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Seeing the World Through Cat Eyes

Video helps shelters interpret cat behavior and alleviate stress

Video helps shelters interpret cat behavior and alleviate stress

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 kitty-whipped humans.

But a video created by Canada’s British Columbia SPCA as part of its cat enrichment program shows what happens when cats are taken out of their open spaces and regimented routines: They lose their feeling of safety and often react by cowering anxiously in the back of the cage, ignoring their food, or lashing out.

Intended to help shelter employees and volunteers read this body language and respond effectively, The Emotional Life of Cats: A Guide for Improving the Psychological Well-Being of Cats and its companion manual help people see through the eyes of creatures like Felix and Missy, two of the stars of the video. Where once they napped in favorite places and sat every day in the same window at the same time to wait for the return of their owners, they now don’t know when their meals are coming and have no place to leap to when feeling threatened in their new temporary home.

“Although Missy is now a shelter cat, her little body continues to anticipate the routine events of her former life,” says narrator Nadine Gourkow, the BC SPCA’s animal welfare research manager and one of the creators of the video. “But the anticipation experienced at home, usually followed by a routine event, is now followed by nothing. This is frustrating for the cat.”

Using the imagery of a man who has gone to sleep in his own comfortable bed only to wake up disoriented in a strange, barren room, the video evokes empathy for cats and paints a picture of the jarring sensations they experience when transported to foreign surroundings. The reason for the cats’ uncertainty is the novelty of the situation in the “unnatural” environment of the shelter, says Gourkow, who likens the home to a more natural place. The result is a stress response, an evolutionary adaptation that allows the cat to protect himself from danger by running away, hiding, or leaping into a high place. In the environment of a cage without perches and getaway spots, these actions aren’t possible for cats.

“Not even 30 minutes into their arrival at the shelter, their psychological well-being is already at risk,” Gourkow tells viewers.

Gourkow describes the four emotional states produced by the stress response: fear, anxiety, frustration, and depression. Fearful cats have the urge to fight or flee, and anxious ones might be wide-eyed or might shut their eyes tight, feigning sleep; left unalleviated, these emotions can lead to dehydration, fatigue, and eventually, kidney and liver malfunction. Frustration can have similar deleterious effects, leading to vocalization, moodiness, self-mutilation, listlessness, or loss of interest in interaction. And depression may manifest itself in oversleeping, loss of appetite, ceasing of grooming, and withdrawal.

Solutions to these problems are outlined briefly in the video and described in more detail in the accompanying manual. Shelters can help cats feel more comfortable and more able to act on their instincts by providing hiding and perching spots, says Gourkow (whose shelter sells a hide-and-perch box in Canada that will be available soon through U.S. and UK distributors). To help cats feel familiar with the cage, workers can spot-clean during a particular cat’s stay, preventing the movement of cats from one cage to another; they can also keep the same bedding with the same cat so he can fill the cage with his own scent. Approaching slowly and talking in higher-than-usual pitches are simple but effective strategies, says Gourkow.

Alleviating frustration in shelter cats involves addressing the causes: an impoverished environment with little stimulation as well as the “non-reward” aspect of waiting for something to happen at its usual time and then being disappointed when it doesn’t. Solutions include establishing regular feeding times, reducing staff rotations, and providing toys to redirect the frustration.

Common among animals in captivity, depression is caused by a lack of meaningful interaction with the environment. Communal living is one solution, but it’s beneficial only to sociable cats, says Gourkow, or at least to cats who can tolerate others—and only if the space is designed to meet their physical and psychological needs. There must be adequate getaways, including single-cat-sized shelves for all, high vantage points, and hiding places. Separate food bowls and litter boxes are a must, as are scratching posts and items to rub on and bat at. Natural lighting and soft bedding for older cats are important, too.

Single-cage enrichment is also feasible if items for hiding, perching, scratching, playing, batting, and rolling are included. Elimination and feeding stations should be as far apart as possible, and human contact should be plentiful.

The goal of these actions and strategies, explains the manual, is to address the needs identified in Gourkow’s research: “Results from the study indicated that species-specific enrichment that provides cats with more control over their environment [and the] opportunity to express a wider range of behaviour such as hiding, perching and scent marking greatly improved their welfare. As a result of experimental social and environment enrichment, shelter cats at the BC SPCA experienced faster adaptation to the shelter, which led to shorter adoption time and increased adoption rate, lower disease rate and reduced severity when disease did occur, decreased need for euthanasia and overall improved welfare.”

The price for “The Emotional Life of Cats” video and manual is $120 Canadian plus shipping. To order, contact Nadine Gourkow at, or visit the BC SPCA website at


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