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Poochy Proximity Spells Stress for Cats

Lighting, cage arrangements, and the presence of the canine beast affect shelter cats’ well-being

Lighting, cage arrangements, and the presence of the canine beast affect shelter cats’ well-being

© Carrie Allan

A new study conducted by Tufts University researchers validates what many of our pet cats in multi-animal households have long been trying to tell us through high-pitched yowls and mad dashes under the bed: Man’s best friend stresses them out.

But the subjects of “Assessment of stress levels among cats in four animal shelters” (Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Vol. 226, No. 4, February 15, 2005) were less demonstrative about the source of their woes than the typical house cat, failing to reveal outward signs of dismay.

True to their stereotypical nature, the cats were in fact so elusive that the only way researchers could clearly identify what they were feeling was to test their urine. In the study designed to compare stress levels among cats in traditional housing with those of cats in enriched environments, veterinarian Emily C. McCobb and her fellow researchers* used both behavioral observation and urine cortisol analyses to evaluate cats at Boston area facilities.

Unlike blood collection, the noninvasive urine measurements are less likely to influence results because the cats don’t have to be poked or prodded; samples are simply collected from litter pans filled with nonabsorbing pellets. The method is a proven tool that helps glean information a human eye would not discern, since many cats feign sleep under duress.

Though the researchers found no relationship between observation-based stress scores of 120 cats and their proximity to dogs, urine analyses from the 97 cats from whom samples could be obtained showed a significant connection between cat stress and high dog-exposure levels. The connection was even stronger among cats displaying clinical signs of systemic disease.

Researchers studied cats in four facilities run by two different organizations; each organization had a modern facility with stress-reduction elements as well as an older facility with traditional steel bank caging. At one of the modern sites, cats were in elevated cages with perching shelves near windows, and dogs were housed in a separate wing. At the other modern site, cats were in rooms with soundproof walls, natural light, and cages arranged in a manner that kept them from seeing one another.

The evaluations of cats in these shelters confirmed the researchers’ original hypothesis that enriched environments are less stress-inducing; the cats in the newer facilities had significantly lower stress levels than those in the traditional ones.

“Our results indicate that implementing environmental design strategies based on behavioral theory can make a detectable difference in a measurable parameter of stress among cats in shelters and thus help justify the redesign efforts,” wrote the researchers. “Continued improvement in housing and handling conditions for cats in animal shelters is likely to have a major impact on feline welfare.”

Among other findings:

  • Despite careful monitoring and attention from staff, almost 25 percent of the cats in the study had signs of systemic illness. More than 25 percent of the urine samples obtained indicated the presence of blood, a symptom of feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC). Since past research has suggested that FIC is a stress-related condition, “it is possible that this finding may be further evidence of chronic stress among shelter cats,” the researchers wrote.
  • According to the results of the observational scoring system, stress levels among cats were highest in the morning. But the mean morning stress score of cats in adoption areas was lower than that of cats in holding areas, and more cats with low-stress scores were present in the adoption areas.
  • Urine analysis data did not correlate with the length of stay in the shelter for any particular cat, a finding that may indicate the cats were not adapting to the shelter environment, the researchers wrote. (A previous study found that cats in quarantine environments generally adapted to their surroundings in about five weeks— longer than most cats stay in shelters.)
  • Cats who had come from multiple-cat households were more stressed than those from single-cat homes. All the cats in the study were in single cages, causing the researchers to posit that separating cats from their housemates may increase their stress and that colony housing may benefit these animals.
  • Noise was not identified as a stress factor by either the behavioral scoring system or the urine analyses, but noise levels of different areas had been subjectively classified by two of the researchers. More objective measurements of decibel levels of ambient sound may yield different results, the researchers wrote.

The researchers stress that the study is not intended as guidance for assessing the well-being of individual cats in the shelter, but rather as validation of “the merits of global changes in shelter design that are being considered and implemented by animal welfare organizations.” 

*Authors of the study are Emily McCobb, DVM, MS; Gary Patronek, VMD, PhD; Amy Marder, VMD; Julie Dinnage, DVM; and Michael Stone, DVM, DACVIM.


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