Feral

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This spring I’ve been bit twice while wrestling a cat. Compared to cats I’m slow and soft. My best successes wrangling cats have come from using my big brain to guide them to do what I want.  When I figure out how to do that is less stressful for me and the cat.

Our main role with Alley Cat Project is to hold cats for recovery from spay and neuter surgery.  They come to us in a carrier and we put their carrier directly into a cage along with food, water, and litter.  We open the carrier door and they have access to the necessities and a little room to move.  When it comes time to release them we have to get them back into the carrier.  Most feral cats will seek out the shelter of the carrier, making the task easy.  Recently, however, we have had a few cats who would not go back into the carrier and this has caused wrangling difficulties.  I applied my brain to this problem and came up with the cage to carrier tunnel.

Tunnel partway across cage door

The tunnel is mounted on a larger board which blocks the cage door.  You open the door a smidge and slide the board in from the side.  There is a point where you have to open the door wide enough to let a cat out but I think this can be done quickly enough to now allow escape.

Tunnel completely covering the door. It can be held in place with bungies.

The tunnel has a sliding door to keep the cat in until a carrier is in place.

Tunnel with door closed

Tunnel with door closed

I measured the doors of all the cages we have and tried to select a tunnel position that worked for all.

Carrier bungied to the tunnel

The carrier can be bungied to the tunnel for one person operation.  I’ll feel better doing this with two people, one holding the carrier, until we know how well it works.

Cat's view of the tunnel

I hope the cats will see the open tunnel and carrier as a possible escape route.

Transfer board between carrier and tunnel

Once the cat enters the carrier the tunnel door is closed and a transfer board used to cover then close the carrier door.

Hopefully it will work that well.

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Winnie Burritoed

One technique for socializing feral kittens is to wrap them up in a towel so you can hold them close and they can not escape or scratch. They look rather like a buritto so it is called burittoing. Marie and I also call it snoggling. It took me several cats to figure out how to do this effectively. Initially they would escape out the front or the back. Even well wrapped I had to hold the towel snug around their neck to keep it secure. I’ve finally figured out how to make a secure buritto so I can snoggle a cat while working. Here’s what I do.

  1. Select the right towel.  It should be wide enough to leave 6 inches towel at head and rear and long enough to wrap at least twice around.  It should also be fairly thin so you can scruff through it and the final burrito is not too thick.  The towel I’m using is 26″ x 48″.
  2. Have the kitten in a confined space.  Chasing them around only enforces their feral behavior.  Advice I’ve received is to keep them confined until you can approach and pick them up with out a chase.
  3. Approach with the towel and put it over the kitten.  Winnie still hisses when I approach but as soon as I get the towel over him he stops hissing.  Eventually I should be able to pick him up with out the towel but last time I did that he fought fiercely reenforcing unwanted behavior.
  4. Scruff him through the towel.  This is why you need a thin towel.
  5. Pull him out with the scruff and support through the towel.  Winnie still goes passive when scruffed so this is quite easy.
  6. Wrap him up.  If you positioned the towel well you’ll be holding his scruff through the towel such that he is near one end and centered.  Holding this scruff I wrap the towel under him, set him down, spread out the towel, wrap it over, wrap it under again, and back over.  Hard to explain exactly but you’ll figure out a sequence that gets him all wrapped up.  Recently he starts purring at about this point.
  7. I then peel back the layers around his head.  Be careful as this is when they may try to escape.
  8. I identify one wrap that I can snug around his neck and then pin this securely with a clip.  I’m using a small clamp (see photo) because it can be very secure.  Things like clothespins are not secure enough.

Wrapped up like this I can now rest him in my lap and don’t have to hold the towel to keep him from escaping.  Now that we have done several sessions of this he generally relaxes, purrs, and sleeps.

