Cat Management

First, do no harm.

Before you decide how to rescue a cat in a tree, you must first decide if you should rescue the cat. Beyond the usual assessment of the site for tree hazards and electrical hazards to decide if it is safe for you, you also need to determine if it is safe for the cat. If, by proceeding with the rescue, you are putting the cat in more than the usual danger, then it is usually best to back away and return another time. By backing off, you remove the threat from the cat and give it time to relax and the freedom to move to a safer position.

I was once called to rescue an unknown, young juvenile cat in a tree at a neighborhood park. The cat was crying intensely while looking off into the distance as if crying for its mother. When I climbed up to him, he reacted much stronger and sooner than most cats by climbing higher and farther away from me until he settled precariously at the end of a long limb. He appeared to be at least partly feral, and there was no hope of ever luring him closer to me. Attempting to rescue him at this point would have been very risky, because he was about 70 feet high directly over hard pavement, metal railing, and a large sign, and the risk of his jumping or falling was too high. I backed off, went back down to the ground and returned the next morning to find that he had moved to the other, safer side of the tree where I was able to successfully rescue him easily. Spending one more night in the tree was a small price to pay for a much safer rescue.

If you decide that the rescue can be done without making matters worse, then how do you plan to do it? I hope this won't come as a surprise to you, but you don't have full control over the cat. If you did, all rescues would be easy. While you don't have control over a cat, you do have an enormous influence on his attitude and behavior through your own attitude and behavior. The cat will be watching you, and he will be making decisions based on what he sees. You will need to do the same with him. The way you manage the cat will determine the difficulty and success of the rescue.

Effective cat management requires having or developing the following skills:

First, however, you need to decide on your rescue style or philosophy.

There’s more than one way to rescue a cat

In addition to the various methods of bringing a cat down, there are also different ways in which you can approach the rescue. You can aggressively cut the tree down or barge up the tree straight to the cat and grab him or, if he is not within reach, shake or cut the limb to force him to fall. Or you can climb up to him with moderate care and then assertively take control of the situation by grabbing the cat and securing him at the earliest opportunity to make sure he does not get away. Or you can approach the cat gently and carefully while spending, and possibly wasting, much time being patient and friendly in an effort to gain the cat’s cooperation.

Each rescue style has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. The aggressive rescuer may get the job done faster, but the risk of traumatizing or injuring the cat is higher as is the risk of being bit by a frightened cat. Those risks are much lower for the assertive rescuer and even further lower for the gentle rescuer, but they come at the expense of the time it requires to complete the rescue. Each rescuer must choose the style that best fits him or her, but, ultimately, it is often the cat and situation that determine your approach. It’s best to be capable of all styles of rescue so you can fluidly adapt to each situation as needed.

As for me, my philosophy is to be as gentle as the cat will allow. I like to earn the cat’s trust to the extent the cat allows so that more rescue options are available to me while also reducing the risk of hostility or escape. Some cats trust me right away while others demand that I earn it. Some cats can’t ever be convinced, but I will have a realistic idea of what is possible from what I learn about the cat from the owner before I even begin to climb the tree. Even in hopeless cases, including feral cats, I will give the cat a short time to warm up to me just in case a miracle occurs, and, yes, that has happened.

To be sure, there have been cases where I wasted too much time trying to earn the trust of a cat who could not be convinced, and I have missed opportunities to end a rescue quickly with a quick grab because I was overly confident that I could befriend the cat, but that is the trade-off I am willing to accept in order to know that I have rescued each cat as gently as it would allow. Many of these cats will get stuck in a tree again, and, when I go to rescue them the next time, I want their memory of me to be positive or, at least, not negative. There is one cat that I have rescued eight times, and, even on his eighth rescue, he readily stepped on my lap because he still trusted me. All of his eight rescues were easy because of the trust I earned on his first one.

Of course, not every cat is sweet and trusting, and I have frequently found it necessary to become assertive either after failing to earn the cat’s trust or due to special circumstances such as limited time due to an approaching storm or ensuring that a cat in a dangerous position does not have a chance to move and make matters worse. I have even aggressively forced some cats to fall, but, in all of these cases, gentler rescue methods were either unsuccessful or unsuitable.

Most predominantly-assertive rescuers would argue that they want to take control of the situation by grabbing the cat at the earliest appropriate opportunity to prevent the cat from going higher or farther out a limb where the risk will be much higher. This is a valid and reasonable strategy, but there is risk in the temptation to grab the cat too soon, that is, before the cat has determined if you are friendly or dangerous. While some cats will be submissive, some will either fight to escape or try to bite, and the attempt to take control can result in a total loss of control. When you and the cat have had such limited time together, it’s very easy to misread the cat and think it’s safe to grab him, and, sometimes, you can read the cat correctly but be surprised at his extreme reaction to being grabbed. Spending more time with the cat and earning more of his trust can make a world of difference in the outcome. Earning the cat’s trust is another way of taking control. It’s a difference of controlling the cat physically or psychologically.

Ultimately, what matters most is that you get the cat down safely. Whether the rescue is done forcefully or gently is a matter of lesser concern. All else being equal, however, I think most people value the gentle approach more, and it is also the clear and unanimous preference for the cats themselves.

