By Maneka Gandhi
In this week’s Pet Talk, Maneka explains how a cat that is out on the street can be brought home and taken care of…
Why do cats fold their ears down when they are scared?
Cats instinctively fold their ears back to protect themselves from attack. They are harder to bite and to scratch in this position. Cat’s ears are quite big and make a tempting target in fights.
Why do cats love small enclosed spaces?
The sleek and flexible body of a cat can squeeze into very tight spaces, as owners sometimes learn when their felines push through partially opened doors or other tight spots. The shoulders of a cat can even bend and twist to enable them to fit into such spaces — all adaptations for hunting elusive prey.
So the short answer to your question is “Because they can.” But that still doesn’t explain why cats are sometimes attracted to beds, containers and more that would seem to not be a very accommodating fit. Cats “feel safe” in tighter spaces.
There are a few possible reasons as to why snug fits make some cats feel comforted. One is that the reduced area helps cats to retain their body heat. Warmth itself is a comfort, so that conserved body heat can be an attraction. Another is that cats are very tactile animals. From their whiskers to their tails, they are very aware of what’s around them. Feeling the sides of a bed or container lets them know that they are safe all around.
How do I bring a cat that is out on the street in my home? It appears as if she is scared of me but it is cold and I don’t want her to freeze.
Tell the difference between a stray and a pet. Both, lost strays and outdoor pets, can be skittish or friendly, so it’s hard to tell from their behaviour. The cat is probably a stray if its fur is messy or dirty, or if it looks skinny or injured. If the cat lets you touch it, check the paw pads. Stray cats that have lived outdoors for a few weeks will have hard, calloused feet compared to the soft paws of a family pet: i. If the cat tries to hide, doesn’t look at you, and doesn’t meow, it might be a cat that was never a pet; ii. Be extra vigilant in winter. Strays are desperate for shelter and food at this time, and pets are unlikely to spend much time outside.
- Try to approach the stray. If you think the cat is a stray, approach slowly while speaking in a soft voice. If the cat acts skittish, try bending down to its level. Hold out your hand and call it with a sweet voice. If that doesn’t work, return to the area later with a strong-smelling food, like tuna or dried liver: i. Try different tones or pitches, as some cats respond better to a higher or lower voice, or even ‘meow’ sounds; ii. Don’t get too close if the cat seems tense or nervous. If the cat feels cornered, it may bite or scratch.
- Provide shelter, water, and food for a potential stray cat. This may help to keep a lost cat near you until you can assist it. Place the food outdoors very late at night, in a small space that a cat could access but a larger animal could not: i. In sub-zero temperatures, oil from a tin of sardines poured over cat-food works well; ii. Do not leave food out until you suspect you have a stray, since this may just attract other people’s pets (who may be on controlled diets).
- Set a trap yourself. If you would rather catch the cat yourself, buy a humane cat trap from a hardware store. Cover the trip plate and wire bottom of the trap with newspaper, so that the cat won’t instinctively avoid stepping on the trip plate. Bait the trap with a small amount of strong-smelling food: i. In exceptionally cold weather, cover the trap with a sheet or towel to help keep the cat warm and calmer once it has been trapped.
- Check the trap frequently but carefully. Check the trap as often as possible, but approach slowly to avoid scaring away the cat at the wrong moment. If the trap doesn’t work in a day or two, try this longer-term approach: i. Disable the trap; ii. Every day at the same time (preferably dusk), put out food near the trap; iii. Gradually move the feeding spot closer to the trap, and eventually inside it. If the cat won’t go inside, try covering the trap with a towel sprayed with cat pheromone spray; iv. Once the cat is eating consistently inside the trap, set it to trigger; v. A stray pet tends to have a dirty coat, and a tendency to meow and make eye contact. It may eventually relax, come up to the front of the cage, or investigate toys or people that come near the cage. An untamed cat typically stays in the far back of the cage, may shake or bang the walls, and ignores toys and people.
- Handle with maximum caution. Even a friendly cat often panics in a trap. Wear heavy gloves when near the cat, and have a thick towel or blanket ready to throw over the cat if it tries to attack you. Avoid picking it up whenever possible; even if you avoid bites and scratches, the cat may resent the person who handles it.
- Set up a safe place for the cat to stay. Ideally, the room should be escape-proof, quiet, unused, easily cleaned, and almost completely empty. Spare bathrooms and fully-enclosed porches work well. Keep the following in this room:
- A comfortable seat for you to sit in quietly while the cat becomes used to you; ii. A comfortable hiding place where the cat has a good view of the room. A cat carrier on a high shelf works well; iii. Water; iv. Litter; v. You can include a scratching post, toys, and a (closed) window, but the cat may be too stressed to use them.
- Release the cat carefully. Wear gloves and position the trap or carrier away from you when you let the cat out. Most cats will scurry right into the hiding spot, but some will attempt escape.
- Keep the door closed. Cats can move very quick and may jump over you to reach the exit.
- Isolate the cat from other animals in the home. Your safe room should have zero access to the other animals in your household, including being able to smell each other under doors. Change your shoes and clothing and wash your hands and other exposed skin whenever you leave the safe room. If the cat scratches you, wash with soap and water and visit the doctor if the area becomes red or swollen, or if you get swollen lymph nodes, a headache, fever, or exhaustion.
- Allow the cat to calm down for a few hours. Once it has calmed down a bit, enter the room quietly, bringing food and a camera. Try to get a good look at the cat, and ideally a good photo, so you can immediately begin to search for an owner.
- Aggression is not likely, but leave immediately if you notice these warning signs: Flat ears; visible eye whites or extra-wide pupils; a crouched, tensed appearance; or slow movement toward you with the head down.
- Hissing and low growling with no other warning signs means the cat is afraid. Don’t approach, but don’t be scared of an attack either.
- Feed and care for the cat on a regular schedule. Always bring the food in personally and, if the cat will allow, sit in the room while the cat eats. Food is your best tool to earn trust. Allow it to eat alone if it will not eat in your presence, but be sure it sees that you provide the food.
- A predictable routine will allow the cat to anticipate your visits, making your entry much less frightening and helping associate you with food.
- Sit in your chair and read quietly for a few minutes, at least a few times a day. Try to be as non-threatening as possible: Move slowly, stay as ‘small’ as you can by hunching over, do not make eye contact, close your eyes and pretend to sleep, and speak quietly or not at all.
- Try to touch the cat. It may take two or three weeks of several brief, daily interactions before the cat acts calm and eats well around you. Once you’re at this point, slowly extend your hand to place an extra-tasty treat near the cat. Get the treat as close to the cat as you can before it cringes, growls, or otherwise acts threatened. Do not throw the treat or extend your fingers. Repeat, bringing your hand closer as the cat allows. Eventually, you may be able to bring your hand near enough that the cat will smell it. Allow this, then retract your hand. If the cat approaches, try slowly petting the shoulder blades, or whichever area the cat rubs against you. Go slowly, as the cat may have a sensitive injury.
Most strays will allow you to touch them once they’ve calmed down, and virtually all will give a warning signal if they are uncomfortable. (You may be able to ignore a brief hiss as long as it doesn’t continue or escalate into a growl).