Feline Behavior Conference
“Cats are not anti-social,” says veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sharon Crowell-Davis, professor of behavior and anatomy at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, Athens, speaking at the 2015 International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants Feline Behavior Conference April 11-12 in Atlanta, GA.
For starters, most outdoor cats live in groups with other cats. No one forces them to live together, she notes.
Crowell-Davis has studied feral cat colonies for many years, and says that in some ways the social structure of feral cats isn’t so different from that of elephants. It’s a matriarchal society, led by females. The larger group is often broken up with cliques that like to hang out together, which Crowell-Davis suggests is like “high school.”
Since cats who pal around together do this day in and day out, clearly there’s an effort made to be with friends (or “preferred associates” in feral cat lingo). Sometimes they groom one another, even intertwining their tails.
“When a hunter returns to the group, the greeting includes lots of sniffing and cheek rubbing, a similar greeting we receive when we return from a day at the office,” Crowell-Davis notes.
Previously, it was thought that male cats never pal around, but that’s false, Crowell-Davis said.
Mostly because their food is so small, little lizards and mice, for example, feral cats are solitary hunters. “There just aren’t enough calories in a single mouse to feed many cats,” says Crowell-Davis. “But many of us suspect that every once in a while, they do hunt cooperatively like lions for very large prey, like squirrels. However, she concedes that cooperative hunting in cats has never been captured on video.
While many cats spend most of their time outside, they’re not all truly feral, as New York City-based cat behavior consultant Beth Adelman explained at the conference. “Some outdoor cats that were once pets and are socialized to people, however, once brought indoors, (are) terrified.”
Adelman says you can help acclimate such cats and described a novel approach that has worked for as well as clients: First, seclude the cat in a fairly quiet room, but one that’s used regularly by one or two members of the household, such as an office. Include a litter box, scratching post, toys and food and water bowls. Allowing the new cat to hide is extremely important,” Adelman said.
“Of course, we all want to use positive reinforcement, and let’s face it, what’s most reinforcing (for the cat who is afraid) is for me to leave the room.”
To reduce the cat’s fears, have one person in the household glance occasionally at the hiding cat, usually under a sofa or bed, Adelman explained. The second the cat offers any hint of “calmness” by relaxing its body posture just a tad, say “good cat” in a soft voice, and then leave the room give the cat what he or she wants. Over time, the goal is for the cat to become more and more relaxed in your presence.
When you are in the room, don’t demonstratively reach out for the cat; let the kitty make all the calls, Adelman noted. However, even if the cat is hiding, you can sit down and read a children’s book. We tend to read children’s books in a calming, sing-songy voice. Or you could randomly repeat the cat’s name in a sweet tone.
“The rate of progress should be dictated by the individual cat, even in very small incremental steps; that’s fine. In time, the cat’s real personality will come out,” Adelman said. “It’s all about building trust and giving the cat the choice about when to come out from under a sofa or bed, or not.”
Adelman is critical of the idea, which some feral cat groups support, of caging a new cat in the middle of a room in a large dog crate – even if there’s a hiding box inside the cage – is “misguided and even inhumane.” This forces exposure rather than giving the new cat a choice about whether to come out or not.
Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lynne Seibert, of Atlanta, spoke about older cats, and how cognitive dysfunction syndrome, like Alzheimer’s disease in people, is rarely discussed in cats, but should be.
Seibert noted that symptoms of feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome may be categorized by initials DISHA:
D: Disorientation, cats acting confused, seemingly forgetful, even walking into the wrong side of doorways.
I: Interaction changes: Once an outgoing cat is now a wallflower, ignoring family members (human or feline) that the cat once spent far more time with.
S: Sleep wake cycles changes, a big one for elderly cats, insomnia and yowling in the night.
A: Activity levels and anxiety. Changes in activity level may be age-related, but may also be brain-related. Aware of these changes, some cats become anxious.
Seibert noted that 35 percent of cats 11 years or older have feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome; 48 percent of cats 15 year or older also exhibit these aging signs. Post-diagnosis, the average survival time is around a year and half to two years. Having said that, due to infrequent veterinary visits and assumptions like “my cat is just getting older,” diagnosis isn’t typically made until the later stages of the disease. Early intervention may be helpful.
Learn more about the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants at www.iaabc.org.