The confinement of the cage takes away the option to flee, so cats must either fight or freeze. Housecats and feral cats both employ these two defense mechanisms, which makes distinguishing these two groups rather difficult. With a keen eye to feline behavior and body language, shelter staff can be trained to distinguish between these two groups.
Feral cats are defined as those that have had no previous socialization with humans. These animals are born in the wild, and do not have a place as human companions. Confinement and human interaction are incredibly stressful for these animals, and they should be removed from the shelter as soon as possible. Many areas have trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs that work to return these animals to managed colonies. If a TNR program is not available, euthanasia is the most humane option, as rehabilitation of adult feral cats is not possible.
Well-socialized or ‘friendly’ cats are those that have been raised as companion animals. Many times these animals will still be friendly and interact with humans despite the change in environment. However, some of these animals may be particularly sensitive and will either freeze or fight when placed in a cage. Contrary to popular belief, often the most aggressive cats are former housecats who are simply scared for their lives. Many housecats will also freeze and refuse to interact, and thus may appear ‘feral.’ It is important to distinguish these felines as previously socialized so that they may be rehabilitated, either in the shelter or in a foster program, and made available for adoption. It is also important to prevent well-socialized cats from being returned to an outdoor colony where they would not be able to survive.
Cats will typically take several days to a few weeks to start showing their normal behaviors, but research has shown that within the first four days stress levels decrease significantly. Attempts should be made to do several behavior evaluations of new intakes during this time period. One single observation will not give you an accurate indication of the cat’s previous socialization. Simply assessing the cat’s level of stress will not provide much information, but there are body language cues that can begin to be observed from day one.
Begin your observations by simply observing the cat in the cage. Cats who are in the front one-third of the cage, or who approach the front of the cage at any time are very likely to be previously socialized (Figure 1). The next step is to take a pen or soft toy and rub it behind your ear to pick up your scent. Slowly open the cage door and gently present it to the cat, making sure to keep your eyes soft and blink frequently. If the cat allows, you can try to rub the toy or pen gently along the side of the muzzle and cheeks.
The response displayed to this brief interaction can give you great insight to the previous socialization of the cat. Behaviors that strongly indicate previously socialized cats are rubbing, kneading, chirping, playing, and coming to the front of the cage. Sniffing and blinking are weaker indicators, as they could just be signs of a more relaxed and curious cat without suggesting previous socialization. Feral cats are very unlikely to show any of the strong behaviors. While hissing, spitting, or lunging at the front of the cage are simply indicators of an angry cat and do not give us insight on their level of socialization.
By repeating this interaction at least daily you should be able to have an assessment of the cat within about three days. If you are able to take more time (the seven day mandatory stray hold in Wisconsin makes for a perfect opportunity), you can begin to try and rehabilitate any cats of which you are still unsure A great trick is to use canned tuna or baby food to slowly ‘clicker train’ the cat to be more relaxed (see resource below). Alternatively, really shy or reactive cats can be placed in foster or a staff office. For some cats just getting out of a cage dramatically changes their behavior.
It is important to remember that when dealing with animal behavior, your assessments will never be perfect. However, as you continue to work with and observe the cats in your shelter, you will gain an appreciation for the types of behaviors displayed by feral and socialized cats. By improving your methods of determination you will be able to save more lives by more accurately placing each animal on the pathway to its best outcome.
Slater, et al. Practical Physical and Behavior Measures to Assess the Socialization Spectrum of Cats in a Shelter-Like Setting during a Three Day Period. Animals. 2013. 3. 1162-1193.