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Managing the domestic cat’s environment and welfare, Part Two

Stella JL, Croney CC. Environmental aspects of domestic cat care and management: Implications for cat welfare. Scientific World Journal. 2016, Sept. (A scientific review)

As previously noted in Part One…

“Domestic cats are the most common companion animal in the United States. The numbers of cats has been estimated in different populations at 86 million owned cats, 70 million free-roaming, 13,000 research and 2-3 million shelter cats. Because such vast numbers of cats rely on humans for much or all of their care, it is preferable to have an understanding of their behavior and how to provide high quality environments since this can lead to improvements overall in cat welfare.”

Cat-Human Interactions: One key factor noted from all the studies reviewed is that the quality and quantity of human-cat interactions experienced are relevant to their welfare outcomes in many different settings. In these relationships (positive or negative) that are dictated in number and nature by the human, the cat reacts to the human’s actions. A cat’s fearful responses can lead to negative caregiver attitudes to the cat.  Humans can still give attention to offering consistent positive human-cat interactions, therefore reducing a cat’s fear of people. Low-stress handling techniques or feeding preferred food items are examples of positive interactions to employ. Predictability of caregiver behaviors is also important.  A cat’s social environment is additionally quite significant.

Welfare of Cats Confined in Cages: Confinement and the lack of ability to express species-typical behaviors may result in cats undergoing distress. This could lead to a decrease in appetite and withdrawal from social groupings, along with decreased grooming and increased attempts to hide. One way to help cats cope in this environment is to provide hiding and perching opportunities. One study showed that when cats were provided boxes approached more often and retreated less than cats that were not provided boxes. They were also noted as sleeping more restfully. Shelter cats provided a box to hide in or perch on were found to adjust more quickly to this new environment than ones without a hiding area. Cats housed with other cats spent more time hiding than single housed cats (26% versus 4%). Cats housed in enriched environments had lower stress levels than cats housed in traditional shelters. Being exposed to dogs may have a cumulative effect on a cat’s health with combined with other environmental stressors which leads to increasing stress levels more in cats that are obviously ill over cats with no signs of disease. Cats surrendered by their owners have higher stress scores than stray cats. Looking at stress levels and acclimation to boarding over two weeks and compared to control cats living in a shelter: the results indicated that two-thirds of the cats acclimated, one-third found boarding distressful and 4% never acclimated. The daily stress levels declined significantly from day one to day five, and overall stress levels continued to decrease during the first two weeks of boarding. This finding was considered significant since cats in shelters often may not have time to acclimate before being rehomed. It was stated that most failed adoptions and returns take place within two weeks of adoption. The greatest risk for cats falls within the time they are acclimating to a new environment, so the current protocols may not be enough to allow cats to fully adjust to their new environment. This will eventually impact cat welfare.

Conclusions: This review publication states that in the long run, the environmental needs of the cat are similar no matter where they are confined (home, or a cage in a shelter, research facility, veterinary hospital, or boarding facility). The cat’s environment can be perceived as a possible threat or aversive stimuli whether involving the macro- or microenvironment, human-cat interactions, the social environment, or the predictability and control of that environment which then can all work together to influence a cat’s well-being. When poor welfare occurs, it can follow that there may be poor physical health, illness, and disease or behavioral problems (housesoiling, fearful or aggressive behaviors).  Any of these factors can lead to a breakdown in the human-cat bond leading to abandonment, relinquishment to a shelter, or euthanasia. Further research is needed to refine the recommendations for quantity of space needed for singly housed or group-housed cats. Understanding the quantity and quality of space needed by cats while being provided is important. How all of these interactions and short and long-term effects affect adoption rates, retention outcomes, and infectious disease incidence needs further study to improve cat well-being. One other area needing further research is increasing the understanding of individual differences in coping styles of cats. Plus gaining more information about owners’ attitudes and knowledge about cats is definitely needed to not risk the human-cat bond and improve cat well-being. (VLT)

See also: 
Ellis SL. Environmental enrichment: practical strategies for improving feline welfare.
J Feline Med Surg. 2009 Nov;11(11):901-12.