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Fact-Finding Missions

I just wrote a post about taking Gloria Vanderbilt to Golden Gate Park. In the entry I mentioned that during the walk she was on a fact-finding mission. It's not something I've addressed before, but it definitely deserves a longer look.

When I say that she was on a fact-finding mission, I mean just that. This being her first trip to San Francisco and Golden Gate Park, her senses were on overdrive. First, there are the sights. She's somewhere new. There are no familiar markers or signposts. She'd just endured a nearly 2 hour drive in which she looked out the windows, curiously, but had no idea where we might be going or why (okay, she may grok the why). And then there are the smells. Even when she's not actively smelling something (nose making contact), if you look closely, her nose leather is quivering. She's pulling in a lot of olfactory information. Probably more than we can imagine. And that information will likely provide a lot of information about the safety of her surroundings.

Her deportment belies her feelings. She walks low to the ground, stops often and needs a few moments before she'll continue on. She'll turn around to return from whence she came and I'll need to coerce or carry her a few feet until she's ready to go on. She doesn't want to be carried. No way. It makes it harder for her to collect the necessary information, so within seconds of lifting her, she wants down again.

Is she afraid? Yeah, she is, but I've learned that this fear is not like our fear. It's more like caution. She needs time to map out the area in her mind, to identify areas that may be dangerous and avoid them. She needs to create a level of expectation so that she doesn't get surprised. She needs to note the location of dogs and people and minimize crossing their paths. She needs to feel comfortable.

So this fear, this fact-finding generated emotion, is not traumatizing. It's not something to avoid at all costs. It's part of being a cat. Yeah, it's that normal. This is not her territory, so she has to identify who claims ownership and either fight for her right to be there or turn tail. A part of her knows that you're there and even understands at her core that that makes it less dangerous, but doesn't ameliorate the danger all together.

While there's no way for your cat to collect all the necessary facts on the first visit, the goal is for your cat to realize there are no immediate dangers in the first few minutes of your walk. Once your cat does, the fact-finding takes on a less anxious nature and can even become enjoyable.

Keep in mind that despite your own impressions, you're not privy to the information your cat is collecting, and it will probably take multiple trips before it feels confident and comfortable in its new environment. The goal here should be to get your cat to the point where, after 5-10 minutes, it realizes there's no immediate danger and gets to a point where, while fact finding, it enjoys the new adventure and feel a certain level of security in knowing that you're exploring the area with it.

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