To Scruff or Not to Scruff

What cats value most is the freedom to be in control of everything they do. They don’t like to be forced to do something, and they don’t like to be restrained from doing something. Certainly, picking up a cat and confining it inside a small room or carrier fall into that category, as does grabbing a cat by the scruff. Fortunately, cats generally have developed a certain amount of tolerance for being held by the scruff due to their experiences as a kitten being moved from place to place by their mother. The older they get, however, the less tolerant they become, and the larger they become, the more uncomfortable it becomes. The degree of tolerance will vary with the individual cat according to his experiences and personality.

Some people claim that lifting a cat by the scruff is painful, but I don’t know if that can be stated as certain. It certainly seems as if it should feel at least uncomfortable, but I have never noticed a cat showing signs of pain. I do know that cats generally have no hesitation in letting me know if I do something painful to them. If I accidentally step on a cat’s toe or tail, I am certain the cat will let me know very clearly that he is in pain, but I have never had a similar reaction from a cat being held by the scruff. Still, I agree it is an unpleasant experience for the cat both physically and psychologically.

Some people have no qualms about grabbing a cat by the scruff while others view it as an act of mistreatment. The context in which it occurs, however, matters. I don’t think that anyone, including the cat, would criticize a rescuer for grabbing a drowning cat by the scruff to pull him out of the water, but disagreements may arise when the reasons are less dramatic. Most people would probably find it excessive and unnecessary to pick up a cat by the scruff only to move it off the kitchen counter when a gentler hand under the chest would be just as effective. Rescuers of cats in trees differ in their use of the practice. Some will scruff almost every cat while others will scruff a cat only rarely in extreme cases. Every rescuer must determine his own policy regarding the practice.

I have noticed that most veterinarians will routinely scruff a cat for certain parts of an examination or treatment, but my current veterinarian, who owns a feline-only, “Cat Friendly Practice” certified by the American Association of Feline Practitioners, proudly boasts her clinic as a “scruff-free” clinic. I spoke with her about my own personal struggle to balance the ideal of never grabbing a cat by the scruff with the reality of often finding it necessary when rescuing a cat in a tree. She fully supported me and defended my choice to grab a cat by the scruff in these situations. A cat stuck in a tree is in a dangerous situation, and the cat can make it even more dangerous for both itself and the rescuer by climbing higher or going out to the extreme tips of a limb. It is perfectly justifiable to grab a cat by the scruff to get it out of danger, to prevent it from going into danger, or simply to end a situation in which the cat is suffering. It is even further justified considering that it limits the risk to the rescuer as well.

I do my best to prevent the need to grab a cat by the scruff, but I still often find it necessary. I always try to befriend the cat so I can gain its cooperation for gentler rescue methods, but not all cats are cooperative. Some people would argue that the need to scruff a cat is a sign of failure to befriend the cat, and I won’t argue with that. Some rescuers are better than I at befriending cats and can minimize the number of times in which a scruff is needed to a small percentage of their rescues, but, for me, the percentage of scruff rescues currently tends to waver around thirty percent. I hope to lower that percentage as I learn to earn the cat’s trust more effectively, but I don’t think it is realistic to expect to lower that percentage close to zero. It seems, for me at least, that there will always be some cats and situations where handling a cat by the scruff is the best action to take.

Many rescuers have no objection to holding a cat by the scruff, but they do object to lifting the cat by the scruff. I think this is a reasonable objection since suspending the cat in the air by the scruff is likely uncomfortable for the cat. Some may be willing to lift a kitten, and possibly a juvenile, by the scruff but not an adult, especially a larger one. I have great respect for this policy, but I think it is very risky to scruff a cat while letting him have the footing and leverage to resist your efforts to shove him into a carrier, bag, or other container held by the other hand. While that can work for docile cats, some cats simply will not tolerate it, and it can be very difficult, sometimes impossible, to control both the container and the thrashing cat with only two hands without a much greater risk of losing control of the cat or getting bitten or clawed. A cat bag that can be immediately inverted around the cat from above is a much faster, safer, and effective way to contain the cat when holding him by the scruff.

Whenever it is determined that it is necessary to hold a cat by the scruff, my advice is to do so only when you are prepared and can minimize the scruff-holding time to a minimum. The longer you hold a cat by the scruff, the more likely he will protest, struggle to escape, or try to bite you. When I intend to scruff a cat, I do so only when I have a cat bag already prepared on my arm so I can release him safely in the bag after only a few seconds. To minimize the scruff-holding time, in many cases, one can pet the cat with the cat bag hand, drop the bag all around the cat, grab the scruff, and then lift the cat while simultaneously gathering the end of the bag together to secure him. When done smoothly and quickly, the entire procedure can be done in only a few seconds.

I am in the awkward position of defending a practice that I do not like. I do not like having to lift a cat by the scruff in order to contain him in a bag, and I hope the time will come when I can boast a scruff-free rescue service. However, until I can find a less traumatic, scruff-free way to secure a cat effectively in those situations where I must gain control of the cat while minimizing the risk of being bitten, I view the cat’s temporary discomfort at being held by the scruff as a small price to pay for a rescue that is safer for both me and the cat.

Cat Bites

Mistakes can be made, things can go wrong, and cats can bite. If you get bitten by a cat, take it very seriously. This is not the time to be brave and brush it off as insignificant. Learn from the experiences of others who ignored the bite too long and suffered very serious effects, some even spending a few days in a hospital. Bites that reach bones and joints are especially serious. What others before you have learned is that they need to go to a doctor or urgent care clinic that same day. This can't wait for tomorrow. This is a warning to the wise, so be wise and heed the warning.

Cat Management:  Reading the Cat   >>>