Reading the Cat

In addition to gathering all relevant information about the cat’s personality and preferences before the rescue attempt, it is essential also to watch the cat and listen to his vocalizations to understand his frame of mind at every moment during the rescue. Your knowledge of the cat combined with your real-time observations will guide your climbing and rescue decisions and determine the difficulty, safety, and success of the rescue.

Reading the cat accurately requires keen awareness and very careful and detailed observation without preconceived interpretation. Seeing what is there and only what is there and interpreting it for what it is instead of what you wish or expect it to be is a skill that every rescuer should develop. It is likely that every rescuer, including myself, overestimates his cat-reading skills, so some humility, self-discipline, and openness to being wrong are always advised. After all, cat reading is not an exact science.

Compared to vocalizations, behavior is much easier to interpret correctly. Unlike people, cats don't hide or disguise their feelings, so you can count on them to be honest. When a cat moves away from you as you approach, it’s easy to see that he is afraid of you, and, if he moves toward you, then he is happy to see you. When he stays in place, it’s a good sign if he looks at you, speaks, and stretches his head down toward you as you approach from below. If, instead, he keeps his head up high, looks at you only briefly and then looks around and up for possible escape paths, then that’s a clear sign he is not comfortable with you.

One of the behaviors I most like to see is the cat rubbing his cheeks against the tree as I approach. This behavior is comparable to the flop-down-roll-over behavior cats often do on the ground when they feel very comfortable and trusting. There isn’t enough room to do that in a tree, though I have seen one cat get very close to doing that on a huge, level branch of a Live Oak tree.

These behaviors are clear and easy to interpret, but let’s look at some others that are less clear. Imagine the scenario in which the cat went out to the end of a long, reasonably horizontal limb to get away from you as you approached, you are now standing on that limb, and, from what you know about the cat, you believe you may be able to coax the cat to come to you. After spending some time trying to convince the cat of your good intentions, the cat comes toward you but stops still well out of your reach. This cat is probably ambivalent about trusting you and needs more convincing, but it could also be that the end of the limb was too unstable and he moved closer only to get more stable and comfortable footing. Did you notice if the end of the limb was shaking significantly or if the cat seemed distressed with his footing? Did the cat hear its owner well behind you and try to go toward her only to find you blocking the way? There may be multiple reasons for any behavior, so be open to considering all possibilities.

Continuing the same scenario, suppose the cat comes toward you and cautiously comes all the way to you where he stops, sniffs your hand, and lets you pet him. Clearly, you have succeeded in earning his trust and can now secure the cat. However, you may miss the opportunity to secure him if that is what you are expecting when, instead, he doesn’t stop and keeps moving on past you so he can escape. You may think you succeeded in earning his trust, when, in reality, you haven’t, and the cat is simply trying to escape. The first time that happened to me, I was unprepared and stunned to watch the cat walk over my feet to get back to the trunk of the tree where he climbed higher. I have not let that happen again, and I try not to let my confidence in my ability to befriend a cat blind me to the possibility that I actually failed to do just that.

The following excerpt is from a very long, difficult, and problematic rescue I did for an unknown cat who tried to sneak past me. I had struggled for a long time with this cat and was not prepared for him to come toward me, or I would have had my cat bag ready on my arm. The first cue that he wanted to sneak past me was his lack of interest in sniffing my hand. The best I could do in my awkward position was move my foot to prevent him from getting past me. I am embarrassed by the mess of unmanaged ropes dangling from me, but there were other far more embarrassing moments in this rescue.

Often, a cat will come up close to me or allow me to approach him and establish at least a basic level of trust, but, without any apparent trigger, turn around and begin to walk away. Many people, especially the cat owner, will see this and react with worry that the cat is trying to escape, but I don’t worry about it and don’t react to it. Typically, the cat steps only two or three steps away and then returns back to me. I am usually unsure why they do it, but, sometimes, it appears that they are just trying to get into a more comfortable position, especially if their feet are distributed across multiple small limbs. Maybe it just feels better on their feet to keep moving instead of standing on small wood so long, or, maybe, they just feel like moving because they are energized and excited to have someone there. When you, the rescuer, see this, it is best not to panic and yell at the cat, since that could actually scare him away. However, sometimes, the cat will turn around and walk away in response to something I have done, such as pull a carrier up closer to him or make an unexpected noise or sudden movement. Again, it is usually best not to react to it. Remove the carrier or correct whatever scared him, if needed, but remain calm and relaxed. The cat may walk farther away, but it is usually fairly easy and quick to get him to return.

