Keeping Kitty Content: Tips and Tricks for identifying and minimizing stress in your cat population

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!

Portal practice!

Earlier this week, our shelter medicine interns, Dr. Megan Stapleton and Dr. Meagan Wentworth were able to practice
cutting portals in a bank of cat cages in preparation for upcoming work Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell will be doing at the SPCA of Tompkins County and in future consultations to help of other shelters optimize space.

Portals offer many benefits to the wellbeing of shelters and the animals in their care. More space for each animal makes happier and healthier cats. Happier healthier cats means an increase in
adoptions. Increased adoptions help everyone-not only the adopted cat, but the shelter as a whole, and the next homeless cat in need of care.

The tools for cutting holes in metal and stainless steel cage banks can be awkward to handle at first, so having an opportunity to practice using them prior to an all-day portal cutting event is very helpful. Always remember to wear your safety equipment! Here are our interns being led through portal cutting by Dr. Lena DeTar, Associate Clinical Professor of Shelter Medicine.


We want your story!

Hey there Shelties —

People find themselves in animal welfare from all types of backgrounds.  When I travel around to shelters, I often ask staff how they came to be at the shelter.  While some took fairly traditional routes working their way up from cleaning kennels to managing missions, more often than not people smile somewhat shy smiles, and then come out with the most interesting of answers.  “I was a nurse; I ran a hotel; I worked in child welfare.” In some cases, we wandered in as volunteers and never left.  In other cases, a passion for the field caused us to take a leap into the unknown.

We would love to hear from you regarding how you came to work in your shelter.  To start the ball-rolling, I offer you my story.

In the late 80s, I trained as an English teacher, with a passion for equal opportunity education and adult learners.  After completing a Master’s degree during which I spent most of my time teaching for the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) at Binghamton University, I moved to Washington DC to teach at-risk teens in a charter school in NE, not far from the Capital building.  We routinely had no heat or running water, and minimal textbooks.  I wrote Oprah at one point asking for help.  It was challenge, punctuated by struggle.  

For volunteer work in my copious spare time, I headed to the DC Animal Shelter. When some of my students took their anger out on a kitten, I started a humane education program at our school.  One year led to another, and eventually I ended up being accepted to veterinary school.  From there, I found myself in one of the first shelter medicine classes and serving as a student rep on the Board of Directors for our local animal shelter.  And as they say, the rest was history…

Your turn… write us with your story at and with your permission we would love to include it in future posts! Feel free to send along a photo or two with your story!

Best wishes,

Elizabeth Berliner, DVM, DABVP (SMP), Director of Shelter Medicine

Regional Shelter Staff and Cornell Shelter Medicine come together for Disaster Response Training

Last weekend, a group of New York State shelter staff and Cornell Shelter Medicine staff and veterinary students came together for a 2-day workshop on Responding to Animals in Disasters at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Hosted by Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell University and funded through Engaged Cornell, attendees got to hear from experts at the ASPCA Field Investigations and Response Team who gave talks on topics such as Innovations in Emergency Shelter Medicine, Planning Large Scale Operations, and Veterinary Medicine in Emergency Shelters on Saturday, and provided a hands-on pop-up shelter session on Sunday.

Twelve different regional humane organizations were represented, eight Cornell vet students, and four of our shelter medicine program staff also attended. Each attendee received a copy of the textbook, Veterinary Disaster Response, by Wingfield & Palmer. In a post-workshop survey, 100% of respondents would recommend this workshop to others and were happy they attended. A majority of respondents also found the workshop effective or helpful for networking and establishing new relationships and said they learned something new about the services offered by Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell University.

Georgie Taylor, President of the Humane Society of Schuyler County, said “the training was very worthwhile, so accessible, and provided a great opportunity to include so many from our organization, which would not have been possible otherwise.” She added that being able to come together with staff from other shelters in the area “also sparked some other ways we can support those in our community in need.” We hope this workshop is a starting place for a bigger conversation and broader involvement with our regional shelters and humane organization in the effort to save homeless animals and pets in our area were disaster to strike.

If you would like to read more about the ASPCA’s FIR team, please click here. If you’d like to hear more about this Responding to Animals in Disasters workshop, please see the article written by the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine by clicking here.

Thank you,

Sarah Nickerson, Program Coordinator
Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell

3 Year Update! Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell

Hi! My name is Sarah Nickerson.  I am Program Coordinator for Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell, and I will be managing this blog, Gimme Shelter.  I am excited to share up to date and in depth information about our shelter medicine program with all of you.  In the past three years, since our last full post, much has changed in the field of shelter medicine and at Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell.  Here are some program highlights from the past 3 years.

Team Growth

We are happy that our team has been growing! Although we said goodbye to Dr. Holly Putnam, who ventured off into other realms of veterinary medicine in early 2017, we welcomed three new staff members to our program. And Dr. Janet Scarlett, though technically retired, still comes in every week to teach us about epidemiology, study design, and other areas of her vast knowledge.  Now I will introduce the new members of our staff, as well as our two current Shelter Medicine Interns.

  • Lena DeTar, DVM, DACVPM, joined MSMP at Cornell as an Assistant Clinical Professor in the summer of 2016. She leads our Intro to Shelter Medicine class and teaches our veterinary and veterinary technician students about optimal shelter medicine practices, while providing veterinary care for animals at our partner shelters, and consultation services to regional animal shelters.
  • Sarah Nickerson came on board in the Fall of 2016 as Program Coordinator to help with communications, website management, donor relations, administrative tasks, and special projects.
  • Erin Henry, VMD, joined us in early 2017 as our Shelter Medicine Instructor. She also teaches in our shelter medicine classes, consults with and provides veterinary care for animals in our partner shelters.
  • Megan Stapleton, DVM, joined us last June after she received her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine in 2017 from Ontario Veterinary College in Canada.
  • Meagan Wentworth, BVMS, also joined us last July after attending The Royal School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, UK, where she completed her BVMS in 2017.
  • To see a full list of all of our current program staff, please click here.

Program Growth

We have not only added staff members, we have also added to the learning opportunities and services we offer to students, shelters, and vets! Here are some of our program highlights:

  • Maddie’s Shelter Lab  With the generous support of Maddie’s Fund®, we provide registered 501c-3 organizations with subsidized diagnostic testing for shelter and rescue animals in certain states. This program provides a 50% discount on testing fees and supplies, as well as free shipping labels via USPS Ground
  • Shelter Consultation Services  Our team offers full or targeted on-site consultations. To request an in-shelter consultation, please go to our website and fill out our “Request for Consultation Services” form. Need help with a particular issue quickly? We also offer support for specific shelter-related questions vis email or phone. See our website for more information.
  • Outbreak Response  Outbreaks require fast expert response and diagnostic support. We offer both through our Consultation Hotline and our Maddie’s Shelter Lab services.
  • Fellowship in Shelter Medicine
  • FacebookInstagram
  • Central NY Shelter Forum  Our monthly CNY Shelter Forum on the Cornell University campus provides presentations and discussion of a variety of topics in the field of shelter medicine to local shelter staff, volunteers, and veterinarians. To join the e-list and receive emails regarding upcoming events, please email Vicki Weber at
  • New program website!
  • Classes in Shelter Medicine  We now offer 4 classes in shelter medicine every Spring semester: Introduction to Shelter Medicine; Advanced Shelter Medicine; Companion Animal Welfare; and a Clinical Rotation in Shelter Medicine. In the past year alone (Spring 2017-Spring 2018) we have seen a 23% increase in enrollment in our classes. We expect this trend to continue.

To find out more about Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell, please go to our new website at

We can’t wait to share more news with you next week!