Cats / Welfare

2 Easy Steps to Increasing Shelter Cat Welfare

Photo credit: Flickr user

A shelter can be a very stressful place for a cat. Here are 2 important (but often overlooked) things shelters can do to help decrease feline stress. These tips are excerpted from a little shelter consult I just did for some friends at a cat shelter.

One easy way to promote optimal welfare for shelter cats is to make sure their environment is managed well. For cats, this means having reliable access to: water, food, litter boxes, and hiding and resting places.  A predictable environment with easy access to these things is hugely important because…

Cats Rely on Their the Environment to Cope

  • Ever heard of the “secure base effect”?
    • Human kids and dogs use people (usually their owner or parent figure) as a “secure base” when they are not confident about their environment or the situation. (Think of a little kid running to hide behind mom, or a dog going back to “check in” with his owner before approaching a stranger again.)
    • Cats use their environment as their secure base. They rely on known escape routes, hiding places, etc.
    • Without environmental resources that are important for coping, like hiding places, a cat can become very distressed, possibly creating or exacerbating behavior problems.
    • In one study of cats brought to a clinic for behavior problems, the majority of these problems were due to improper housing conditions (Hubrecht and Turner, 1998).

What can be done to help cats in shelters?

Step #1:Give every cat a secure place to hide

Photo credit: Flickr user miss pupitSince cats are dependent on their environment when coping with stressors, this has the potential to help them out quite a lot.  Kry and Casey, 2007, compared the behaviors and adoption rates of cats provided with a hiding place (a box) and those without one. They found that shelter cats provided with a box were…

  • Significantly less stressed
  • More likely to approach a visitor to their cage
  • Spent significantly more time resting and not alert
  • Adopted equally as often as cats without a hiding place

Hiding places can be easy and cheap: Cardboard boxes, converted covered litter boxes, towels hung across a section of the cage, etc.

Step #2: Ensure accessible resources for every cat (and spread ’em out!)

  • Ensure water, food, a litter box, and hiding/resting place are available to each cat.
  • If your shelter has communal enclosures, try to provide enough of each resource for each cat. (e.g. Ideally 1 litterbox per cat in the enclosure, plus one more. )
  • In multi-cat enclosures,  spread resources out to prevent monopolization
    • E.g. If there are four cats and four food dishes (or litter trays, or water dishes) but they are all placed together, they effectively become one instead of four. If one cat is threatened by the presence of another, and that cat is at the food dishes, the first cat may not feel he is able to approach. His access to this resource is effectively blocked.

Enrichments hold a lot of potential for shelter cats, and are often at low or no cost to the shelter.  Providing them with environmental enrichments can decrease their stress levels (Gourkow and Fraser, 2006), and cats with lower stress levels may be more adoptable (Gourkow and Fraster, 2006).  Implementing them can be a lot of fun, too.

(If your shelter is already implementing these two suggestions, fantastic! Upcoming posts may give you some  more ideas on how you can help them in other ways.)

References and Recommended Reading

Ellis, Sarah LH. “Environmental enrichment: Practical strategies for improving feline welfare.” Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery 11.11 (2009): 901-912. Full article available from:

Gourkow, N., and D. Fraser. “The effect of housing and handling practices on the welfare, behaviour and selection of domestic cats (Felis sylvestris catus) by adopters in an animal shelter.” ANIMAL WELFARE-POTTERS BAR THEN WHEATHAMPSTEAD- 15.4 (2006): 371.

Kry, K., and R. Casey. “The effect of hiding enrichment on stress levels and behaviour of domestic cats (Felis sylvestris catus) in a shelter setting and the implications for adoption potential.” Animal Welfare 16.3 (2007): 375-383.


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