I use a small clamp to secure the towel

Winnie securely snoggled on my lap

Update: After about a week of burritoing Winnie I decided that it was not providing enough benefit to justify Winnie’s discomfort at being kept in a cage and forced human contact. Now Winnie is running wild in our upstairs and keeping his distance. Maybe in his own time, and with the example of elder cats he will come to enjoy our company. Burritoing may work for some cats but perhaps not for Winnie just now.

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Odel and Winnie take refuge in the bookcase

Odel and Winnie came to our house on February 18. Captured as ferals and already over 12 weeks old, they would prove to be a challenge to socialize. But after nearly two months indoors, they have been well fed, altered, and endured lots of human contact. When they first showed up, they just wanted to hide and hiss every time either of us came into their room. They often would take refuge behind my books in the bookcase. I would take the books out one at a time to see them pressed up against the wall, giving me the serious stink eye.

They continued to hiss and spit at us almost every time we came near them. We kept a large cage on the day bed with open doors where they could always run to feel safer. Also, that’s where we fed them so they learned to run into the cage for meals. Inside the cage was a small cubby where they could hide for extra security. After a while we removed the cubby, forcing them to be out in the open more. They became more comfortable outside the cage and would often snuggle on the pedastle near the window.

Odel and Winnie snuggle

In March we had three windows in their room replaced. A very traumatic week for them with all the banging and movement. Once the room was back in order, we removed the cage.

Winnie - the reluctant burrito

After the clinic, we separated them so they can become more bonded with people rather than continue to cling to each other. Winnie has taken up residence in Tom’s office while Odel keeps me company in my office during the day. I’m sure they miss each other, and we look forward to letting them play together in the future. We spend time each day holding the kits in a burrito to help them get used to us.

They love to run and romp. They both have climbing posts and toys. They both quickly developed great litter box habits, but Winnie has a way of kicking an amazing amount of litter out each time he uses it. Although we’ve heard many cats don’t like these, a covered litter box may be the ultimate solution for him. Their personalities are distinct, with Winnie being much more relaxed in general while maintaining his physical independence, while Odel is more intense, fiercely standing his ground when threatened, but who mainly is scared and just wants to be loved. Both prefer the company of humans to being alone. Even as I write this Odel is tearing around the room with his mouse toy, jumping over my legs and purring whenever I talk to him.

Both cats love to snuggle with Nelson

Coming from a feral background, both kittens also love the company of other cats. There’s lots of purring and following our resident boy, Nelson, when we let him into their rooms.

These boys would make excellent companions to a household with some feral experience. Winnie still does not and may never like to be held. He no longer hisses when you come into his room, but he will run away if you get too close. Still, his trills and play antics are a joy to be around, especially if he has his play companion, Odel, or other cats to romp with. Odel does not prefer to be picked up, but once snuggled in your arms wrapped in a blanket, he will relax and purr contentedly. But, he may not choose to stay long, especially if he’s in play mode. Both kitties love to play with toys on a string, mice, ball in a doughnut, and undercover mouse. I suspect, with patience, Odel will become more and more affectionate towards people while Winnie will always be curious but is likely to maintain his physical independence.

Odel wonders what the future holds for him

These beautiful boys  would do great in a stable home with lots of room to play where there is little expectation for them ever being lap cats. They will continue to need socializing for a while and may not yet be ready for roaming freely in a large house. But as time goes on, I suspect their affection will grow as they feel more secure and settle into their forever home.

I created a
flyer to post in pet stores.

 

Winnie with our crazy resident cat Nelson.

Winnie Being Pet

Winnie being wary

Update: Both these cats have gone to great homes!

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Griz

Note If you are Griz’s adopter we would love to hear where he ended up.

Griz was picked up as a feral cat by the Seattle Animal Shelter, pass to us, neutered and ear-tipped at the Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project. As he was recovering in our basement I noticed that he did not seem as scared of me as a fully feral cat would so I started working with him. Two days latter he would come to the front of the cage to greet me, rolled on the floor as I pet him, and complained when I left him. I soon moved him up to my office where he prefers to hang out near me, sometimes in my lap. He clearly has lived with people in the past and somehow got separated from human society for a while.

