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A Tale of Two Shelters

(aka, a real life story from study D08FE-057, “Environmental and Group Health Risk Factors for Feline Respiratory Disease in Animal Shelters”)

Feline upper respiratory infection (URI) is more than just a kitty cold. It’s a painful condition that can make cats feel sick for days or weeks, causes painful ulcers on the eyes and tongue and leaves some cats with lifelong aftereffects. And, because it spreads easily and is costly to treat, it’s one of the most common causes of euthanasia for shelter cats in the United States. Even when shelters have the means to treat URI, that treatment can drain precious resources that are desperately needed for other lifesaving programs.

In light of such devastating implications, determined researchers Dr. Kate Hurley and Dr. Denae Wagner at the University of California–Davis, set out, with Morris Animal Foundation funding, to identify the factors that cause this frustrating disease. By analyzing data from two of the shelters involved in the overall study, Dr. Hurley and her team discovered some seemingly unexpected factors, such as housing, that lead to shelter-related URI. They also learned that the costs for treatment could be significant. In Shelter A, URI was identified in more than 1 in 4 cats and was eating up more than one-third of the shelter’s total feline care expenses. Shelter B reported fewer than 1 in 40 cats with URI and, as a result, spent less than 1 percent of its overall resources on feline URI–related cases. Aside from the obvious connection between the disease and a potentially damaging allocation of resources, the researchers also noticed an environmental difference between the shelters that could account for the differences in disease levels.

These findings led the researchers to suspect that housing plays a big role in determining the risk of feline URI. Specifically, the housing that cats encounter during their very first week in the shelter seems to make a substantial difference in whether they develop URI. Although both shelters were well managed and provided nice housing for adoptable cats, Shelter B had notably more accommodating housing for cats in their initial holding period. The major difference was in the level of privacy and space afforded to the cats. Shelter B provided a significantly larger area for the cats to hide and stretch out, room for the cage to be cleaned out without removing the cat (a major stress factor) and a litter area separate from the other area. These housing factors seemed to play a major role in the cat’s stress level, which was a major finding given that there is strong evidence that a cat’s stress level can directly influence its health, including its risk of developing URI.

After discussing these seemingly simple differences, the leadership at Shelter A decided to initiate changes in their housing that were similar to those at Shelter B. Shelter A purchased a new modular building at modest cost and stocked it with compartmentalized kitty condos that, while not as big as the ones at Shelter B, met the researchers’ minimum recommendations. That’s where the magic happened.

From the summer before the housing change to the summer after, there was a nearly 30 percent decrease in the amount of time shelter personnel spent caring for sick cats. That translated to more than 1,000 fewer days of URI-related care, thus saving thousands of dollars and preventing painful, miserable infections. The researchers received this email from the shelter staff, along with a photo of Shelter A’s nearly empty URI treatment ward:

To: Kate Hurley
Subject: Feline Sickbay
Never in my wildest dreams would I have believed I’d see the day with ONE cat in feline sickbay!!! Today is that day!

Although it did take an initial investment to accomplish the changes at Shelter A, over time it seems likely that they will be far repaid in decreased costs for sick cat care. And Dr. Hurley points out, “The cats will surely be happier for it.”

For decades, feline URI has been a source of frustration for shelter veterinarians and a source of suffering for shelter cats. It’s encouraging that such a seemingly ubiquitous illness can not only be conquered but also doesn’t require a fortune to do so. Since this study’s completion, another Morris Animal Foundation–funded study (“Comparison of Two Cage Types: Effect on Shelter Cat Stress, Upper Respiratory Disease and Adoption”) has made even further advances in determining the best ways to house shelter cats.

Related Links

When the Common Cold Becomes Deadly
Study Shows 1 Percent Reduction of URI in Shelter Cats Could Save $3 Million, Countless Cats
Strange Surroundings Boost Stress in Animals

Categories: Cat diseases, Cat health
November 11, 2011