In most shelters, cats live in small, easy-to-clean stainless-steel cages with a metal gate as the entry, a small litter pan, food, water, and a towel or blanket. This meets the most basic of physical needs, but in no way meets behavioral or emotional needs to keep a cat healthy and satisfied.
The reality is, not every cat can thrive in a traditional shelter environment. High-energy breeds, such as Abyssinians, do especially poorly.
There are several ways cats find comfort in their surroundings, each an opportunity for shelters to improve the moods of cats and their adoptability.
Emotional environment comfort
Shelter cats are typically caged when they arrive at a shelter. Once they have been checked in and gotten their bearings, they may also be placed in a larger room to run free, scratch posts and play in tunnels with other cats, Petful reports.
“Cats get depressed in cages,” remarks Judy Levy, director of Animal Friends of Connecticut (AFOC). “Cats like to look out windows. They like human contact, most of them. Even the feral ones, they come around. They watch the other cats, they see that nobody’s going to hurt them and they do adjust.”
When cats are given enough time to play and understand the other animals and people in their surroundings, they will build confidence and feel more comfortable.
Physical environment comfort
Cats do best in environments that block out excessive noise and give them space to move around freely, Cats Inn reports. Although cages are not ideal, they are often necessary for shelters to house multiple cats.
According to the IAABC Journal, cat housing can be a serious problem in shelters. Traditional 2-foot by 2-foot cages are far too restrictive to house cats comfortably, and frequently result in highly stressed animals.
The best cat housing combines good insulation and ventilation, multiple levels and space for cats to explore, as well as room for one of their favorite activities, which we’ll cover next.
Comfort in hiding spaces
According to Feline Behavior Solutions, felines instinctually crave hideaways. Of course, it’s common knowledge to cat owners everywhere that boxes make the perfect solution.
There have even been two scientific studies on the subject.
“When cats are worried, their preferred ‘strategy’ is to get away,” said Dr. Rachel Casey, author of the first study, which took place in 2007 at the University of Bristol. “And if you’re a cat, getting away means running away, climbing upwards or hiding inside something…. In a shelter environment, it is clearly impractical to allow a cat to either run away or climb high. But it is feasible to give them somewhere to hide. Some shelters were already giving particularly nervous cats a hiding place, but it was not a universally accepted practice.”
“Stressful experiences can have major impact on the cats’ welfare,” Casey said, “and may cause higher incidences of infectious diseases in the shelters due to raised cortisol levels causing immunodeficiency.”
Comfort in interaction
Petting, brushing and playing with shelter cats reduces their stress and helps with their socialization.
In 2011, animal welfare consultant Nadine Gourkow and Dr. Clive Phillips of the University of Queensland tested the theory out on 139 shelter cats. The results of their study was published in Preventive Veterinary Medicine.
The “Gentled” group had 10-minute sessions 4 times a day with — this is key — with the same person. They were played with, petted and brushed. The “Control” group got 10-minute sessions 4 times a day, too. The difference was, their person simply stood in front of the cages. No interaction, no eye contact.
At the end of 10 days’ time, the Gentled kitties were happier and had a lower number of upper-respiratory infections (URIs) than those in the control group. Furthermore, “a number of cats who displayed severe aggression and hostility upon entering the shelter responded to the techniques within 6 days and were soon placed in loving homes,” notes Dr. Phillips.
The authors of the study hope their work will be integrated into “education material to teach these interventions to shelter personnel, which will help them improve the emotional well-being of cats and reduce URI.” At the least, it provides a more empathetic approach to cat care, and a more comfortable experience for the cats.
Comfort in scent
Cats communicate with scent. A cat’s sense of smell is fourteen times stronger than a human’s, Conscious Cat reports. Cats depend on their sense of smell for survival. Scent signals allow them to find food, to determine whether another animal is a friend or an enemy, and to identify their territory.
They have scent glands on their cheeks, their head, and their paw pads. When a cat leans up and scratches something, they are effectively announcing, “this is my space, my home.”
Most shelters keep cats in stainless steel kennels which, although sanitary, do not hold a natural scent and provide no place to scratch unless blankets or scratching posts are added. Removing a cat from a cage to clean it and then returning the animal to fully sanitized surroundings can be disorienting, and doing it too often can cause cats stress.
Best Friends Animal Society suggests “enrichment,” in which regular cleanings are integrated into the cat’s own routine.
“By creating a routine with a cat inside a kennel, you offer the cat a predictable series of events that make the cleaning much less scary, and possibly even rewarding,” the animal rescue and advocacy organization reports. “A great example of enrichment as part of the cleaning process is presenting food during the cleaning steps to create a positive association with cleaning for the cat. Cleaning can become something the cat looks forward to, because good things predictably happen during the process.”
Comfort with social activity
Like most animals, cats need interaction and stimulation to help manage stress and keep them happy. Cats enjoy being groomed, they are affectionate animals and need opportunities to use up their energy, even when they’re in their cages.
A shelter cat’s comfortability with socialization is largely impacted by what it has been exposed to for most of its life.
According to Alley Cat Allies, the more a cat is handled and the closer she lives near people, especially within her critical window of development, the more socialized she will be. The less a cat is in contact with people, the more unsocialized she will be. Cats are creatures of habit who are very attached to their territories and stressed by change. The older they get, the more set they are in their ways and the less you can influence them.
Cats must associate human contact with comfort, food, fun, and safety in order to enjoy the company of people and feel at home indoors.
The most important positive interactions include:
- Handling, petting, and gentle talking
- Providing food and treats
- Playing together
- Providing an environment with comfortable places to sleep, eat, and jump
Applying even just one of these ideas will improve the comfort of cats in shelters, and you can help shelters make comfort a more common and intentional practice. Better yet, help shelter cats by providing specially-designed cat scratchers, through The Animal Rescue Site, designed to give cats a sense of security and build confidence. For them, getting to scratch is like choosing your own couch or color of paint – it makes the room feel warmer and more inviting.
After that, take the Comfortable Cat Pledge and help cats find solace in shelters until they can be matched with a caring human and a loving home.
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