Mews & Views

Mews & Views -- A blog for cat lovers everywhere with a focus on the low-income pet cats of northern and central New Mexico.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Study Ties Family Income To Cat Spay/Neuter

A recent Alley Cat Allies study (conducted by Harris Interactive) projects that over 80% of U.S. pet cats are neutered. That number rises to over 93% in households whose annual income exceed $35,000, but then dips to 51% in those with incomes below $35,000. The study --“Population Characteristics and Neuter Status of Cats Living in Households in the United States” is published in the April 15th edition of JAVMA (J Am Vet Med Assoc 2009;234:1023-1030)). The study concludes that family income is the strongest single predictor of whether house cats are neutered. For years many old-guard humane institutions – particularly when defending their questionable practice of putting down healthy-but-homeless cats and kittens – blame cat overpopulation on “irresponsible pet owners who didn’t get their cats fixed”. We hope this study dispels their myth once and for all.

We never bought the theory. Knowing how challenging living with an un-neutered cat is , why would anyone choose to live with one -- if they had affordable and convenient access to spay/neuter. So in 2004 we augmented our feral colony spay/neuter program with a lower-income program and began giving free spay/neuter help to households with annual incomes under $40,000. The program has been a great success. In 2008 1,325 of our 3,500 spay/neuters were of lower-income pet cats.

This January, though, we modified the program to charge a modest $25 fee for each lower-income spay/neuter voucher. Even at that charge, we were still the lowest-cost program in the area and did not anticipate the charge would have any negative impact. Well, much to our dismay it did. The drop-off in participation was considerable. For the first 4 months of this year, our lower-income sterilizations are down 65% from 2008.

We got the message – even $25 is more than many can afford for cat spay/neuter. Knowing how important our service was for lower-income families, we are again providing free vouchers and are alrealdy seeing an upturn in applications.

We’re confident If more programs like this were available, the overall rate of pet cat spay/neuters would climb – and cats that may otherwise be given to shelters or left to fend for themselves outdoors -- would stand a better chance of staying in their original home. We like to think of the lower-income program as our pre-emptive TNR (trap-neuter-return). Every cat that stays in her original home reduces the number of free-roaming cats that won’t need TNR. And because they are sterilized, even if they are lost or abandoned, they won’t reproduce.

Who benefits from our lower-income vouchers? Primarily three groups – the very young (students and single parents), the disabled and the elderly (retirees)– who live on fixed incomes. Many are on food stamps, but they can afford the day-to-day costs of a pet. It’s the front-end cost of sterilization that’s out of their reach.

As the Chinese proverb says, “One picture is worth a thousand words”. The woman in this photo, is one of our elderly participants. Her expression alone shows how much her kitties mean to her – and how lucky they are to be her friends. And -- the fact that she sought out financial help to get them fixed -- shows how totally responsible she is.

Friday, May 29, 2009

"Help! Rogue cats are terrorizing my neighborhood!"

Responding to a voice mail like that is not one of my favorite assignments. Of course I know not everyone is as big a cat fan as me – and occasionally I’ll have to listen to someone venting over cats living in their yard. But as much as I want to help, I know calls like this one are destined to end poorly.

By the time someone leaves the message, their situation is already out of control. The last thing the caller wants to hear is me saying that it’s normal for free-roaming cats to be outdoors – just like squirrels and rabbits. This turns them off even before I suggest their best strategy is not removing the cats but managing them (providing daily food, water and outdoor dry shelter) -- so they’ll know how many are actually there. They never even hear the part about getting them fixed to prevent kittens -- even if I throw in free vet services. Thankfully, these calls are rare. Most people we hear from are already instinctively caring for the cats and only need help fixing them.

Being a confirmed optimist, I returned this call anyway. A voice mail about cats terrorizing the neighborhood intrigued me. It gave me an image of a gang of marauding cats wearing dark sunglasses and leather jackets swinging iron chains while hissing and sneering at everyone in their path. And I knew nothing could be further from the truth. Free-roaming cats are timid and afraid of people and won’t be aggressive unless they’re cornered. They believe firmly in the philosophy that the best offense is a good defense. When you do see feral cats, they’ll most likely be peeping at you from behind a bush or –if they can -- darting away from you.

