Cat Whispering

Categories: Behavior & Training
Jax and Zev needed some time to settle in. Here they are curious and confident!

This blog post is authored by Candace Key

When I’m sitting in room 3 of Cat Adoptions, curled up like a pretzel in the smallest cat kennel, facing the window, talking to myself and slowly blinking my eyes, I must look a bit daft. From the hall, passersby can’t see the young cats that are tucked deep into their safe-place cubbies as I try to assure them I come in peace and with tasty Churu treats. Some of the shyest cats are placed in this room, which forces them to have to deal with the well-intentioned humans who visit. The strategy works – they eventually venture out to lick the gooey Churu from our fingers and allow a quick chin or head rub while they are out and about. It is play time though, that draws them out of their safety zone most quickly. What self-respecting cat can resist a very realistic looking mouse skittering around the room and over the cramped legs of the sitter? Slowly at first, and then with each visit they become more confident, their pouncing prowess and stalking skills giving them confirmation that “hey, we got this!” The soft voice and the slow blinks – kitty kisses – reassure them that the large human means well and can deliver the most soothing head and cheek rubs if they just give them a chance.

Jimmy is fascinated with his new neighbor, Snowball.

These are my favorite cases in my volunteer job as a member of the FIT – Feline Intervention Team. The rewards of the slow, methodical, non-linear process of earning a shy or traumatized cat’s trust are deeply satisfying, and seeing a newly confident and socialized cat find a loving home is the best feeling ever. Each success however, comes with a lot of work. Every cat is different. The strategy that works for some could be a big fat FAIL for others. That’s another thing I love about the job. I always have to be alert to what each cat is telling me through eye contact, tail twitching, ear and whisker position, and more overt behaviors like jumping on my lap, rubbing my ankles and smudging my glasses with nose prints. It is all a secret language to us humans and it is an exquisite challenge for me to make sense of it all and help shelter cats become happy, well adjusted  home cats.

Santana: formally angry and hissing, now called “sweetest guy ever” by his forever family.

Wednesdays became my favorite day of the week when the FIT team was created in 2021 and volunteers were allowed in the building again. At the start of my shift I try to assess how the afternoon will go. Are there cats to see in the lobby? Will some cats have adoption meetings? Which cats are here from the week before and who is new? What notes have Paula and Beth left on the “Board” about notable behaviors like nipping, swatting, or extreme shyness? How many cats are in the Treatment Room? Finally, saying a quick hello to all my charges for the day, giving them blinks and assurances that they will get play time and cuddles that afternoon. I also check in with my colleagues about who got adopted, how many cats are in the different areas of the shelter and how we will divide the visits. Once settled in the real work begins.

Mr. and Mrs. Howell enjoy “KittenFlix” in the adjoining room. Nice to see Mrs. Howell venturing forth from her cubby!

All us FIT members received excellent training from Beth and Paula, and mentoring time with senior cat behavior volunteers. There is one guideline I repeat to myself at the start of every shift, “These are not my cats”.  Cats are individuals, and cats in the shelter, even when seeming well adjusted, are under various amounts of stress. My cats at home are not stressed and we have years of a developed comfort level with each other. Shelter cats’ actions and reactions can be unpredictable. While we have the Pink Sheet notes from previous visits by other FIT members, our experiences with the same cats can be entirely different. My mantra to begin the shift is a reminder that this is not just play time and socialization for the cats, but training and conditioning. If each cat doesn’t get my full attention I’m not helping them, and if I have a careless moment and miss the signs that a cat is getting over stimulated or otherwise not cool with what I am doing, there could be big problems. If he/she nips or actually bites me the cats could be put in Bite Quarantine and notes go in their record possibly making them more difficult to adopt. That is just about the last thing any FIT member wants on their watch.

Nothing like a wand toy to get a cat interested in their surroundings.

Lately I have been working in the Cat Adoptions area in the main building. There are cat condos in the back and larger rooms for pairs of cats and those that need more space to relax while at Marin Humane. What MH employees see most frequently are the 3 rooms along the corridor where again there are pairs of cats in larger rooms, and that tiny room at the end.  I love working this area of cat adoptions because I can keep an eye on several cats at once. After I have visited a cat in the condos, for example, I will leave the bottom door open so they have access to the larger room. Some readily come out to explore and play with the toys there, some make more timid steps and quickly dive back into their condo if there are visitors or noise in the hallways. Some will visit the other condos looking for playmates perhaps, and others just aren’t comfortable enough to come out of their comfy beds that day. I also observe how cats in Cat Adoptions respond to other cats they can see and the human traffic that comes by to clean, visit other cats, or wash up at the sink. Some meow for company, some hiss at their neighbors, or flirt with them as Jimmy and Snowball were doing recently. Some of the behavior I report in the Pink Sheet notes comes from observations made when I’m not in the room, which are also valuable. Sometimes I’ll pick up possible health issues if a cat has an upset stomach or I observe difficultly or vocalization when using the litter box. Every clue is helpful in understanding the cats and making sure they are as healthy and sociable for adoption as possible.

Blog editor Kim Bromley enjoys a friendly head rub.

The question I am asked most frequently by friends is how I can see so many wonderful cats each week and not want to adopt them all. It isn’t easy. While I’m sure all FIT members can be objective and carry a lot of love in their hearts for all the cats in their care no matter how grouchy or shy, we all have our cat type preferences if we are thinking of adopting for our families. I have a weakness for black cats and somewhat needy cats that want to be with me all the time, but others prefer a more self reliant cat or a young one that could, perhaps, be trained to a leash. That editing makes the decision of adopting a bit easier, but there are still cases where we wrestle with the question of how a new cat would fit into our household because the temptation is so great. In the end it is the same for all of us working at the shelter. We are there to help others find their perfect animal companion and if we adopt every animal that touches our heart we won’t be available to the many deserving animals that need our help at the shelter, decoding their language and finding them the perfect home. I’m grateful to be in a position to provide that assistance, and to the Cat Behavior team for providing us with the tools and support to make a difference in so many lives. – Candace Key, MH Volunteer