November 18, 2019 – Dr. Kelly Diehl talks with Dr. Judi Stella, Research Associate at The Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine, and a Morris Animal Foundation-funded researcher. The two discuss cat welfare and her research to find strategies shelter managers and private practice veterinarians can use to reduce stress for cats.
00:18 Kelly Diehl: Welcome to Fresh Scoop Episode 14. What cats want which is like what women or men want. I'm your host, Dr. Kelly Diehl, Morris Animal Foundation, Senior Director of Science and Communication, and today we're going to be talking with Dr. Judi Stella, a Morris Animal Foundation funded researcher, and we hope you're learning some things with our episodes. For those of you who may be new, this is the monthly podcast of Morris Animal Foundation, one of the largest non-profit foundations in the world dedicated to funding studies to find solutions to serious health threats to animals. Founded in 1948 by Dr. Mark Morris Sr., a veterinarian, we've invested more than $126 Million in more than 2700 studies that have improved and protected the health of companion animals like cats, dogs and horses as well as wildlife. In each episode we feature one of the researchers we find or one of our staff members discussing their work in advancing animal health whether you're a practicing veterinarian, technician or student or just an animal-loving science geek, Fresh Scoop is the podcast for you. You can learn more about us at morrisanimalfoundation.org.
01:30 KD: Okay, onto today's show, and today we're going to welcome Dr. Judi Stella, research associate at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine. She earned her bachelor's degree in Animal Science from the Pennsylvania State University, my alma mater as well for my undergrad, so we'll do some Nittany Lion bonding here shortly. And she earned her PhD in Comparative and Veterinary Medicine with an emphasis on Applied Ethology and Animal Welfare Science from the Ohio State University, College of Veterinary Medicine. Judi was a USDA FAS Science Fellow with the Center for Animal Welfare from 2015 to 2019, and her research interest include environmental factors that affect the behavior and welfare of confined animals and the impact of the quality of human animal interactions on animal welfare. And her research is focused on assessing the behavior and welfare of domestic cats and dogs housed in biomedical laboratory shelters, veterinary hospitals, and commercial breeding facilities. And as I mentioned before, Judi is a Foundation-funded researcher and her Morris Animal Foundation Grant was focused on ways to minimize stress and shelter cats but has informed practices actually beyond cats and shelter. So Judi, thanks so much for joining us today.
02:47 Judi Stella: Thank you for having me.
02:48 KD: So before we get into work, obviously I've mentioned that you are Nittany Lion but could you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your background and how you got interested in animal welfare research?
03:02 JS: Sure. Before we start, I would like to take a minute to remember a colleague of ours who we recently lost Dr. Linda Lord, she was instrumental in obtaining the grant from Morris that funded my page that did studies in this area, and she encouraged me to go to graduate school and taught me a lot in her role as one of my advisors, and I just wanted to acknowledge her input on the studies that we're going to be discussing today and that she will be missed.
03:27 KD: Oh, for sure, so thanks for reminding everyone about that. She was a great person.
03:33 JS: Yes. Okay, so yes, I went to school, I did my undergraduate studies at Penn State like you said and I did a Bachelor's Degree in Animal Science, and when I finished, I didn't really know what I wanted to do too much, I just knew I wanted to work with animals, so I moved to Florida and I went to Zoo school down there and then I went to Arizona and worked out there for a little bit, and finally I wound up in Columbus, Ohio working as a vet tech in a busy multi-doctor small animal practice. And after I was there for a few years, I really was looking for a new challenge, and I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Tony Buffington who hired me as a research assistant, and I worked in his lab at Ohio State where we studied feline idiopathic cystitis. And so, some of the early behavior research that I was involved with there became the preliminary data that we used for the grant proposal to Morris that ultimately funded my PhD project. So it took me a while to get there, but I finally did find my calling.
04:33 KD: Hopefully, a lot of our listeners will recognize all the things that Tony's done over the years with nutrition as well as idiopathic cystitis. So, you worked with Tony, was that where you decided to focus on cats specifically for the grant that we funded or was it really all animals, do you have a... Are you a cat person or a dog person, or both?