Well it turned out that the man who called was a very nice -- albeit concerned gentleman. When I asked him to explain how the outdoor cats were terrorizing his neighborhood, he conveyed the real problem. He always let his pet cat George out when he left for work and lately these cats have been chasing him – once all the way back into his house. While he didn’t want anything bad to happen to them, he did think George should be able to live safely in his own yard. This made a bit more sense. Outdoor cat-to-cat aggression can happen. Cats will fight to claim territorial rights. Most of their “fighting” is really non-contact posturing but it can escalate into paw-to-paw combat if neither cat backs down– especially between intact males. Aggression can happen between any cats (companion or feral) when they find themselves occupying the same territory. It can even happen in your home if you bring a new cat in too quickly.

Because the caller mentioned that George had been going out for a long time without any incidents, I asked him how old George was. He told me fifteen. I did some quick math and asked if he knew how old that was in people years? He didn’t so I told him – 76 years old. He replied, so what? I know many elderly people and they’re still very capable. I agreed but asked him how many of them played pro football?

Cats, like people, lose physical prowess with age. The reason George was having trouble with other cats may have more to do with aging than anything else. To keep other cats away, George has to keep his territory well-marked – otherwise, how do roaming cats know that they’re on his land? This requires diligent patrolling and boundary-marking using urine spray and mouth rubbing. If he lets the markings go, he loses the territory. Maybe George was getting too old to defend his land. If so, George would have other threats outdoors even if these intruders were removed. I suggested he consider keeping George in when he was at work and maybe taking him out on a leash to enjoy the outdoors – or put a cat fence on his yard to keep George in and others out.

The signs of aging in cats are subtle – sleeping longer, drinking more water, moving slower. Being sensitive to them can help you alter your cat’s home to meet his aging needs. Instead of letting him outdoors all the time, a window perch with stairs leading to it – or even a nice bed on the living room couch – may be a better match. Cat napping and dreaming about the good old days can be every bit as enjoyable to a senior cat as a day of sitting on the front porch – and has none of the inherent risks. For George’s sake, I hope my message got through.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Emerging Hospice Care for Cats

The death of “Amino” (my first pet cat) knocked me on my ear. At that time I was a career-focused workaholic that spent most of my waking hours on the job. But those hours when I could be home, were spent with her. Amino had lived with me longer than any human had -- other than my parents. But in 1993, shortly after her 20th birthday, I noticed she wasn’t eating much and took her to the vet to find out why. A simple blood test pointed to end-stage kidney disease. Amino was terminally ill and her disease was untreatable. The vet’s recommendation for her was euthanasia. We were clearly not prepared for that. Since – other than eating less – Amino still acted fine, we decided against euthanasia and instead brought her home to live out her final weeks. This was my introduction to hospice care.

In 1993, people like me were bonding to their pet cats in ways previous generations would never have imagined. To me, Amino was not simply a cat, she was my close friend and confidante and I wanted her to be with me as long as possible – provided it didn’t cause her pain. And, I needed time to say goodbye to her. Mainstream veterinary practice had not kept pace with this evolving bond between pets and their people. When a cat was terminally ill, the standard recommendation was euthanasia. Hospice – the providing of supportive care in the final phase of a terminal illness (focusing on comfort rather than cure) -- was not typically offered as an alternative. So Amino and I entered uncharted territory.

I hand-fed her the tastiest cat food I could find and cut back my work hours to be with her more. Working on weekends was replaced with cuddling Amino while watching my first Lifetime movies. On weeknights, I’d go to bed early to be with her. Then one Sunday night -- just as we turned the lights off to go to sleep -- Amino made a woeful sound and died – right in my arms. Her timing was incredible. It was almost as if she had kept herself going through the weekend because I was home with her and then -- knowing when I woke up the next day I’d leave for work -- she passed away.

