Approaching the Cat

Your approach to the cat begins, not when you are ready to start climbing the tree, but when you first arrive at the site. The cat will notice your arrival and will be watching you. While I can’t prove it makes a difference, I think it is helpful for the cat to see you and the owner together having a relaxed, friendly chat. When you are hauling gear and moving from place to place under the tree during your climbing preparations, it is best to move in a slow, relaxed manner. Fast-paced, back-and-forth walking appears too similar to the movements of an excited predator on the cat’s trail looking for a way to reach him. When I am in a rushed rescue situation – such as an approaching storm – I often must force myself to slow down and remind myself that going slow is the fastest way to get the cat down.

I make it a point never to yell while I am there, especially when in the tree, and I instruct the people on the ground not to yell as well. I tell them to remain calm and relaxed at all times even if the cat climbs higher or does something terrifying. I want the environment to be as calm as possible, and yelling can cause alarm or amplify any nervousness or fear the cat may have. Often people on the ground will yell something to me high in the tree, but I usually do not respond unless it is necessary. In the few situations where I have yelled, I must admit that I did not notice any significant negative effect on the cat, but it is still a risk I do not want to take.

By the time you are ready to climb up to the cat, you should have learned all that you can about the cat from the owner as well as from your own observations. You should know the cat’s name, age, whether he is an indoor or outdoor cat, and if he is in his familiar, home territory. You should know how the cat is likely to react to your approach and if there are any particular sounds that excite him, such as shaking a bag of treats or opening a can of food. You should know the cat’s likes and dislikes: does he dislike being picked up and held, is there any place he does not like to be touched, does he like or hate carriers, does he often sit in someone’s lap. All this information will improve your chance of success by informing your approach and guiding you to a selection of the best rescue method for this cat.

It is important that you remain calm and relaxed at all times. In fact, it is so important that I want to repeat it and emphasize it. Nothing you do will contribute more to the success of the rescue than your calm and relaxed demeanor. The cat will be watching you and sensing your energy, and his response will depend on what he sees. If he sees that you are relaxed, he will relax or, at least, not get any more nervous. If you move in tense or excited ways, even a cat that is normally friendly may give you great difficulty. If you find yourself in a situation where you are nervous or terrified, for example, when dealing with a hostile cat, then you will need to practice mentally projecting yourself in whatever place that relaxes you and also learn to think about your current situation in a way that removes the pressure and fear. Take a deep breath and relax your muscles. Remind yourself that you are in charge of this rescue, and you can stop or slow the pace as much as you want. You can consider other rescue options including returning the next day. Doing nothing but sitting there for as long as you need gives you time to relax, and it also gives the cat time to see that you are not aggressive or threatening. Find a way to be calm. Not only is it reassuring to the cat, it's also reassuring to the cat owner.

Unless you are trying to climb above the cat quickly without being noticed, you should normally climb up to the cat slowly with pauses along the way to watch his reaction and adjust your pace accordingly. You must appear calm and relaxed at all times. The goal is to be unlike a predator who would fix his eyes intensely on the cat and run straight toward him. If we were on the ground, I would suggest that you walk slowly and causally at an angle to the cat instead of directly toward him, but when climbing a rope in a tree, you don’t have that much control over your direction. The best you can do is move in a slow, relaxed, and aimless fashion and look away often as if uninterested in the cat. It’s important that you look at the cat long enough that he knows you see him, and it’s good to talk to him in a calm and relaxed way, but, otherwise, you should look away as if focused on other things. The closer you get to the cat, the slower you should advance.

If the cat is looking at you when you are looking at him, some people claim that blinking your eyes very slowly sets the cat at ease. I have done this often, but I cannot say with any degree of certainty whether it makes any difference or not. It is a matter too difficult and subjective to measure. I think many people attribute far too much meaning and significance to the gesture, but I can certainly see that it can, at least, convey a state of relaxation that is unlike that of a predator. It may well have value, and I continue to use it on occasion, but don’t expect to see a miraculous transformation of the cat’s demeanor.

You should watch and listen to the cat for signs of distress. If you notice him becoming tense, looking for an escape path, or his vocalizations becoming intense or sustained, then stop and look away. Rest there a minute and give him time to calm down. When you notice his vocalizations relaxing more, wait a little longer and then slowly advance a short distance. If he becomes too distressed or feels he is being chased, he will climb higher or go out on a limb. When that happens, don’t react to it. Do not yell anything to him or suddenly start climbing toward him like a predator. All you can do is let him go, remain calm, and wait for him to settle down before slowly advancing higher as I did with Clark in the video below.

Cats who allow you to approach them closely are either receptive, cautiously undecided, or just uncomfortably tolerating you. Receptive cats may be relaxed and unexpressive, or they may be excited and showing it by rubbing their head on the limb, leaning down toward you, and vocalizing while looking directly at you. Undecided cats will not be as relaxed or active. They will simply be watching your every move to learn more about you. Cats who are simply tolerating you may be allowing you close only because they feel trapped. They may feel they can’t safely go any farther away from you, or they may be unable to move because their foot is stuck or injured, or they may simply be too exhausted. They may or may not sniff your hand, but they won’t react to it. Their body may be tense, they may not want to look at you, and their movements won’t be fluid.

When you climb up to the cat, it is best not to get so high that you can stand on the same limb on which the cat is resting. Seeing a strange person towering above him like that is very intimidating. Cats prefer to have the height advantage when dealing with anyone unknown, so stay down low with your head at or below the cat’s height. When the cat becomes more comfortable and trusting, then you can go higher, if needed.

