by Erin Henry, DVM, Shelter Medicine Instructor
Animal shelters can be a very stressful place for cats! New sights, sounds and smells abound, along with the many other changes that come with entering a shelter. Every cat’s response differs. Thankfully a cat’s quality of life can be greatly improved by learning to identify stress and mitigate it before it hinders its quality of life.
Identifying signs of stress in cats
Cats respond to stress in many ways. They may exhibit decreased appetite or anorexia. They may attempt to escape or show avoidance behaviors, such as hiding – in the litterbox, in a corner, under a blanket; or they may dart out the front of the cage as soon as you open it and head for dropped ceiling! Some cats may even become aggressive. They present with flattened ears, growling, hissing, swatting or even lunging and attempting to bite. Stressed cats may also feign sleep and appear to be sleeping to the untrained eye. These cats are curled up into a tight ball “sleeping” with their eyes closed tight, or “sleeping” in an undesirable place like a litter box.
Now that you can identify signs of stress in cats, check out these tips for decreasing that stress.
Get them out!
While the tips below can help to alleviate the stress of being in a shelter, the best cure for shelter stress is leaving the shelter. Find creative ways to advertise your kitties and get them out of the shelter and into a home.
Give them more space!
If your organization currently utilizes stainless steel cages, consider doubling the amount of space you have for each cat by installing portals between cages. If that’s not an option for your organization yet, give healthy cats time outside of their cages. Giving your shelter residents – especially those living in the shelter longer than 2 weeks – time out of their cages gives them a chance to stretch their legs and a change of scenery, which provides enrichment to all their senses. Whether it’s a small room or a collapsible pen, allowing this time gives them both mental and physical exercise.
Give them choices!
To perch or not to perch; whether, in communal housing or stainless steel cages, vertical space is something you can give cats cheaply if you’re creative. In community housing, try plastic patio furniture with a blanket on it, or affix milk crates to the wall at varying heights. In stainless steel cages, install a shelf or providing a Kuranda bed. If those are too costly, consider a sturdy cardboard box with a blanket over it. Keep in mind, however, this shouldn’t be considered a long-term substitute for a lack of adequate floor space.
Provide a hiding space for all cats!
The litter box is NOT an adequate hiding space! Cats are much happier if they can choose whether they are seen or not. This is especially important when a cat is first admitted to the shelter. It can be something as simple as a cardboard box (allows for perching as well) or a towel that partially covers the cage-front, or as complex as installing new cat condominiums that come complete with hiding compartments.
Stimulate their senses!
Stimulate their auditory system by playing classical music, talk radio, or nature sounds intermittently throughout the day. Dog barking doesn’t count!
Stimulate their olfactory system with a scent of the day by sprinkling spices onto toys or a piece of fabric and placing it in their cage. Change what scent you use daily. For cats that have an acceptable level of effect, you can also consider providing a small amount of cat nip a few times a week.
Provide cats with visual enrichment by utilizing moving objects outside of their cage. You can set a perpetual motion machine in a chair in the middle of the room, or a volunteer can blow bubbles; hang a mobile in the middle of the room; and if you have a window that is easily seen by the cats in the room, hang a bird feeder on the window. The opportunities are endless!
Stimulate their tactile senses by providing scratching boards, brushes and toys of different textures to stimulate their tactile senses. Fixing a scrub brush to the front of the cage gives cats a difference texture to rub up against, and the fuzzy texture of a pipe cleaner can be a great change up for play time.
Make sure you pay attention to each cat’s likes and dislikes. Enrichment should enhance their quality of life, not diminish it.
Give them the opportunity to perform species-specific behaviors and let them use their brain!
Scratching and stretching is a species-specific behavior for cats. Provide them with a scratching board. You can buy them online or collect corrugated cardboard and make your own. Make sure you try offering both horizontal and vertical scratching surfaces as cats have individual preferences.
Give them toys of the food and non-food variety!
Encourage play behavior in your cats by providing them with toys. You can make toys out of anything from crinkled paper balls to old camera film canisters filled with beads. There are many cost-effective toys at your disposal. Food toys are an excellent opportunity to turn a routine necessity into even more fun. There are plenty of food toys available for sale –an excellent addition to your organization’s wish list – but you can also use empty egg cartons, toilet paper rolls, and boxes to accomplish the same goal.
Give them human interaction!
Most cats enjoy the company of people and just a few minutes of calm, loving human interaction daily can ease their stress levels. This can include grooming, petting or play time.
Know when you need to involve the vet!
Sometimes a cat’s brain chemistry is altered to such an extent that its stress cannot be alleviated by altering its in-shelter environment. In these cases, short term pharmaceutical support can potentially help them to acclimate to this new environment, or support them until they find the perfect home.
Don’t wait! Start reducing the stress of your shelter’s kitties today!