As emotionally-charged as her hospice time was for me, it was also highly cathartic. By the time Amino finally died, I had come to grips with what she meant to me and what I was losing. Euthanasia was always an option – if she appeared to be suffering – but she was fortunate in that her body seemed to be slowly shutting down – making her tired, but not causing her obvious distress.

Today, providing life-care to 17 teenaged cats, hospice is a regular part of my daily life. And care is no longer limited to tasty cat foods and cuddling -- although both are still important elements. Three of the most common terminal illnesses of geriatric cats – kidney disease, cancer and hyperthyroidism – are now detected earlier through annual blood work and treated successfully for long time periods. With kidney disease, subcutaneous fluid therapy – both helps the kidneys work better and make the cat feel better – and can easily be given at home once the cat’s guardian learns how. Cancers can be held at bay through steroid treatments which also alleviate possible pain present in the illness. And hyperthyroidism can be treated through medication, surgery or radiation therapy. Debilitating side illnesses often occurring with major diseases (high blood pressure, anemia, heart disease) can be managed with medications to maintain the cat’s overall quality of life.

Most veterinarians no longer look at terminal illness in cats as an immediate death sentence -- provided the cat’s guardian is prepared to provide end-of-life treatment. In-home hospice care is available through a growing number of veterinary clinics and organizations set up specifically for that purpose. Not only can they assist with the actual treatment, but with their experience, can provide quality-of-life assessment and perspective on when to end hospice for the sake of the cat.

Some caregivers (and veterinarians) may still choose to euthanize at the early signs of terminal illness finding the process of hospice care more than what they want to provide for their cat. But for those caregivers who want to cherish their cats for as long as possible – while ensuring their cat is not suffering needlessly – hospice care can be very effective. To learn more about how pet hospice care works, visit our web site and click on Veterinary Student Papers, “Pet Hospice as a Resource for End-of-Life Care”. Helping your cat through the final stage of life may well be the most important gift you can give her – and may provide you with more closure than you ever realized possible.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Fat and Happy Cats?

Although "fat and happy" are not the usual words used to describe outdoor-living cats -- photos like this one from our Feral Colony Program -- clearly show that living outdoors agrees with many cats. Behaviorists used to think cats were solitary animals because -- when they hunt -- they do so individually. (Seriously, how many cats does it take to catch a mouse?) But now cat behaviorists agree that cats are social animals -- colonizing around their food source and enjoying the life companionship of other cats.

This colony of eleven cats lives at a horse farm just outside of Ann Arbor and enjoys regularly-scheduled meals inside the barn they call home. On their own, barns are great cat shelters, but if you look closely, you’ll see their kindly caregiver added in a few handcrafted cardboard houses. They’ll appreciate these during bouts of extreme cold weather. Like most wildlife, cats grow adequate winter coats, but cuddling together in a towel-laden box with 5 or 6 good friends is the cat equivalent to our nestling in front of a fire on a cold January night.

These are especially lucky cats as their caregiver made our commitment to maintain her land as a kitten-free zone and in return we funded their sterilization. With this group fixed, she'll use ongoing meal-feeding techniques to identify newcomers -- as they appear for food. This way -- if any new roaming cats join the colony -- they can get fixed before any potential pregnancies create unplanned litters. After all the work that went into getting the colony stabilized, it would be a shame to let newcomers start the kitten-cycle all over again. Meal-feeding (as opposed to free-feeding) is critical to outdoor cat management. It conditions the cats to come at the same time every day and be hungry when they do.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Did abandoned foreclosure cats overflow Michigan shelters?

With all the media attention given to abandoned “foreclosure cats”, we expected to see a spike in Michigan shelter intake– especially since our economy was hit harder than most. Yet the recently released 2008 Michigan Shelter Report shows a 10% decrease -- with 137 licensed animal shelters reporting receipt of 112,000 cats and kittens. This is down from an average of 124,000 for the three previous years.