05:00 JS: Yes, I am a cat person. I've done a lot of work with dogs as well recently as part of my USDA fellowship, but I would call myself, I consider myself a cat person, I've always had cats, my parents had cats before I was born, and I don't think I've ever lived without a cat, and I find them to be really fascinating animals. They're really, they have, but they're also very misunderstood. So I think that even the best intentions, caretakers often miss things and in the environment that, and we need to do better by them. They're really interesting, of all the domesticated species, that we typically come in contact with. They have several unique characteristics, one of them is that they're not as social as other species, they do exhibit quite a bit of social plasticity but they are more independent and less gregarious than say, dogs or many of our livestock species.
05:53 JS: So even though they can live in groups, they've evolved from and still are solitary hunters and so they tend to spend if given the option tend to spend quite a bit of their day on their own. Another unique characteristic is that they're both predators and prey, so they're quite proficient opportunistic hunters of any kind of small animals, anything from rodents to insects to birds, but they're also preyed upon by larger carnivores specifically larger canids and primates, and they live in homes with dogs and humans.
06:25 JS: So these can be potentially threatening for them. And as a species, they may not be considered to be fully-domesticated. They don't meet all the requirements for domestication, such as human control of their breeding, 97% roughly of cats are self-bred. And that's very different than our dog population. We don't really control their territory. Most parts of the world, cats are free-roaming and define their own territories. And until recently, we haven't had the ability to provide adequate nutrition because they are obligate carnivores, which again is different than many of our other species. So this natural history is really important because it impacts how they respond to their environments, whether they're confined to a cage or in a home. And so I find them to be quite fascinating, and I'm lucky I've had the opportunity to do some research with them.
07:16 KD: Yeah, I think there was a lot of buzz around that article that you alluded to that cats are wild. It was all over the press, that they're not really domesticated. So that's a really interesting perspective. I never thought about the dog-human thing. I guess, that is a little freak-ish to a lot of cats. But we've sort of integrated them into our lives. And I think you gave us an overview of some of the issues with when we integrate cats into these situations that are really quite unnatural as you said. And how significant are those issues? And are there other issues as we bring cats into households or we can put them in a shelter, or we've got a rescue. What other issues will you think about when you put cats in those situations?
08:10 JS: Well, in the United States alone, there's... The latest estimate suggests that there's about 94 million cats that live in homes, but over 3 million cats enter shelters each year. And of those, about half are euthanized, that we just don't find homes for them. And there's anywhere from 30-90 million free-roaming cats in the United States and those estimates vary because they're really hard to count. So all of this suggests that these cats are migrating in and out of these populations and that this may be due to a breakdown in a human-cat bond. So if we don't understand how they are and we aren't providing the opportunities for them to engage in species typical behaviors, we're going to get behavior problems, which is one of the main reasons for euthanasia by veterinarians as well as relinquishment to shelters. So it's really important for us to understand how their home environment is impacting them, and then when they go into a shelter, how that confinement experience is also impacting their behavior and welfare. So we need to understand how to optimize the environments so that we get better outcomes. And many of the behaviors that they exhibit in shelters are things like not eating or eliminating out of their litter pans, showing fear or possibly fear aggression.
09:27 JS: And those would all be reasons for euthanasia, but what we found is that those are pretty typical normal behaviors that cats exhibit in response to stressful environments. And that was one of the things that we found when I was working with Dr. Buffington and his cats.
09:44 KD: Right. And that brings us... That's a beautiful segue to your research. So, can you start by describing to everyone who's listening, sort of the overview, the basics of your grant proposal?
09:56 JS: Yeah, so again, we think that we just presumed that entering a shelter is likely to be quite frightening for cats. It's a frightening experience and probably results in a stress response and many of these behaviors that are not wanted by people. They're not going to adopt a cat that's fearful or not using the litter box. And in addition, the stress response system can also... It impacts the immune system and causes them to be more likely to or be at greater risk for illnesses and diseases and, again, makes them less likely to be placed in a home. So our overall goal for this project was to improve the outcomes for shelter cats by reducing the number of days to adoption, the number of sick cats and the number of days that the cats were sick. And we thought that if we optimize that environment, reducing the perception of threat to the cat's experience, that they would feel safer and tend to have better outcomes, based on their behavior and illness. So that was what, the aim of the project was to scientifically evaluate different aspects of the environment, when the cats were singly housed and confined to a cage, to see if we could optimize it and they'd be able to cope with that environment better.
