Easing the Fear of Fire Cats

Easing the Fear of Fire Cats

Cats, when rescued from the fire zone, often exhibit behavior that isn’t normal to what they were like with their families prior to the disaster. Cats have an internal defense system that may cause them to retreat to an unsocial state when they experience fear, anxiety, or stress.

We’ve all seen it with our own kitties. It could be something as normal as a vacuum cleaner to send her diving under the bed. With some cats, the sound of the doorbell means “stranger danger” and he leaps onto a high shelf in a closet.

Just imagine what the cats in the fire zone experienced, from the fire itself and then the aftermath.

Some cats habituate after the disaster and much of their fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) dissipates so that soon after being rescued they’ll act much like their “normal” selves, but for the majority of cats, their world has been rocked and they aren’t about to trust anyone or anything anytime soon.

This behavior is what makes it so challenging to understand who a cat is after rescue. This is part of the “recovery” we do after a cat is in our care. We try to gently tease out their true personality. Sometimes we may quickly recognize they want nothing to do with us humans and truly embrace their feral, unsocial lifestyle. Others may act all grumpy but we observe an inner lap cat that just needs to learn to trust again.

We call the process of working with the cats enrichment. Trained volunteers or staff work with the cats for short periods of time each day, tracking their observations and the cat’s reaction to various forms of enrichment. Observations are documented and reviewed often by volunteers and staff so that we can provide the most appropriate care and housing while we search for their owners.

Our observations often provide clues to help with reunions. During the Camp Fire mission, a staff member accidentally discovered a cat liked Cheerios, which led to an eventual reunion!

For our Maui kitties, we have enrichment kits that have all kinds of treats, toys and other kitty enticements. There are guidelines on for providing enrichment and a “cat stress score” grid to record the results of the enrichment session.

For some kitties we’ll quickly find what makes them emerge from their fear, such as a chin scratch or some Temptations. For others, it may take days or weeks for them to learn to trust. It is so rewarding to learn about each cat and hopefully lead to a reunion!

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