Shelter cat/kitten adoptions rates weren’t affected much by the depressed economy either. In 2008 shelters placed 28% of the cats and kittens they received -- roughly the same portion as in the previous 3 years which averaged 27%. And, sadly, shelter euthanasia rates also kept pace with earlier years– 66% of their 2008 intake was killed compared to an average of 64% during 2005-2007.

So why didn’t the much-publicized increase in cat abandonment by foreclosure victims translate into larger numbers of homeless cats at Michigan shelters?

Home foreclosure in and of itself would not be cause for cat relinquishment – those of us who think of our cats as family members would no sooner give them up during hard times as we would give away our children. Even the homeless keep cats and dogs as pets. But shelter intake information is often misleading. When people give up their cats they may be uncomfortable with what others will think. So when asked why they are giving them up, they offer socially-acceptable reasons– there’s an allergic family member or they’re moving to a place that doesn’t allow cats or possibly – in 2008 – they were foreclosed on. The actual reason for the surrender may be quite different – such as they can’t afford to sterilize the cat, their new spouse doesn’t like the cat or the cat no longer uses her litter box.

Even during good economic times, roughly half the cat population lives outdoors – much like squirrels and rabbits do– but with one difference. Cats are not natural house builders so they take over existing structures for wind, rain and snow protection. If there’s an access point in an abandoned house, a roaming cat will take advantage of it. A Good Samaritan finding cats living in or near an abandoned house could reasonably assume the cats were left behind by the former occupants. Whether they had been or not is a question. Appearances can be deceiving.

While there are no hard statistics on cat abandonment, we do know that home owners often find new cats living in their yard. Most are feral cats – who have lived their entire lives outdoors – but clearly some are socialized cats that have no obvious home. Certainly one factor in cat abandonment can be home foreclosure – but the practice existed long before the markets nosedived – and there are more dynamic causes for it happening.

The bipolar nature of most euthanasia-based animal shelters -- accepting cats only to turn around and kill them -- contributes greatly to cat abandonment. Imagine the dilemma a cat guardian faces when deciding what to do for a cat they can no longer keep? Do you give the cat to a shelter knowing there is a high probability the cat will die at their hands, or do you release the cat outdoors and hope for a good outcome? It’s a difficult decision – especially since about 85% of indoor cats have their homes because someone found them outside while only 15% were formally adopted from a shelter.

Lack of accessible cat spay/neuter assistance may well be the leading cause of cat abandonment. Today we think of spay/neuter as a means of lowering the overall cat population. But the practice began in the 1950’s when the introduction of kitty litter made cats viable indoor pets. No one was worried about cat over-population – if they were, they wouldn’t have established the age to fix a cat at 6 months – cats can get pregnant at 4 months. The reason cats were sterilized was so they could keep their indoor homes. By 6 months of age, unsterilized cats started to upset their guardians with their spraying, yowling, and kittening. Vets understood this and – knowing sterilization would stop these behaviors -- offered spay/neuter as the best way to keep cats in their homes. Yet today for lower-income families, the cost to spay or neuter their cats is often out of reach.

While the stories of abandoned foreclosure cats tug at our heart strings – the problem of abandoned cats goes much deeper and in many cases would be prevented simply by making community-wide free or affordable spay/neuter available to all cats.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Did Your Cats Wish You A Happy Mother's Day?

Mother’s Day reminded me of the many terms we use to describe our relationship to our cats (or dogs). Common descriptive words used today include “owner”, “guardian”, “caregiver” and “pet parent” – for the human side of the relationship – and “animal”, “cat”, “pet” or “kid”– for the cat – or simply by a specific name we’ve chosen for the cat – often human like “Susie” or “Charlie”.

Does it matter what words we use to talk about our relationship to our cats? Sapir and Whorf’s theory of linguistic relativism holds that the language we speak both affects and reflects our view of the world.

If you are making a lifetime commitment to your cat, you may refer to yourself as a “mom” or “pet parent” or “guardian” and call your cat by a specific name or something like “my baby” or “my kid”). Your bond is apt to be strong enough to help you deal with any problems that arise in the relationship -- medical and behavioral -- much as you would deal with similar issues with in human children.

