Why Cats Need a Gentler Hand in Shelters

It’s no surprise that stressful shelter situations can damage a cat’s well-being.

“Kitty caves” such as cardboard boxes could go a long way toward making cats feel safe and secure in shelters. By: nromagna

There’s this one story that keeps making the rounds in cat rescue work. It runs something like this: “Oh, that cat’s aggressive. He keeps trying to bite everybody, so there’s no way we can place him.”

The cat’s name changes, but the details stay pretty much the same.

Much of the time, nobody questions this story. And in a no-kill shelter, that can mean the difference between a cat being adopted and not being adopted. In a kill shelter, it’s a death sentence.

But an important part of that story often gets left out — cats don’t do well in a traditional shelter environment. (The high-energy breeds, such as Abyssinians, do especially poorly.) Here’s why.

The Feline Psyche

“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.”

AFOC cages cats only when they arrive at the shelter, a 3-story Victorian in New Britain, Connecticut. Once the cats have been checked and gotten their bearings, they’re placed in a large windowed room to run free, scratch posts and play in tunnels with 5 to 7 other cats.

Many no-kill shelters, such as the TreeHouse Humane Society in Chicago and the Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, Massachusetts, have also gone the cage-less route. The idea is to provide the cats with an environment that is as home-like as possible. The odds of socializing them are that much higher this way.

The Comfort of the Cave

Still, felines, as we all know, have a “cave-kitty” mentality and crave hideaways.

Boxes satisfy that need for shelter cats, as 2 studies — one in 2007 by Dr. Rachel Casey at the University of Bristol and another in 2015 by the University of Utrecht — have shown.

“[W]hen cats are worried, their preferred ‘strategy’ is to get away,” Dr. Casey points out. “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.”

Petting, brushing and playing with cats can help them reduce their stress levels in a shelter, one study has shown. By: htakashi

The Utrecht study picked up where Dr. Casey had left off, where 10 of 19 cats at a Dutch shelter were given cardboard “hiding boxes.” By the third day, their stress level was down significantly. The 9 without lairs to call their own managed to reduce their stress level as well — it just took them a lot longer to get to that point.

“Stressful experiences can have major impact on the cats’ welfare,” the researchers conclude, “and may cause higher incidences of infectious diseases in the shelters due to raised cortisol levels causing immunodeficiency.”

Gentling Cats’ Minds

People talk about “gentling” wild horses — working with them to curb their skittishness and gain their trust.

The same principle works with cats as well, which shouldn’t surprise us. Cats and horses are both highly sensitive animals and respond to many things in a similar fashion.

These cats get lots of time for socialization and human contact at this shelter:

YouTube player

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 “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 hope is that these findings will help “develop education material to teach these interventions to shelter personnel, which will help them improve the emotional well-being of cats and reduce URI.” They will also help the people working with these down-and-out felines remember that there are, as Levy puts it, “little people in there” who deserve as much gentling and consideration as possible.