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Cultivating Cool Cats: Handling Felines in the Shelter so they Look and Feel Their Best

Joan Miller, renowned cat expert, presents tips for how to put the cat in your care at ease and bring out her best qualities to help her get adopted. 


Faux Ferals: How to Soothe a Scared Stray to Increase Her Chances of Adoption

(Download a PDF version of this document)

It’s important for you to know if a cat in your care is a socialized stray cat who needs to be reintroduced to people or a feral cat who cannot be handled, so you don’t make the mistake of trying to socialize a feral animal. Our Stray or Feral: An Important Difference section can help, with tips on how to tell stray cats and feral cats apart outdoors.

Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy. In a stressful situation like a trap, shelter, or veterinary clinic, stray and feral cats often behave alike, exhibiting fearful behavior or signs of anxiety that are mistaken for aggression.

Because of this, shelters and other places “…lump the feral cats in with the stray cats because really they can’t tell, normally, whether they’re actually feral or whether they’re frantic,” explains Joan Miller, renowned cat expert, cat show judge, and Cat Fanciers Association board member.

These cats aren’t necessarily feral; they are protecting themselves because they’re scared. With patience and the right approach, you can help frightened stray cats relax and reveal their friendly personalities.

We’ve compiled this guide based on a regular presentation by Joan Miller, along with common Alley Cat Allies’ recommendations. Their experience will help you put the cat in your care at ease in order to bring out her best qualities and put her best “paw” forward.

Let the Cat Relax

Transfer the cat to a holding cage and allow the cat some time and space to calm down and get used to you and to her new surroundings. Once the cat relaxes, she will be more inclined to interact as she normally would.

  • Creating Down Time - Give the cat as much time as possible to calm down. Joan Miller prefers not to evaluate cats for at least 48 hours after arriving or 48 hours after surgery.
  • Establishing Safe Places - Don’t attempt to evaluate the cat in a trap. The Stray Cat Handbooksuggests taking the cat to a quiet place where she can be alone: “It can be a small room or part of a larger room or even a big box in a room. Just make sure there’s some place [s]he can go where [s]he knows no one will bother [her].”
    • In a shelter environment, Alley Cat Allies recommends using a ‘cat den’ so the cat can have a safe place to settle down. The den sits inside the larger cage and allows you to contain or remove the cat from the cage if necessary.
    • Keep the cat’s cages off the floor—cats instinctively feel more secure when they can see all of their surroundings.
  • Providing Consistency - Follow a routine for all daily activities, including feeding, play time, grooming, cage cleaning, and alone time. As Miller notes, “What the cats need more than anything, if you want to get them adopted: predictability.”
  • Maintaining Scent- Cats mark their territory by smell.
    • Miller recommends spot-cleaning cages to leave the cats’ scent inside; spot-cleaning also allows you to avoid removing the cat from the cage. Cat dens are excellent for containing the cat during spot cleaning. Keep the same toys in the cat’s cage from cleaning to cleaning.
    • Wash the smell of other cats off your hands before handling a new cat. Before touching her, place your hand next to her mouth, where she can easily smell you.
  • Switching Handlers - The cat may have negative associations with the trapper or treating veterinarian. Let someone else handle the cat for feeding or play time.

Empower the Cat

A cat who feels she has control over her environment will be far more confident and relaxed. These tips will make her feel more mentally and physically secure.

  • If possible, let the cat approach you first.
  • According to Miller, cats like choices. Place some objects in the cat’s cage or a play area for her to climb on or go in and out of as she chooses.
  • Provide Observation Opportunities
    • Don’t isolate the cat. A common mistake is to keep the cat hidden away in a quiet room even after she has had time to calm down. A cat that can see, hear, and smell what’s going on around her won’t be unpleasantly surprised when it’s her turn to be handled.
    • Handle her on a table or high surface so she won’t feel threatened from above.
    • Miller recommends using plexi-glass cages to allow cats to see out while still feeling protected.
    • Don’t take cats out of the carrier headfirst. The cat doesn’t know where she is going and is likely to be defensive; if your shelter has a zero-tolerance policy for biting, you could end up doing her more harm than good. Instead, use a top loading carrier or bring the cat out hind end first, allowing her to focus on where she’s been.
  • Let the cat stand with all four feet firmly on a surface. Minimize picking her up or handling her by the scruff.
  • Give the cat play time outside of her cage.
    • Provide her with toys to show off her predatory skills.“If you want to bring out their behavior and enhance the way they act, one of the things that you have to do is find out what they’re good at, and in the shelter environment it’s very hard to do when they’re in a cage. So they have to have some chance to get out and be able to have some interactive play,” says Miller.

Challenge the Cat

Although cats need plenty of relaxation time in a new environment, they benefit from what Miller calls “non-threatening adversity.” Most cats are going to try to avoid you out of fear, but if you never challenge them, that behavior will become ingrained. Initiating some interaction will help you determine if the cat has been socialized in the past, and help the cat realize that you’re not so bad after all.

  • Don’t let her hide all the time. Interact with the cat at least one to two times per day.
  • Try to carefully groom the cat with your hand, gently loosening dead hair with wet fingers. She may be too shy or frightened to clean himself.
  • Remember that, as Miller puts it, “Cats don’t like anything for the first time.” Be patient and stick to the routine.
  • Don’t look the cat directly in the eyes—she perceives this as a confrontation.
  • Talk to the cat in a low, calm voice.
  • “Any sign of a cat showing some responsiveness is good,” notes Miller. Watch for even the slightest signs of submission.
  • Don’t mistake fear for aggression. “Hissing is the language that cats use just as a warning. It really doesn’t mean they’re aggressive. And I feel the same with growling. The low growl…is just sort of an anxiety expression,” says Miller.
  • Use these signs to tell if a cat is frightened or aggressive:

FRIGHTENED

AGGRESSIVE

Hissing, growling, or spitting

Howling

Eyes are not dilated

Eyes dilated

Fur relaxed, head straight

Fur on end, head cocked, ears back

All of these suggestions will help you interact with the cats in your care to determine if they are socialized to people. If a cat eventually relaxes and responds to your efforts, you will know that you can re-socialize this cat and find her an adoptive home. If the cat does not improve after a few days, respect her best interest by getting her spayed and returning her to her colony. By taking the time to understand the cat, you can prevent lost or abandoned pets from being needlessly returned to a life outdoors and make sure each cat goes to the best possible home, whether that is indoors or outside.