Instead, if you refer to your cats as “your animals” and yourself as their “owner”, you may have a more objective tie to your cats – one based on the principles of property ownership. When their utility to you wanes – or when they become high maintenance through chronic illness or behavioral issues – you’ll be more apt to trade them in for a new kitten (much like replacing your car periodically) – even knowing that the cat may die as a result of your decision.

As our relationship to cats evolves – and it is – the number of people treating their cats as family members will increase and the numbers treating them as property will decrease. We’ve traced this evolution on our web site in A Historical Perspective of Cat Welfare in the United States. In our ever-changing world,most of the stages of this evolution are simultaneously in play – and people may move from one to the next as they become more enlightened or bonded to specific cats.

As we move away from treating cats as property, our tolerance for animal shelter euthanasia will be replaced by more humane alternatives to control cat populations such as proactive spay/neuter for all cats – living indoors and out -- and by the utilization of vehicles like pet insurance to defray the costs of providing lifelong cat care.

In Defense of Animals, of Mill Valley CA expresses this aptly in their famous quotation: “They are NOT our property… We are NOT their owners. A just and compassionate world for animals begins with our language and our actions.”

Happy belated Mother’s Day to all of you with cat kids in your home.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

In memory of Scooter -- our Velveteen Cat dies.

We lost Scooter on April 17. By cat standards – at 19 years -- she was pretty old and certainly had her share of geriatric health problems – kidney disease, high blood pressure --even functional blindness. Still, she managed pretty well – through medications and physical accommodations – and she wasn’t one of the cats we thought would be dying soon.

Her last day started off pretty much the same as every other day. In the morning I put her breakfast in her condo -- she ate some of it -- and then left-- slowly and cautiously walking toward the kitchen as best she could. (We kept a bowl of water in the condo for her, but for some reason her morning ritual dictated that she go to the kitchen and drink from the “big dish”. ) On this particular morning, she got about halfway there, when she stopped and just stood in place. When I noticed, I picked her up and carried her the rest of the way, but when I put her down in front of the water, her legs wobbled and she lost her balance. This was not normal. I held her to steady her, and when I let go the second time, she simply laid down prone on the floor – waiting a few minutes before standing up and drinking. I sighed with relief when she did, but continued observing her.

After finishing her drink I gave her to my husband to hold for awhile. Scooter loved sitting on his lap with Brandon – our other blind cat. This too was part of her daily routine. After a few minutes of attention, Scooter got up again and I helped her back to her condo. She ate a little food, drank more water, used her litter box and then climbed into her bed for her morning nap. Pretty routine events.

I checked on her periodically during the day, but let her sleep through the early afternoon before picking her up to feed her. When I did, I noticed her breathing was erratic. She inhaled properly, but when she exhaled, it was in an abrupt motion – not smooth. Now what to do? Cat breathing problems make me very nervous – because they are often serious and because I’m never sure if what I’m seeing is truly abnormal breathing. At 4:00 in the afternoon, it was too late to schedule a normal vet appointment. To get her examined would mean creating an emergency when I’m not positive there is one. I mulled it over and thought which was worse? Take her in for an emergency and find out I was wrong? Or, not take her in and have a more serious problem after the clinic closed for the night? The answer was clear – for Scooter’s sake she needed immediate medical attention – even if it turned out to be a false alarm.

I quickly packed Scooter up and drove to the clinic. On the way there I tried to calm her assuring Scooter that I would do what was best for her. When we got there, my fears were confirmed – Scooter was indeed laboring to breathe. We took a chest x-ray and found the lung area immersed in fluid. This is not good. We could extract some of the fluid and run a test to find out what it was, but the prognosis would be bad regardless – and treatments for a cat in her age group with chronic kidney disease would be marginal. The two most probable causes of the fluid were congestive heart failure or late-stage cancer. Testing may satisfy our curiosity for a diganosis, but it wouldn’t change the fact that Scooter was dying.

In Scooter’s best interests, we made the hard decision to end her life without further testing. Although when appropriate we’ll let a cat live out her life and not euthanize – we could not do this with Scooter. As her breathing worsened, she would start to feel like she was drowning—and this could be very terrifying.

