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Shelter Medicine: Scaredy Cat or Feral Cat?

Accurate evaluations help shelter staff provide optimum care

  • The tip missing from this cat’s left ear is a great clue that he’s part of a managed feral colony. But there are more subtle signs to help shelter staff determine if that hissing puffball is truly feral, or just freaked out. Brenda Griffin

Accurate evaluations help shelter staff provide optimum care In the shelter, it can be challenging to differentiate truly feral cats from those who are tame but frightened and reactive. Cats who enter the shelter in traps or other feral-behaving cats are not necessarily feral; even the tamest house cats who have been trapped or otherwise stressed may exhibit the same behaviors as feral cats. The way the shelter handles these cats can make all the difference; with time and TLC, the cats will usually show their true colors.

To understand how cats respond to stress, one must first appreciate who cats are biologically and behaviorally.

Cats are truly unique. Descended from the African wildcat (Felis libyca), the domestic cat (Felis catus) likely became such only within the past 9,000 years, much more recently than dogs. Few of cats’ structural and behavioral characteristics have been changed by domestication, and they have retained many of the instincts of their wild ancestors.

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