By Virginia Donohue
Sometimes it’s obvious. The cat is pressed against the back of the enclosure, yowling and hissing at you. Not a happy camper. Another cat is lying down, apparently calm, but when you reach for that food bowl, he takes a swipe at your hand. How do you read cat body language? How do you help keep your staff safe?
Shelley Smith, shelter operations coordinator with Pets Unlimited, a non-profit veterinary center and shelter, and Anika Liljenwall, behavior associate with the Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA, both use a feline body posture diagram developed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
For the staff member who is having a hard time reading cat signals, the chart clearly illustrates what to look for in the body, tail, ears, and face to determine if a cat is relaxed, at play, or displaying signs of anxiety or aggression.
What do you do with the hissing, swatting cat you’re trying to care for? According to Smith, “One of the biggest things people need to remember is that they’re not angry cats; they’re fearful. They’re not angry; they’re afraid. They’re definitely thinking there’s a threat to their welfare.”
If the cat is afraid, what do you do? “For the really extremely fractious cats, we try to do as little handling as humanly possible,” says Liljenwall.
Speak to the cat in a low, soft voice, trying to be as soothing as possible. Don’t make direct eye contact, because the cat will experience that as aggression. Liljenwall says, “Sometimes blinking at them slowly will convey a message of calm.” If you do need to reach into the enclosure, move slowly yet confidently, counsels Smith. “If you jerk back when they swat, they’ll keep swatting because it works.”
Smith suggests encouraging people with anxious cats to bring comforting items from home. “Request that familiar items be transported with the cat from home to make them feel less uprooted. Bring things like toys, their bedding, or an owner’s article of clothing. Unless soiled, leave bedding and cage items in the cage for the whole time so the cat remains surrounded by familiar things. Imagine traveling with your whole home around you as opposed to traveling in a foreign place with none of your own things with you.”
Smith says to keep cleaning to a minimum and move items in their enclosures without touching the cat. For example, try slipping food, water, and bedding in and out with tongs. She also suggests distracting the cat during cleaning, if possible, with any food or toys the cat really likes.
To help calm an anxious cat, there are several techniques you can try. “Make sure your environment is quiet. Noise is very stressful for cats. Don’t slam doors, no barking dogs,” says Smith. “Give them a place to hide – a hidey box or a small cat tree – so they can ignore the world.”
Liljenwall adds, “We use a lot of boxes here – shoe boxes in the cat cages – because they like to hide. Maybe a paper bag that they can hide in. Sometimes for the shyer cats, we’ll make a tent out of a sheet to help the cats relax a bit.”
Smith cautions, “If you’re going to need to handle them, I wouldn’t use something they can get all the way into, because then you’re going to have to get them out.”
Next, you want to begin to associate positive experiences with people. Here are some things you might try, depending on the cat:
- Put some canned food on a tongue depressor and extend it into the enclosure
- Supply inexpensive toys such as pipe cleaners, straws, or toilet paper rolls
- Use a human back scratcher to stroke the cat
If you do get to the point where more interaction seems possible, Liljenwall suggests, “Start by talking to the cat from outside the cage. Open the cage door and extend one finger. That is the polite way to say hello.”
If you do need to handle an aggressive cat, you can wear gloves that are puncture resistant, but there is no such thing as a puncture-proof glove. Both Smith and Liljenwall suggest wrapping cats in towels if you need to restrain them, because it makes the cat feel more secure. Again, don’t handle an aggressive cat unless you have to. In this case, less is more. With a lot of patience and serenity, your skills will improve. “Honestly, the best thing is experience,” says Smith.
Virginia Donohue is a co-owner and founder of Pet Camp. Pet Camp provides daycare, lodging, training, bathing, and swimming services to dogs and cats in two locations in San Francisco, California. Pet Camp has won numerous awards for its outstanding services, including the Best of the Bay award for five straight years. We’re always innovating and looking for ways to enhance the lives of the pets we care for and our employees. You can follow us on our blog.