A stray cat that has been surviving on scraps behind a restaurant…a barn cat roaming in a farm environment…and a cat living in a home setting with a large number of other cats.
What do all of these cats have in common?
Predictability. Regardless of sociability, all cats like their environment to be predictable, which in turn promotes security. When a cat’s environment changes and their sense of security is in jeopardy, their body activates a physiological response called “Fight or Flight”. The behavioural response to this stress can either be to lash out, resort to escape behaviours or even make themselves as small possible. The bottom line is, ALL cats display the same scared, shut down and seemingly ‘wild’; behaviour and it is a natural survival behaviour in response to something they perceive as scary.
The challenge we face at the Winnipeg Humane Society is that when a cat arrives in shelter and is in “Fight or Flight” mode, it is very difficult for us to determine their level of sociability.
For cats with a known owner history, our WHS Behaviour Team can reach out to the previous owner for more information on the cats’ normal behavioural traits. This information helps steer us to an appropriate live outcome for these cats.
But what about the cats without a previous owner or caretaker? How do we determine if the cat is social and whether they will make a good house pet? Or perhaps they are better suited to our working cat program?
In September, the shelter implemented what is called the Feline Spectrum Assessment (FSA). This valuable tool is a four-component process that helps shelters know more about cats who enter with unknown histories. It enables us to be proactive in determining the cat’s overall sociability and comfort level around humans, despite the behaviour currently being displayed in front of us.
During the 3-day assessment, the team looks for key behaviours that demonstrate how social a cat is. These behaviours range from extremely social behaviours such as headbutting or an attention seeking roll over to more tentative, fearful behaviour.
Recently we received a stray cat we named Viking, who was picked up and brought to the Winnipeg Humane Society. When he first arrived, he was in extreme distress – growling, yowling and postures indicating his uncertainness in this new environment. When clinic staff attempted to do a physical exam, he bolted out of the kennel, displaying “Fight or Flight”.
Through the staff’s FSA assessment, Viking was deemed ‘likely social’ in the findings, even though his stress level was still a struggle in this environment. This gives us an indication that Viking, although social, demonstrates a lower tolerance to change and that adopters will likely need to be considerate of this in their home (a quiet space to help with the transition period). Just as the test predicted, the extra TLC has shown Viking to be a quite charming young cat, who likes one on one attention.
The great thing about the FSA assessment is that it takes into consideration that all cats are different, and some may take longer to settle into their new environment. As a result, they may not demonstrate these ‘obvious’ social behaviours. Instead, the team looks for ‘point behaviours’ that have been found to be unique to a cat that is social (even though they may not be acting socially at this time).
Because of the FSA process, the WHS is able to ensure ALL cats in our care receive a fair shake. Knowing a cat’s level of sociability allows us to be proactive in determining the appropriate avenue that is in the best interest of the cat. Whether it’s the adoption floor, foster or a placement through hour working cat program.
From the moment this procedure was implemented in September, we have been able to improve live outcomes and reduce the stress levels of cats. That is our ultimate goal.
By: Catherine McMillan, Director of Behaviour and Community Support