Griz in my lap

Griz by keyboard

I named him Griz because his head was about as big as a grizzly bear’s. That and he looked a little grizzled: hair rubbed off nose from when he was trapped, scar on head, missing tail, tipped ear. Good food, daily brushing, and lots of affection have cleaned him up considerably.

The Seattle Animal Shelter was reluctant to take him back since he was acting very feral the first time he passed through their care. I took some video of him acting very friendly:

Love Bug in my Office

He is super affectionate, loving head, ear, chin rubs, and good back scratches. He likes human company and would do well in a house where people are around. He is athletic and explorative. I didn’t expose him to other cats but think it likely he would get along with them. Good litter box habits.

If you are the lucky adopter of Griz we would love to hear where he ended up. Pleas write via our feed back form.

Update: I visited Griz at the shelter a week after he was checked in. He is doing well and likes head rubs as much as ever. I wrote on his cage card under “Special Needs” the text “Head rubs, lots of head rubs”.

Griz at the Seattle Animal Shelter

First Video

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The Magician

We have a feral male who we call “The Magician”. Every time we bring him a plate of food, when we next check back he has made it disappear. This is common for true feral cats – those with out any human care takers feeding them. When food is put down in front of them they eat it.

Insulated carrier to keep the Magician warm.

He is also the first cat we had who knows what to do with a chicken neck. These were recommended to us as a way to keep our resident cat’s teeth clean. They have whole bones and chewing up the bones helps clean the teeth. Our residents don’t know what to do with them but the magician does – he makes them disappear. Another sign that he has probably been catching his own food.

Cats who live outside develop a thicker coat for cold weather. They will loose the coat if they are inside for too long so I moved him out to the garage. Gave him a well insulated carrier to snuggle in and a shelf with a view out to our back yard. For the first several days I think he mainly stayed in the carrier but recently I’ve seen him on the shelf. Today he goes to a barn home.

Clean cage in the garage

 

Magician enjoying the view

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So, we renamed Bob to Button. I liked the nicknames that came from Bob such as “Bobster” and “Boblet” but he was not a straight Bob. I think he’ll also grow out of being a “Button” but the lucky people who adopt this guy can find a name he will grow into.

Our last post about Button ended with him and Ginger starting to play together. By the evening of their 3rd day they were good buddies. I put one of our cat beds on my desk. It just fits one of our adult cats but will hold two kittens. On the third day, when they were well on their way to being friends, after a round of play, Ginger was laying in the bed. Button approached the bed and sat down. I could see that he dearly wanted to get in bed with her but did not know if she would accept him. I have my self and seen other people have the exact same hesitation: should I approach them or not? Well, little Button tested the waters with a paw, sat back as if nothing was going on, then climbed into bed with Ginger. I would like to say she was completely accepting, but Ginger is a little feisty. She gave a few play swats but they did settle down together. Since then we frequently see them snuggling together. I think Button has been having the time of his life.

Huddling under monitor

In bed together

More relaxed

More relaxed

Ginger's feet double as a chin rest

 

The first time I heard Button purr was when Nelson came into the room He got all excited, jumped down on the floor, and started purring. The little guy really likes cats. He’s approached all our residents in the same way. Unfortunately, they are adults with adult worries and not enough social graces to be gentle with a young one. After Button was rebuffed by Nelson I picked Button up and told him it was Nelson, not him and that he is perfectly lovable as he is. And this was the first time he purred when I was holding him.

Marie and I have both been picking him up more. Now he is comfortably enough with touch that he will generally let us pet him, will usually start purring, and often remains relaxed. He is more relaxed when we pick him up, more so with Marie. The first couple days we had him we never heard him purr.

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A friend asked:

my mom is going to get 2 cats. She wants ones older than kittens. Any advice?

I thought this would make a good post. The short answer is to go to your local shelters and let them help you find the right pair. They will know the cat’s personalities and should be able to help you find the right pair. Here’s some of what the shelter people will be thinking.

