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How interactions with humans affect different factors as cats enter shelters

Gourkow N, Phillips CJC.  Effect of interactions with humans on behaviour, mucosal immunity, and upper respiratory disease of shelter cats rated as contented on arrival. Prev Vet Med 2015;121:288-96.

One of the saddest outcomes of shelter confinement for some cats is when healthy, well-socialized cats are admitted to an animal shelter and are later euthanized for having developed upper respiratory disease (URD) unresponsive to treatment. Moreover, cats that are treated and do recover represent a significant expense of time and financial resources on the part of the shelter.  Based on studies in humans and dogs, in which cell-mediated and mucosal immunity were found to be influenced by emotional states and can be manipulated by behavioral modification, these researchers hypothesized that exposure to pleasant stimuli in the form of positive human interaction would reduce susceptibility to URD in cats admitted to a shelter.

Of 250 cats over 6 months of age with no signs of upper respiratory disease admitted as either owner-surrendered or strays to a Canadian animal shelter, 96 were assessed as Content (as opposed to Anxious or Frustrated) based on a one-hour real-time video observation of the cat’s response to a human approach test and were enrolled in this study.  All cats were examined by a certified animal health technician upon admission to the shelter, and determined to be free of signs of illness, including URD, and injury. On day 0, the 96 study cats were alternately allocated to either a treatment group (n = 47) or a control group (n = 49).

Ocular and pharyngeal swabs were taken immediately following the intake examination (day 0) as well on days 4 and 10 from all study animals who remained at the shelter. Upon admission, the cats were vaccinated for panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis, and calicivirus with a modified live virus vaccine, and dewormed with pyrantel pamoate.  The combined conjunctival and oropharyngeal swabs from each cat obtained at the 3 time points were evaluated by quantitative real-time PCR for feline herpesvirus type 1, feline calicivirus, Mycoplasma felis, Chlamydophila felis, and Bordetella bronchiseptica. Stools from the study cats were collected whenever produced and analyzed for IgA concentrations.

The housing and care provided for the cats was typical of many animal shelters: stainless steel cages that were cleaned daily, a dry and wet food ration provided twice daily, and water ad libitum in a room that was naturally lit and had an additional 4 hours of artificial light provided each day. Visitors were prohibited except for people (24 over the entire course of the study) who needed to enter the ward to look for their missing cat. Of the 96 cats originally enrolled, 9 were sent to isolation for medical reasons, and 13 were redeemed by their owners; out of the 74 that remained in the study for 10 days or more, 56 were adopted, 2 were euthanized, and 16 went to isolation.  After 10 days, the 74 cats still present in the experimental ward were moved to an adoption area of the shelter.

The 47 treatment group cats received four 10-minute sessions per day of positive human interaction provided by the same experimenter: first, verbal greeting using a high-pitched gentle tone with the kennel door closed; second, the kennel door was opened and the person’s hand was offered for the cat to sniff; third, the experimenter sat in a chair next to the kennel; fourth, the cat was petted without restriction as to which area of the body was touched; fifth, both a brush and a felt string were placed in the kennel; if the cat showed interest in either object, it was brushed or allowed to play with the string. The 49 control group cats were exposed to a human standing in front of the kennel with their eyes everted for 10 minutes per session, so the only difference between treatment and control groups was the provision of interaction with the human in the treatment group.

Between days 1 and 10, cats in the treated group were more likely to sustain their contented mood than the control group cats.  The control cats were also more likely to demonstrate negative emotions (frustration or anxiety) than the treated cats.  In both groups there was a trend for a reduction in fecal sIgA over time, but treated cats had higher levels of this antibody than controls, and treated cats that remained content had higher fecal sIgA content than those that became frustrated or anxious, or control cats that were rated as content.  There was no significant difference in fecal sIgA content associated with source, gender, or sterilization status, but sIgA concentrations tended to increase with age.  Although no difference was found in the incidence of viral and bacterial shedding between cats assigned to treatment and control groups upon admission, there was an increase in shedding over time in the control group but not in the treatment group.  The control cats were more likely to develop URD over time than the treatment group.  In the treatment group, response to treatment was associated with URD status.  Treated cats that did not develop URD had a 96% positive response to treatment, while those that did had an 83% positive response to treatment.  In the control group, 34.7% (n = 17) of cats developed URD; in the treatment group, 9 cats (19.1%) developed URD, indicating there was a 15.6% reduction of URD in cats receiving positive human interaction treatment.

The findings of the study support the investigators’ hypothesis that human interaction provided by a familiar person helped cats confined to a shelter to sustain positive affect, reduced shedding of respiratory pathogens and prevalence of URD, and enhanced their secretion of IgA.  This type of treatment can be provided at little to no cost to a shelter using trained volunteers, and significantly enhances well-being, survival, and potential adoptability of shelter cats.  [PJS]

See also:

Kry K, Casey R. The effect of hiding enrichment on stress levels and behaviour of domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) in a shelter setting and the implications for adoption potential.  Anim Welf 2007;16:375-83.

Gourkow N, Hamon SC, et al. Effect of gentle stroking and vocalization on behaviour, mucosal immunity, and upper respiratory disease in anxious shelter cats. Prev Vet Med 2014;117:266-75.