ASPCA Research: Is This Cat Feral?

A wide-eyed, catatonic cat huddles in the back of a carrier or cage. Is this cat truly feral, or is she friendly but currently frightened?

Shelter staff face this question all the time as they struggle to determine the fate of the cats in their care. Answering it is a lot harder than it might appear. Regardless of how well socialized they are with people, many cats who enter shelters display fearful behavior.

This ASPCA research project is designed to determine whether we can develop a reliable and humane tool for identifying truly unsocialized cats shortly after they arrive at the shelter. Such a tool would enable cat caregivers in shelters to more accurately distinguish between:

  • Truly unsocialized cats who would benefit from Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) services, and
  • Socialized but terrified cats whose owner may be searching for them, or who are likely to be candidates for adoption if given time to show their true qualities
Watch the webinar recording: Is That Cat Feral?


What's Happening?

Phase 1: We surveyed the field to find out how shelter staff currently assess the socialization status of incoming cats. We found that a wide variety of assessment methods are in use. Only 15% of 555 respondents have standardized, written guidelines. This survey reinforced the need for a validated method for assessing cats' socialization status shortly after shelter intake.

Phase 2: At the Humane Alliance Spay/Neuter Clinic in Asheville, NC, we created a simulated shelter environment in which to study cats before their spay/neuter surgeries. We conducted a wide variety of assessments on nearly 300 cats. These cats included:

  • free-roaming, unowned cats being cared for by a caregiver,
  • unowned cats currently living in foster homes, and
  • owned cats living with people in a home environment

Owners, foster families, and caregivers completed a questionnaire about the cats' behavior toward people in their normal environment. Then all the cats entered the clinic in humane box traps, were vaccinated, and moved into standard holding cages as they would be in a shelter environment.

The cats were assessed and observed at set times for three days using 47 behavioral measures and 16 physical/environmental measures. The person assessing all the cats knew nothing about the cats' normal behavior outside the "shelter."

Phase 3: We expanded the study to include hundreds more cats in the care of other agencies. We also began to narrow down the list of measures that hold the most promise as valid indicators of socialization status.

Who's Involved?

In addition to Humane Alliance, we have worked on this project with Tabby's Place, A Cat Sanctuary, in Ringoes, NJ. We are currently finalizing our other study partners.


The results from Phases 1 and 2 seem to reveal some subtle behavioral differences between the cats whose owners or caregivers described them as very unsocialized with people and those described as moderately to well socialized. The research also suggests that some clues shelters commonly use do not appear to accurately identify truly unsocialized cats. Confirmation research is currently underway since cats' lives depend on these results.

What's the Bottom Line?

Most cats entering our shelter system do not leave alive. In many cases, frightened but socialized cats who appear feral are euthanized before they have a chance to de-stress and show their true colors. In other cases, truly unsocialized cats suffer stressful days or weeks in shelter cages never meeting the hope that they will settle down.

Our long-term goal is to create a user-friendly assessment tool that will enable shelter staff to identify truly unsocialized cats in order to channel them into TNR programs. This research has tremendous potential to save lives by providing shelter staff with a reliable tool to determine whether the cat huddling in the back of the cage is truly feral or socialized but currently frightened.


Watch the 2013 webinar Is That Cat Feral? recording

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