In general, cats are social and it is kind to them to have feline companionship in the house. This is especially true for young cats who wan to play. But it is also true that cats are territorial and have a social hierarchy and that not all cats will get along so it is important to choose the right pair. If you choose a pair where there is a clearly dominate and clearly submissive cat this will help create peace. Two cats of similar social standing may end up constantly fighting for dominance. As a rule altered females are more dominate than altered males so:

  • A female and male is the best option
  • Two males is good
  • Two females could be trouble

(Unaltered cats are a different matter and not recommended for several reasons.)

Of course it really comes down to the individual cat’s personalities and there are plenty of exceptions to these guidelines

Often at PAWS we have bonded pairs and we really try to adopt them together. A strongly bonded pair would be truly unhappy if they were split up. Other pairs are just two cats that get along but would also do OK apart. Many of these pairs grew up together but there are examples of two adults who became fast friends on introduction. Pairs can be a little harder to adopt. Many potential adopters want one cat, either as a solo or as a companion for an existing cat. If you know you want two adult cats looking for a bonded pair is a good choice and a kindness to the pair.

If you can’t find a bonded pair you feel drawn to you can choose two cat-friendly cats you do like. There are plenty of stories of two cats becoming good house mates and even play buddies in their new home.

If you are going to adopt a kitten it is good to pair it with an older cat. The older cat will teach the kitten how to be a cat. It is just good for them to have mentors. All kittens want to be friends with other cats. As they go through the latter part of their first year they start to notice and then become engaged with social status. There is always the risk that a growing kitten will eventually challenge the older cat’s dominate position. Again, it is probably best that the older cat either be clearly dominate or the kitten be able to clearly take over that role.

One of the biggest uncertainties adopters face is finding a cat that will get along and even become friends with their current cat, dog, or both. The shelter often knows which cats are more likely to get along with a resident cat or dog. There may be history from the person to surrendered the cat, from foster parents, or from observation in the shelter. Still, there is no way to know until you bring the new cat home and introduce it to the resident, a process that can take weeks or months. That said, I believe there is a good chance to make a good addition if you let the shelter staff guide you in selecting the new cat and carefully introduce the cats.

On the topic of introductions there is a lot to say and it is worth it’s own posting. There is plenty of good information about it on the web, here’s one sample from PAWS.

One option for finding a good companion for a resident cat is to foster for a local shelter. You will have the opportunity to introduce cats to your resident with out the commitment of having adopted them. I only recommend this if you have some honest wish to help the shelter and it’s cats. There are some difficulties with this route. Many of the cats are sent to foster because they are ill, stressed by the shelter, or need work with some behavioral problems – they are not the most adoptable cats. If you are willing to work with these cats you will help them, the shelter, and may soon find yourself with a great new companion.

There are some cats who just don’t like other cats. These are somewhat harder to find homes for. If you know that you intend to only have one cat it is a kindness to choose one that wants to be an only cat. Ellen Leach, a Seattle cat behaviorist, suggests that singleton cat may be a result of increasing indoor-only cat policies. This limits their contact with other cats and opportunities to learn cat to cat social skills. Now, every time I adopt out a solo kitten from PAWS I wonder if they will be creating a cat-intolerant cat. PAWS always has several and they are a little harder to adopt. On the other hand, cats that started as feral have good cat to cat social skills and tend to like other cats.

More than two cats increase the chance of cat to cat trouble. Cori Gross, the behaviorist we are working with, said that most of her calls are to households of 3 or more cats. It can work out, it is just that with three you have created a cat society where conflict is more likely.

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We armed the traps on Saturday, 9/25, to capture cats for clinic on Monday 9/27.

Big T

BigT - Ready for clinic

BigT - Ready for Transport

A medium hair grey tabby, related to Fluff E and Little T but much bigger. He has large paws and a large head like our resident Jojo. When threatened he growls, like Jojo. I transfer him to a medium carrier, taking care to not present any possible exits. I put the carrier in a cage and open the door. When I check back later he is out of the carrier, in the rear of the cage and looks miserable.

