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Say what you see: Assessing cat behaviour

06th August 2020

  •   Unowned Cats

Every day, if you are someone who who works with unowned cats in pens and cages, you will be making assessments about how those cats are feeling. We all make those decisions often based on lots of experience and the ‘gut feeling’ that develops over time, but how often do we really watch and actually write down or talk about exactly what we are seeing.

This is what Vicky Halls did with Dr Sarah Ellis, Head of Cat Advocacy. Choosing this video, they sat down and watched it through a couple of times. This is the conversation they had afterwards – did you observe the same things and come to the same conclusion?

Vicky:

So this is what I saw, when the observer approaches the cage, the cat rises to its feet and as it does so it freezes briefly twice while it watches the person, ending up underneath the shelf to the observer’s right-hand side of the cage. The cat continues to look at the observer, and with a raised right forepaw, looks towards the cat flap and starts walking towards it and then stops and turns to watch the observer again (pupils ‘normal’ for ambient light conditions, ears upright and facing forwards). The cat then looks quickly and briefly towards the raised shelf in the cage before looking towards the observer again with a short freeze, then turns towards the back of the cage to the right-hand side before ‘flopping’ laterally onto left side, facing the observer with tail curled over back legs. Cat then proceeds to rub face and body on the blanket, flexing the toes of the fore paws and stretching front legs, and its body moves slightly towards the observer but still remains towards the back of the cage. The cats’ eyes remain on the observer during this stretching and rubbing process before blinking slowly and looking towards the ceiling of the cage. The cat then raises its head and chest to look towards the cat flap at the back of the cage, flexes its fore paws again and, as it lays its head down on the blanket again, looks towards the observer. What did you see, Sarah?

Sarah Ellis:

These are the notes I made, very similar to yours: The body language/behaviour I observed was:

  • Facial rubbing bedding and shelf in pen
  • Eyes on camera person
  • Toes splayed like when kneading
  • Claws visible (suggesting cat aroused but not necessarily negatively so)
  • Cat keeps flopping onto side exposing its belly and curling its head over as if it was going to roll onto back
  • Despite this, keeps some distance between itself and camera person

I would say this cat is in a fairly aroused/excitable state but the rubbing and flopping onto its side and the splayed toes suggest to me it is trying to positively interact, possibly inviting interaction although I would proceed with caution due to the arousal levels. I would simply offer a loosely clasped hand for the cat to choose to approach and rub on if it desired.

Vicky:

I agree, I think many people would recognise the desire to positively interact but, in combination with the cat’s orientation in relationship to the observer and the movements and postures prior to the rolling, for me this would suggest some hesitancy/conflict, probably due to the context/environment? I would also add the brief freezes, the raised forepaw, the glance towards the shelf and the cat flap, could indicate assessment of possible escape options? I would also recommend offering the hand as you say and keep it well away from the cat, at the doorway, to allow it to choose whether to approach for physical contact or not. I would also ensure I wasn’t looming over the doorway to appear as non-threatening as possible. This cat probably just needs time to find interaction with people positive in this challenging environment. What do you think?

Sarah:

Yes, I agree with all of that and the confinement/environment potentially contributing to the arousal. I would be worried this cat might swat or bite if approached too fast, so gentle offering of the loosely clasped hand at cat chin height would be the way I’d go!

If you have a video of a cat in a cage that you think would interest the readers, please send it to Vicky at Vicky.halls@icatcare.org.

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