization and/or spay/neuter group, keeping ferals out of the shelter in the first place is the best for the shelters and the cats.

Shelters' Edge: You must have met lots of feral cats in your work… are there any in particular who stick out in your memory?

Dr. S: I “met” (from quite a distance, she was very feral still) a 16-year-old orange tabby female (and one of her litter sisters) happily climbing trees in a Massachusetts colony.  She had been born on that location and cared for all those years and was living what really seemed to be a great life. Another feral cat was born and lived in a feral colony for a couple of years before the colony had to be relocated.  He actually went into his caretaker’s home for socialization and after a year of skilled handling became completely friendly with ANYONE. This took so long and so much patience on the part of the caretaker, it amazed me. The caretaker also had a couple of more typical feral cats who were only friendly with her or her husband. Even she doesn’t recommend socializing feral cats, however, due to the time and resources needed that could be better spent helping many other cats…she is a strong supporter of TNR!