And her breathing was worsening . Within minutes of our arrival at the clinic, Scooter started open-mouth breathing – and had to be put on oxygen while we deliberated her fate. Scooter’s passing was carried out as compassionately as possible. First she was sedated so that she would be asleep when the lethal pentobarbital was administered – and, she was given oxygen through the entire process to help her breathe easier. I stayed with her through the end, feeling sad that we were losing such an old and sweet friend, but knowing that she would not have to suffer.

Scooter – who was “too old for shelter adoptability standards” lived a full 8 years after we rescued her from a local shelter. Another example of how flimsy the shelter “age” test is for determining a cat’s life or death. Eight years is a long time for many people to have a pet – and from my personal experience with Scooter – know that she would have enriched the life of anyone who adopted her when we took her in at 11 years of age.

Euthanasia shelters frequently present themselves as the victim – they are “forced” to euthanize healthy pet cats because there simply are too many to adopt out. Yet only a fraction of their budgets go into preventative cat sterilization – choosing instead to use their nonprofit veterinary clinics as a “profit center” to support their large administative overhead -- instead of a community resource to lower the overall cat population. So long as community funding is focused on adoptions not sterilizations – these euthanasia shelters will continue to kill the majority of their intake and kittens will continue to flood the community. Why should this change? The euthanasia shelters know that their donations come from their adoption activity (not their spay/neuter activity) – and adoptions are optimized by getting in a new crop of highly-adoptable young kittens each year .

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Robin Lifts His Feral Cat Veil

To look at Robin today – enjoying the perks of an indoor cat – you would never think he once lived on his own outdoors. An elderly Saline couple (Maury and Edna) discovered him in 2002 while feeding a fox that lived in their yard. Each day Edna would prepare lunch for the fox and Maury delivered it to the foxhole. On one occasion as he walked away, he saw something black go over to the dish. He watched as a small black cat ate some of the food and then scurried off to the bushes. This became a daily pattern and – although it delighted Maury and Edna to see the cat – they worried about him sharing their yard with a fox. Once the fox figured out Robin was eating his lunch, there could be trouble.

Maury and Edna weren’t strangers to stray cats. Through most of their lives they operated a de facto rescue from their home -- fostering stray cats while placing them in permanent homes. They would have done this for Robin too, but, in their late eighties, just taking care of each other was a tall order. They called their veterinarian who referred them to us. We were forming our show-and-tell feral cat colony at our farm – which was only a mile from where Maury and Edna lived. Our colony contained only displaced feral cats that could not reasonably continue living in their original outdoor homes. Robin’s plight fit our model. We took for granted Robin was feral – as he still ran from Maury after several days of seeing him and being fed by him We live-trapped Robin, took him to the vet for neutering, vaccinating and ear-tipping and then blended him in to our colony.

Although we had physical charge of Robin, Edna and Maury remained committed to his care. Like with the fox, Edna prepared food each day for Robin and his colony mates – and Maury would get in his car – regardless of weather -- and drive the food to the cats each morning. Our volunteers assisted in feeding the colony Edna’s treats – typically butter pats in warm milk, tuna fish and the like. Even though we preferred premium cat food for nutrition, these daily treats were so thoroughly enjoyed we looked the other way as the cats inhaled them.

By early 2004 Maury’s health had declined and he was no longer able to visit Robin. We had already started questioning whether Robin was a feral cat because after he learned his new home, he seemed to be so accepting of people –all people -- not just those that fed him. With Maury now out of Robin’s life, we decided to bring him indoors with the Older Cats to see just how feral he really was. As we suspected, he was very comfortable indoors with people and one of our volunteers quickly adopted him.

Robin worked out great in his indoor home for just over a year. Then – for whatever reason – he started spraying their kitchen door and was returned to us within 2 weeks of the first incident. Coincidentally the day Robin came back, his good friend Maury passed away.

