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Strange surroundings boost stress in animals

By Kelley Weir

Ongoing studies improve outlook for shelter cats

Imagine staying in a strange hotel where your toilet and kitchen table are right next to your bed. Now imagine that after a week or two under these likely unnerving circumstances, you're given once chance to make yourself attractive, go on a date and try to get that date to ask you to marry him or her. That is what it's like for many shelter cats, says Dr. Kate Hurley, director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California-Davis.

The strange surroundings shelter cats live in do more than cause a bit of discomfort. According to Dr. Aki Tanaka, who mentored under Dr. Hurley, the stress incoming cats face also increases the likelihood that they will suffer from upper respiratory infection (URI). An estimated 4 million cats pass through U.S. shelters each year, and although URI is treatable, it is among the top reasons for euthanasia because it is highly contagious and it is costly to bring sick cats back to health.

Dr. Tanaka, who received the first-ever Amanda Feline Fellowship from Morris Animal Foundation, learned that some shelters spend 30 percent or more of their funds on managing cats affected by URI. The good news? Respiratory infections in shelter cats aren't inevitable.

"One shelter in Dr. Tanaka's study moved from standard cages to larger enclosures with two compartments and noticed a drop in the URI rate. We thought that was worth investigating," Dr. Hurley says.

So Dr. Hurley applied for a grant through the Foundation's Helping Shelters Help Cats program, which is made possible by an anonymous donor's pledge to match dollar for dollar all donations to the program up to $500,000. With her grant, Dr. Hurley designed cages that provide more space, and she is now studying their effects on URI transmission.

After one shelter swapped out their old intake housing for new, larger and more enriched compartmentalized housing that keeps the litterbox separate from the food, water and sleeping area, the URI rate dropped more than 50 percent.

"We can't say for sure that the cage change is causative, but it's a striking association," she says. "The cats are happier in their nice new condos, and staff time and shelter dollars are freed up to focus on healthy cats, adoptions and, most importantly, preventing unwanted cats from coming into the shelter in the first place."

Based on her results, Dr. Hurley is developing practical, cost-effective recommendations for shelter personnel.

"URI in cats is an indication that we're not doing a good enough job at controlling their stress," Dr. Hurley says. "Our hope is that we'll find something that not only helps cats stay healthy but also helps them get out of shelters alive."