Receptive cats are easy to rescue as long as you don’t make a mistake that scares them, so it’s important not to become overconfident and turn an easy rescue into a difficult one. Treat a receptive cat the same as you would a cautious and tolerating cat, that is, continue to be calm and relaxed, stay below him, move slowly, and don’t stare or make any unexpected noises or quick movements. Cats who are clearly receptive and friendly will often walk up to you and then turn around and walk out a limb away from you. Many rescuers, as well as cat owners below, will see this and incorrectly think the cat has become afraid and is avoiding you, but that is almost always not the case. Don’t panic, and don’t react to it, because the cat is just walking around and will be right back. Avoid the instinctive reaction to yell at the cat to come back, as that really could frighten him away. No matter what the cat does, always remain calm and relaxed.

Cats, like people, tend to fear what they don’t know or understand, but as they gather more information, their fear begins to evaporate. When a cat becomes fearful at the sight of a strange person climbing up toward him in the tree, he needs reassuring information about the person before he can lose his fear. Hopefully, he sees that you are not acting like a predator, but he needs more information than that, and one of the ways to give him information about you is to let him sniff your hand. However, this is not recommended for feral or hostile cats.

Cats greet each other with a sniff, and that appears to be how they identify and recognize each other. By extending your hand to the cat, you are practicing the same custom, but, while that courtesy may prove you are not a predator, it does not necessarily make you a friend. While your scent will be new to them, most cats will not react negatively to it. Many cats appear to be reassured by the scent or, at least, the gesture. Many others simply register it as your scent, and it neither hurts nor helps your relationship. I have had a few cases, however, where the cat appeared to react badly to the scent, and I can never know why for certain. I always climb with clean gloves to be sure there is no scent of another cat on them, but I may have made a mistake somewhere along the way. I often spray Feliway Classic on my gloves before the rescue, but I can’t say for certain that I have noticed that it helps or hurts. I continue to use it in the hope that it makes my scent feel at least familiar to the cat.

When extending your hand out for the cat to sniff, be sure to keep your hand below the cat’s head. Foot level or even lower is usually best. Cats generally regard a hand above them as potentially threatening, so don’t alarm them. Some people argue that the palm should be up, but I always keep my palm facing downward so as not to confuse the cat that I may be trying to feed something to him. Give the cat as much time as he wants to sniff. Most are done in a few seconds, but I have had some cats give my hand a very extended and lengthy examination. When the cat is finished, pull your hand away. It is usually too soon to try to touch the cat at this point, and pulling your hand away will reassure him that you are not being aggressive.

If the cat is not persuaded of your good intentions from a sniff of your hand, then relax, look away, ignore him a short while, talk to him sweetly, and extend your hand to him again. As before, let him sniff and then pull your hand back. Some cats will not want to sniff your hand a second time, so do not let that alarm you.

As long as the cat is not feral or hostile, then, ultimately, you need to progress to the point where you can gently touch the cat because that will reassure him more effectively than anything else you do. Cautious cats typically relax almost immediately, and the more you pet them, the more they relax. Trapped cats and some cautious cats, however, are not so easily persuaded of your good intentions. Some may be reassured by your touch, others will simply tolerate it, and a few may even become hostile.

When I sense that a cat might become hostile or annoyed with my attempt to touch him, I will spend more time working with him to earn a little more trust. I may sit quietly for a while looking away to appear uninterested in him, or I may open a can of food or shake a bag of treats to see how he responds. I don’t expect the food to suddenly flip the switch and make him come straight to me, though that has actually happened a few times. I offer the food only to appear more friendly and soften his view of me while also giving me a safer way to extend my hand to him to gauge his reaction. If he swats at me, he will likely hit the food instead of my hand. If I am unable to get the cat to relax and trust me more in a reasonable length of time, then I have gone as far as I can go with this cat and will have to progress to an appropriate rescue method.

If I am reasonably sure the cat will not become hostile when I touch him, then I will select a suitable time for the attempt. The timing of the first touch is important. In most cases, I want the cat to see my hand approaching and touching him so that I do not startle him, and his mental state should be stable and not agitated. Sometimes, I will rest my hand on his limb near him to see if he moves away from it or toward it. If he moves toward it or past it, that may be a good time to touch him. If I have offered food and the cat shows an interest in it, then the safest time to touch him is while he is concentrating on eating. I will pet him on the top of the head, neck, and shoulders, and I rarely get a reaction to that from the cat. Sometimes, when the cat is sniffing my hand the second or third time, I will extend a finger to brush against his cheek. If I am less sure of the cat’s reaction and the cat has his back to me, then I like to touch the lower back because my hand is far enough away from his teeth to avoid being bitten. I know some cats do not like to be touched there, but I have yet to see one react negatively to it. In fact, I find that most cats like it and will even raise their rear end upward to press into my hand, especially when I rub or scratch their lower back as I move my hand toward the tail. I have often seen tense, scared cats fully relax and become friendly after that. I have even had a hostile cat with ears laid back become more trusting and manageable after a back scratch, but that was done in a calculated manner as shown in the video excerpt below.

Cats who are trapped and merely tolerating me can sometimes be gradually desensitized to my touch. I will give them a short, soft touch on the lower back at a time when I can safely do so without being attacked. It’s important not ever to make a quick, sudden move, so I do this only when I can move my hand slowly and, hopefully, retract it slowly, ideally when he can see me and not be startled by an unexpected touch. Usually, after several successful touches, the cat will eventually become more comfortable with it, as happened with Caramel on her first rescue. At her second rescue, however, her attitude did not soften at all.

Cat Management:  Attracting the Cat   >>>