To cope with her grief over Maury’s passing, Edna sought donations for our cat programs. Remarkably, this housebound, legally-blind, elderly woman eked them out from all over – including 7 different states and the United Kingdom. Several months later, donations were still coming in – she and her helper had a follow-up list they worked from and were very adept at collection – especially knowing how important cats were to Maury.

Edna and I stayed in close touch– with Edna frequently checking on Robin to make sure he was using a litter box. He does most of the time but seems to spray when he’s nervous. I explained to Edna how we watch for cues and provide him with “safe spray alternatives” with increasing success. Edna enjoyed hearing about our methodology, comfortable that Robin would be cared for regardless of his issues -- still she wanted to stay in Robin’s life. Finally last summer, Edna became too weak to check on Robin – so she asked her personal caregiver to call for her . The last call came only 48 hours before Edna passed away – we know Robin was important to her right up to the end of her life.

When we look at Robin we see a cat that many “humane organizations” would write off as disposable. Maury and Edna saw value in Robin’s life and cherished him as much as they would the most perfect cat. Sure, he has a little baggage, but he’s warm and friendly and thoroughly enjoys companionship – both from people and cats. When I first met Maury he told me he would come to the farm every day until we understood – what he understood – that Robin was not feral. I’m sorry it took us a few years to get up to speed, but Maury was right. Too bad shelters don’t give feral intakes the same chance that Robin had to show his true colors. The line between feral and social is very thin – especially until cats and people get to know each other better. Even the most friendly and well-socialized cats can don a veil of feral behavior to survive living outdoors -- and until they become comfortable enough around people to lift it, it's very difficult to tell them from naturally feral cats.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Has Cleo Crossed The Feral Cat Line?

Okay I admit it. When I wake up in the middle of the night and find Cleo cuddling next to me – I feel pretty good. No –living in a house with umpteen cats – there’s nothing unusual about finding a few sleeping with me. What is unusual, is to have one of the feral cats do it – and she only started recently -- after almost 4 years of living here.

Like clockwork, she jumps up on the bed when it’s time for me to sleep and stakes out my side. When I get in bed, she moves near me staying just far enough down that I can’t touch her. If I violate her space by trying to pet her, she’ll jump down, wait a few minutes and then gives me another chance to follow protocol. When the lights are turned off she sidles up closer, ritualistically bathes herself from head to tail, and then curls up in a ball and purrs while I fall fast asleep.

Does this mean that Cleo is no longer a feral cat? No – cats only socialize to people if they receive intense human contact when they are babies. Cleo’s behavior is more indicative of habituation – where a cat lowers her guard after repeated exposure to the same human(s) over a long time. Because I have never hurt her – and provide her with comfort (food, shelter, water) – she is conditioned to no longer fear me. In Cleo's mind I have become her “mom cat” – but her reaction to people as a group has not been altered – they are still something to stay clear of.

During the daytime, like the other feral cats, Cleo stays out of the areas where people activity is high – living room, kitchen and office – preferring to hang out in the “cat room” or other low-use parts of the house. Maybe someday she’ll be comfortable sitting with me in the living room – but right now I have to accept Cleo’s attention on her own terms. As far as the other feral cats go(Emmy, Joyce and Larry)– I don’t expect they’ll join me in bed any time soon. The most I can hope for from them is permission to pet them and sit with them in their cat room. That is their “territory” and where they are the most relaxed.

Why is Cleo more receptive of me than the other feral cats? Just like people, cats come in all personality types. Possibly she’s a more outgoing cat to begin with. I just don’t know. I do know – from the reports we get from the caregivers in our Feral Colony Assistance Program – that few feral cats maintain extreme feral cat behaviors in a committed cat-human relationship. Once they learn the caregiver is there to service them, they drop their guard and bond enough to make the relationship work.

When spay/neuter programs like ours eventually get the overall cat population down to a reasonable number – all cats may be able to live indoors with people. The term “feral cats” will fade back into the pre-1990 background. A time when -- if someone's pet cat vanished when they had company -- would simply explain their cat's phantom behavior -- not as being feral but as being extremely shy.