2011-11-30 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Editor’s Note: At the Cat Writers Association Communication Contest ceremony last month, the following “Pets” column “Reducing Stress in Shelter Cats” first published 3/30/11 won the Kari Winters Rescue & Rehabilitation Award which consists of $500 and a commemorative plaque:

I am a fan of “rotating the stock” at an animal shelter to improve a pet’s chances of being noticed and ultimately getting adopted, but this marketing gimmick isn’t as easy as it sounds for cats. They aren’t like cereal boxes on an end cap. Actually dogs adjust better to shifts around the kennel. Research based on feline behavior suggests that moving a shelter cat should be kept to a minimum, and when a kitty does go to a new cage or area, his furniture and luggage should go with him.

Cats are creatures of habit. As reported by Nancy Lawson in 2004 in Animal Sheltering magazine: “The very things we like about cats—the essence of what makes them who they are—are also the very things that make life so difficult for them in the shelter. At home, they leap atop high shelves, dash down hallways in sudden fits of madness, and wake us up with ‘I’m dying of starvation’ meows that actually glean a response from us.”

"Hide, Perch & Go" cat furniture. "Hide, Perch & Go" cat furniture. Once confined, cats lose this control over their environment. Without their safety net, they may cower in the back of the cage, go on a hunger strike, or lash out, all the while becoming more prone to infections; thus, more likely to wind up on the euthanasia list. Besides the discomfort, these behaviors plus the illness they may precipitate decrease their chances of being adopted while jeopardizing the health of the rest of the cats.

The following stress reduction protocol offers ways to improve shelter cats’ emotional well-being. This list is a combination of ideas from three veterinary colleges- Cornell, Tufts and Dr. Kate F. Hurley at University of California, Davis:

1) Upon intake, cats should be provided with a hiding box or a towel hung on the cage door. Hiding is the best coping mechanism a cat has to deal with stress. A day or two behind “the curtain” will help new cats adjust to shelter life.

2) Each cat’s cage should be provided with soft bedding (at least 3 inches deep).

3) Feliway, the synthetic feline facial pheromone that comes in a plug-in diffuser or spray has been shown to reduce anxiety. Either spray the cat’s bedding or put a sprayed washcloth into the cage.

4) Efforts should be made to make the morning cleaning as quiet as possible. This hectic time is made worse by slamming doors, loud music or yelling. Cats are very sensitive to vibrations so a radio on a metal cage is extremely upsetting.

5) Cats feel more comfy being up high. Provide cats with a platform (with a box to sit or hide in) or a hanging hammock. {The Babylon shelter cats have hammocks, and they love them.}

6) Separate dogs and cats. Keep in mind, sick cats are even more stressed by the presence of dogs than healthy cats. Hiding places and elevated perches are necessary when separation from dogs (including barking) is impossible. (Researchers at Tufts found a correlation between pooch proximity and urine cortisol levels in shelter cats.)

7) Cats feel better with routine. Try to make the daily maintenance performed at roughly the same time each day.

8) Cats feel better in familiar settings. Don’t move cats to new cages each day. Also, don’t remove everything from the cage daily. Spot clean when possible. If the entire cage must be cleaned, leave at least one thing in the cage that smells familiar. Scooping litter rather than daily dumping is acceptable. Prototypes of innovative cat cages equipped with hideaways are being designed, so kitty can stay put while the staff cleans.

9) Separate food and toilet areas by about three feet, whenever possible. Litter boxes should be sturdy, and of sufficient size and height for a cat to posture normally. Shelters should use litter; not shredded paper.

10) Soft music should be played in the cat room during the day. Music and lights should be turned off at night because cats need quiet and darkness to get proper rest.

11) Time out of the cage- at least 15 minutes every other day- is important for stress reduction.

Proper methods of cleaning to control disease transmission as well as ways to structure communal cat areas and recess time are subjects for other columns, but to get back to moving kitty with his possessions, Petfinder.com (the amazing online folks who since 1996 have found homes for 17 million pets) offers a feline furniture brainstorm.

This nifty invention is called the “Hide, Perch & Go” box. When given one upon arrival, the newly entered cat gets control over her environment. She scent marks (via facial pheromone) her purrsonal cardboard contraption which also comes apart as a cut-out Kasbah with a place to hide or sleep, plus a separate shelf to perch atop. Whenever kitty needs to move, it folds into her own carrier. Then, on the happiest of days, when she is adopted, kitty has a familiar chariot to take her home. Once there, it can be reassembled into a safe, familiar haven.

By partnering with the Petco Foundation, the Animal Rescue Site and donors, Petfinder has given grants of “Hide, Perch & Go” boxes to shelters. Google “Hide, Perch & Go” and watch the short You Tube set to Debussy’s Reverie, the perfect orchestral accompaniment to usher in feline sweet dreams.

Update as of 11/30: Petfinder sent Babylon Shelter samples but unfortunately “Hide, Perch & Go” boxes don’t fit in most of the cages. However, a frightened female did find months of solace in one. She traveled in it when she went to be spayed, and it became part of her “dowry” when she was adopted. The Babylon cats have Kuranda cots now which also give that comfy “elevated” feeling.

Babylon Shelter (631-643-9270) Adoptables at 51 Lamar St. W. Babylon: Our poster pets have “coats of many colors.” “Marty” #94538 a brindle Chihuahua mix was caught by the shelter in a humane trap set in an industrial area. He was very scared but is coming around. This lovely calico is available in C-7.

New Dogs: f. Chihuahua #94534; m. Shihtzu #94567- shelter is treating his neglected skin; m. Cocker #94573.

Cats: “Iggy”- healing pelvis tabby; “Baby” - Maine Coon mix; “Frankee” – fabulous green eyes.

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