It’s not always a slam dunk for shelter personnel, being able to differentiate between feral cats and scared or traumatized socialized cats. At many shelters, cats who are deemed to be feral are shoved into the express lane for euthanasia. It sounds brutal, but it’s a matter of how best to expend scant resources, and many shelters cannot afford to provide food and shelter for unsocialized and unadoptable feral cats for a even just a few days. To do so would be taking resources away from adoptable cats whose holding time would be shortened. Sadly, we live in a time when nearly every shelter in the U.S. is bursting at the seams, and it’s survival of the most adoptable.

Fortunately, in some communities, TNR advocates are working to change all that. Some lucky trapped ferals are no longer ushered to death row, but instead are spayed/neutered, treated for disease, and released back to their feral colonies.

This week, through Vox Felina, I read about innovative research currently being conducted by the ASPCA that will help shelters differentiate between feral and not-feral-but-scared-to-death cats. Their goal is to collect enough data to be able to establish a protocol that any shelter can use to determine on intake whether or not a cat is feral. Ultimately, it’s hoped that most shelters would then return feral cats to their colonies (after their grapes or ladyparts are removed), and devote resources to non-feral cats who need additional socialization, often through foster programs.

Here’s the article by Dr Emily Weiss, which was published as ASPCAPRO.org.

It is an exciting time for the ASPCA Shelter Research and Development department. We have just completed the data collection phase of the Is that cat socialized or unsocialized, aka is that cat feral research. Thanks to research assistant Alex Mirontschuk, we have data for nearly 300 cats half from known feral colonies and half from pet homes. Now we will finalize data entry and begin the process of data analysis. With the expertise of project manager Dr. Kat Miller, the tenacious Drs. Margaret Slater and Kathy Makolinski, and myself, we will look for assessment items that may help to differentiate the two populations (those that thrive in pet homes and those that thrive in feral colonies).

Alex (photo, right) spent the last six months observing the two cat populations in Asheville, NC, in space provided to us by Humane Alliance. I thought you might like to hear a bit about Alexs experience from her own perspective:

Alex Mirontschuk tells her story

Ive spent the past six months observing cats. Lots of cats nearly 300! When I first signed on for this project, I dont think that I had a complete grasp on how I would be spending my days

Monday mornings arrive to a lobby full of cats up to 16 at a time. This scene was a bit overwhelming, especially first thing on a Monday. First things first: I moved each cat, one at a time, back to a small observation room where I vaccinated them. Things could get interesting pretty quickly at this point! Once vaccinations were complete, I performed two in-trap assessments on every cat. After these morning assessments were complete, all of the cats were transferred from their traps to their cages, and given a rest before I began afternoon assessments. During the vaccination and both assessments, I gathered data on everything from the cats vocalizations to their body position and movements to any miscellaneous behaviors, such as grooming themselves.

On Monday afternoons, in-cage assessments began. As with the morning assessments, I carefully observed the cats reactions to each stimulus and noted all of their behaviors. A total of four assessments were performed on each cat.

At the end of the day, all of the cats were fed while I stood by and observed to see if they would eat with a person in the room.

On Tuesday mornings, and again on Wednesday mornings, the same in-cage assessments were repeated, with the only difference being that the novel object was replaced by a toy (a piece of string dangled in front of the cage).

On Thursday, it was surgery day! All cats in the study were provided a S/N if they were not already altered. This served as an incentive for participation in the study.

The last part of data collection each week involved me sitting in on the cats surgeries and gathering information on their physical condition. I noted their oral condition, body condition, reproductive status, and any injuries or parasites.

Finally came what was sometimes the hardest part of my job: saying goodbye to the kitties I had just spent a week with! On Friday mornings, all of the cats were either released to their owners or released back to their colonies, and I got ready to start over again the next week with a new group.

We are anxious to begin analyzing the data to look for behavioral differences between the groups. We are hopeful, but also realistic, and are therefore keeping our fingers and toes crossed that we find measures that are easy for shelters to implement, that can be implemented early in the cats stay and are strong predictors. Stay tuned!!

If you have not had the opportunity, take our Is That Cat Socialized? quiz where you can observe four cats and choose whether you think they are socialized. Try it now and see the challenges that face us in the analysis process!

[SOURCE: ASPCAPRO.org via Vox Felina]