2010-12-01 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

More than 4 million cats land in U.S. shelters each year, and many of them are put down because of contagious yet treatable respiratory infections. Morris Animal Foundation is doing something about this heartbreaking statistic.

As part of its Happy Healthy Cat (www.Research4Cats. org) campaign, now finishing its second year, Morris Animal Foundation (MAF) is funding specific studies that address factors that negatively impact the health and adoption chances of shelter cats. Being in a shelter can be quite stressful for any cat. In fact, once pampered housecats often weather “institutional” life worse than tame strays or kittens.

Stress itself can lead to behavioral problems and infectious disease which in turn affect the individual cat and/or entire feline population’s chances for adoption and survival. The simplest upper respiratory infection can run rampant and lead to euthanasia because shelters may not have the resources, space or staffing to bring sick cats back to health. Findings of current MAF shelter cat studies hope to create a healthier and less frightening environment for cats awaiting homes by reducing stress and increasing adoption rates. Several of these projects are profiled below:

** “Effect of Cage Enrichment and Predictability of Healthy Outcomes of Shelter Cats” is a three year MAF grant awarded to Linda K. Lord, DVM, PhD at Ohio State University. Dr. Lord postulates that entering a shelter is a frightening experience that triggers a strong stress response in many cats. If the stress response persists, the cat may get sick which makes it less likely the cat will get adopted and more likely it will be euthanized.

The goal is to improve the cage experience and increase the safety and comfort of a cat’s surroundings from the time of arrival to adoption. The researchers are determining whether changes to the cage environment reduce stress and will then use their findings to create a training program for shelter staff to lessen stress in resident cats. The project aims to decrease the number of days until adoption, the number of sick cats and the number of days they are sick.

** “Determining the Effects of Constant Light on the Feline Immune System” is a MAF grant awarded to Dr. Megan Mahoney at the University of Illinois. Whereas this study is focused on intensive care centers such as animal emergency hospitals, there may be ramifications for certain shelters that are lit all day and night. The hypothesis is that constant light rather than a day/night cycle can disturb biological rhythms of metabolism, endocrine secretions and immune responses all crucial to maintaining the well-being of impounded cats.

** “Comparison of Two Cage Types: Effect on Shelter Cat Stress, Upper Respiratory Disease and Adoption” is a MAF grant being studied by Kate F. Hurley, DVM, director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at University of California-Davis. Shelter cat rooms are often overcrowded. Upper respiratory infection (URI), similar to a cold in humans, is closely linked to stress and a leading cause of illness. URIs are extremely uncomfortable to shelter cats; but worse, the result is too often a death sentence because of the expensive and extensive treatment needed to bring them back to good health.

Cage style and size influence stress and the frequency of disease transmission. Housing characteristics that have been linked to stress include floor space and the presence of a hiding spot. Ideally all cats (except for litters) are housed alone for the first week after shelter intake to allow observation of health and behavior. Most cases of URI occur soon after admission.

This study focuses on single housing of newly admitted cats, and evaluates the effect of two different cage types on feline stress, URI and adoptability. Cats will be kept in one of two identical wards where only the cage type differs. Researchers will compare the outcome for cats staying in type A or type B cage. The findings will help guide shelter personnel in setting up the optimal environment conducive to avoiding URI and maximizing placements in new homes.

This cage style research was prompted by survey findings of Dr. Hurley’s student, Dr. Aki Tanaka, who received a MAF fellowship to investigate URI in 15 California shelters over the course of a year. Dr. Tanaka learned that some shelters wind up using more than 30% of their feline care resources treating URI alone, but that URI was not an inevitable infection. Rates varied; some shelters even had near zero rates of infection. She could not pinpoint the exact environmental risk factors but housing conditions merited the most attention. Dr. Hurley’s follow-up project examines which type cage prevents the spread of infection.

There is an economic benefit too. Dr. Hurley suggests that “if we could drop the number of URI sick days in US shelters by even one percent through the results of our study, either by reducing the number of URI cases or reducing the severity of the disease in affected cats, we could save shelters about $3 million dollars.” Savings like this equate to a more efficient use of precious time, space and finances than attending to a ward of sniffling kitties stashed away in each shelter in the country.

The MAF Healthy Cat Campaign (www.morrisanimalfoundation. org) currently has about 50 active feline health studies, in addition to these shelter projects. An anonymous donor is matching all gifts up to $500,000. I do not know who this generous person is, but I can tell you that the senior superstar, Betty White, is a longtime MAF Board member.

Adoptables at Babylon Town Shelter (631-643- 9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: “Tortellina” # 20474 is a sweet tortoiseshell kitten in a lobby cage. She is about 14 weeks old. “Davy” #93520 is a Pit with an alias. “Bruno” is the name the shelter gals gave him. This youngster Pit is angelic in his cage, and then romps like a rocket in the yard, minding his manners not to jump on you.

Female: “Courtney”- young, purebred yellow Lab #93702; “Lydia” #93376- ladylike Pit; small Shepherd #93691.

Male: Pekingese found at Home Depot in Farmingdale; “Steve” #93710-Shepherd mix found at Town Hall; senior white Chihuahua #93711; “Duke” #93580 & “Louie” #93668 sweet brindle Pits.

Upcoming Rescue Events:

* Fri. Dec. 10 from 7 to 10 pm -Almost Home’s “Paws N Pins” fundraiser at Farmingdale Lanes, 999 Conklin Street- $20 bowling & shoe rental.

* Sat. Dec. 11 at 4 pm - A Christmas Carol by St. John’s Readers Theatre at St. John’s Church, 12 Prospect St., Huntington- admission free but all donations benefit Last Hope Animal Rescue.

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