As predators, cats appear to be keenly aware of the direction the eyes of their prey are facing, and they know to advance and pounce from the prey's blind side to have the best chance at success. As prey, cats also are keenly aware of the direction the eyes of their predators are facing, and they know it's trouble when they are the object of the predator's laser focus. This eye awareness is instinctive and important for their survival, so it is only natural that they will be watching your eyes too. While you are reading the cat, the cat is also reading you.

Some cats who go out to the end of a long limb far out of my reach are too suspicious and cautious to respond to my attempts to lure them to me, so I have sometimes found it necessary to turn my back to them and ignore them for several minutes. They feel safer coming closer as long as my back is turned to them, and they often do just that. They will come much closer to me but stay a safe distance away from me. They may jump from one limb to the next and travel to other parts of the tree before returning to their original safe spot. I don’t know what they are thinking, but I suspect they are simply gathering more information about me to see how I react to them. As long as I don’t react to it, they come back and get even closer until I can eventually gain their trust. Good examples of this behavior can be found in my rescues of Beerus and Missy, but, unfortunately, I don't have video to offer because the most interesting part of their behavior occurred when my back was turned.

Some cats, as you approach them, will not come to you or go farther away, and, especially when quiet, they may be hard to read. In those cases, take note of how tense or rigid their posture and movements are compared to the fluid movements of a relaxed cat. If you see them looking up the tree trunk or out the limb, they may be evaluating their escape options, and that tells you they are not comfortable with your approach. It’s best then to stop and work to reassure them before advancing any closer. A cat that is afraid of you may not try to go higher or farther away from you only because he feels he has already gone as high or far as he can or wants. That is, he may feel trapped, so you will need to proceed carefully in order to avoid a fight-or-flight response when flight is not possible. My rescue of Little Boy is an example of this type of case.

If the cat is out on a long limb and appears friendly but won’t come to you, inspect his position carefully to make sure his body or leg is not caught in a tight crotch. Also check his body for signs of injury that may prevent or discourage him from moving. The cat may be in the tree because he had a fight with another cat who bit him or because he was attacked by a dog or coyote, so it’s possible that he may not want to move because an injury makes it too painful. These are lessons I learned from my rescue of Finn, a cat who probably would have readily come to me in the tree, but couldn't.

When I first get within reach of a cat in a tree, I usually reach out my hand to let him sniff it as a way of introducing myself. I let him sniff it as long as he wants and then watch his reaction as I pull my hand back. It’s too soon to try to touch him at this point, and pulling my hand back lets him know that I am not being aggressive. The cat usually relaxes a bit and is visibly more at ease with me, and then I can extend my hand again for another sniff and/or gentle touch to further reassure him. If the cat either shows no interest in sniffing my hand or sniffs it and has absolutely no reaction to it, then that is a sign that he is afraid of me and is either exhausted or, more likely, just tolerating me because he feels trapped.

I rarely see a cat react negatively to the scent of my hand, but, when that happens, it’s because they detect the scent of another cat. It’s uncommon, but I have run into a few cats who cannot tolerate the scent of another cat on my gloves, my clothing, the cat bag, or carrier. Even if they were very comfortable and friendly with me up to that point, after that scent, they treat me like a detested enemy. That is why I always start a rescue with clean gloves, clothing, cat bag, and carrier. I also spray my gloves and carrier with a small amount of Feliway Classic prior to the rescue. I’m never sure if it truly makes a difference or not, but it doesn’t appear to hurt anything.

Good examples of the personality change that some cats display at the scent of another cat can be found in my rescues of Suki and Loki, whose before-and-after transformation is shown in the video below.

Cat Management:  Vocalizations   >>>