Lucy

IMG_0119.JPG

Lucy ready for clinic

Late on Sunday we catch a light grey female. She too is very unhappy to be in the cage.

Clinic

Again, Marilyn of Forgotten Felines is there before me with six kittens for the clinic. They are less busy today.

When Marie picks up the cats they tell us that Big T is 12 lbs and looks healthy and well fed and that he has an intimidating growl. We’ll release him on Tuesday but hold Lucy for several more days to ensure she is well.

Releasing

Tuesday we decide to release BigT because he’s spent the last 12 hours laying in his carrier. He is either depressed or not recovering – we can’t tell. Since the clinic said he was generally robust we decide it is probably depression and decide to release him that evening. At Mud Bay we open his carrier door. He takes several seconds, pokes his head out to look back at us, and then takes off.

Wednesday we see that Lucy has been active most of the night (thanks to a web cam I set up to monitor her. The clinic said that ideally we would keep females for 3 days but should release her if she is not suitable to be kept in a cage. With all her movement she seems as likely to hurt herself in the cage as she is outdoors. We can’t get her back into her carrier so we transport the whole cage to Mud Bay. We back the car in and open the door. She surprises us by not running to the nearest shelter but instead through the parking lot to the side walk then hangs a left. Bye bye Lucy…

Trapping planned for next Monday’s clinic.

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Because we buy a lot of food at Mud Bay we have gotten to know one of the clerks, Jon. He asked if we knew anything about trapping feral cats as there is a colony behind Mud Bay.

There are an incredible number of people working to help feral cats in this city. This is good because there are an incredible number of feral cats. I always knew there were some, but did not appreciate how many until I started to work with feral cats.

I knew that Deb, our Seattle Animal Shelter foster case manager, worked with ferals so I ask her. The problem with feral cats is that their life is difficult and they breed more feral cats. The consensus solution is to trap, neuter, and release (TNR). Most of these cats will not be happy living indoors or with people. Since there are already many healthy, friendly cats who do need a home it is not worth putting the effort into cats who don’t want to be a companion. Releasing them back allows them to live out their life in the environment they are familiar with. Neutering them prevents them from brining more cats into that life.

The Mud Bay Colony

Jon described about 5 cats that lived behind Mud Bay. A mostly tame pregnant female he was able find a home for. We decided to trap, neuter, and release the remaining cats. We gathered supplies, many lent to us by Deb, set a clinic date and placed several unarmed traps with food to encourage the ferals to go inside the traps to eat.The Sunday before we were to take them to the clinic, we armed the traps. Early afternoon Jon calls – we have a cat. It’s the friendly little grey cat, a medium hair tabby. He’s not tame but will approach closer than any of the other cats. Jon names him Fluff E Face. We take the trap back to our garage and successfully transfer him into a carrier.

A couple hours later we get another cat, twin to Fluff E, who we name “Little T”.

The Clinic

The Puget Sound area is served by the Feral Cat Spay and Neuter Clinic in Lynwood. They run free clinics, 3 to 4 times a week, with up to 50 cats per clinic. Because they are such high volume and low cost there are specific procedures we must follow, such as bringing a clean towel for each cat. The clinic takes some reservations which fill up one to two weeks in advance. They also allow up to 10 drop in cats. Most trappers I’ve talked to use the drop in and just show up early. The clinic opens promptly at 7 am and we are there at 6:30 am to make sure we get a spot.

Releasing

Little T is clearly not happy being in the cage so we release him one day after surgery. He shoots out of the cage, under a fence, and is gone.

Fluff E’s status is less clear. We end up holding him for a week to evaluate his socialization potential but in the end can find no one with the dedicated space and time to take on this task and back to the briar patch he goes. We have seen him several times since then, hanging around the traps. Unfortunately, he seems to be a likely candidate for re-trapping.

I am used to seeing cats as companion animals, not as wild animals. But that is what these feral cats are: wild animals. They are dirty, scared, and agressive.

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