11:08 KD: Alright, and so can you talk a little bit about your technique you used in your study and describe them a little bit for us?
11:16 JS: Yeah, so we started out... We envisioned this being more like an epidemiologic study and that we would study cats in shelters. So what we found out was that it was just really difficult to do. Different shelters have different protocols, different environments, different sized cages. And so it was really hard to kind of parse out what was going on. So what we did was we designed a mock shelter. So what we did was design a housing environment that aimed to mimic the experience that a cat would have when they were admitted to a shelter or even to a veterinary hospital. And so we recruited cats from the faculty, staff and students at Ohio State University. We asked them if we could just house their cats in the vivarium for 48 hours, and we were just going to observe their behavior. What do they do when you put them in this environment for 48 hours? And then we could modify the environment. We could play around with it and sort of ask the cats, "What is the most important aspect of the environment to them?" So we had these two different types of housing rooms. They were either a managed room where it was just a nice quiet room with a very predictable schedule, no loud noises or unpredictable events happening.
12:30 JS: And then we had an unmanaged room, housing room, where the cats experienced things like recordings of barking dogs. We'd play recordings of barking dogs intermittently throughout the day, or we'd play loud music, have people come in and have loud conversations, typical things that would happen in a housing environment, in a shelter or veterinary hospital.
12:51 JS: And then we just observe the test for 48 hours. And I forgot to say that... And then they also in these two room environments, we were either in an enriched-cage or un-enriched cage. So the enriched cage had hiding and perching opportunities and was consistently set up, whereas the un-enriched cage did not have hiding and perching opportunities. And so we just monitored the cats for 48 hours. So that was the first... That was study one. The second study that we did to follow up on that was, we did the exact same thing with new cats, cats that had not experienced the environment and with a larger cage size. So we just doubled the amount of space, assuming that if you give them more space, they're likely to have better outcomes. And then following that as part of my post-doc we put all of the cats in what we had found was the preferred environment and then looked to see if you could find individual differences on how cats responded to that environment. So we were looking at coping styles in the cats.
13:52 KD: And what were your results and did anything surprise you when you analyzed your findings?
14:00 JS: Yeah, so we found... So the one thing that we found that I thought was surprising, which I didn't think; most of the literature to date had suggested that an enriched cage and or providing more space was going to be... The cats were going to have better outcomes. And what we found is if you prioritize it, it looks like the housing room is the most important factor. So if you could house cats in a small cage that was un-enriched, if you manage the room environment so there was less noise and less disturbances, they tended to adapt more quickly. And by that I mean they started eating more, urinating and defecating in their litter box normally, and showing affiliative and maintenance behaviors. So coming to the front of the cage and interacting with me as their caretaker or just resting comfortably. Whereas the cats in the unmanaged room environment where there was lots of noise and disturbances from barking dogs, even if you gave them a hiding box, they spent most of their time in the hiding box, but it took them a really long time, almost the whole 48 hours, to get to the point where they were showing any of these positive affiliative behaviors in eating. And some of them never did.
15:12 JS: So it seems like the room environment is at least as important to the cats as the cage environment. And it's something that we don't tend to attend to as much as providing hiding boxes and things like that. And it's a really easy cost-effective thing that you can do, intervention, in anywhere, in a shelter, or veterinary hospital or anywhere that you're housing cats. So that was good. And it didn't look like at least, acutely, that the cats did better when they were provided more space. I think that we don't really know what a minimum space requirement is. And if you can give them more space, you probably should. But you have limited resources, it's probably better to put your time and energy into training your staff and having a quiet room with very predictable caretaking schedule than trying to figure out how to get bigger cages.
16:07 KD: That's really, really interesting. And I think you're right. It's something that's pretty practical for a lot of us who’ve had veterinary clinics. So I wanted to ask you about one of your papers. You know which one. I think I could talk about. And it had to do with as you were recruiting these cats, you actually asked people and these were vet students and staff at the university about the home environment of these cats. And it was really interesting. I will say that I was humbled by your data as a person who's had cats her entire life. And what you found, and where I was doing things wrong. And so, can you talk about that paper and what you found in people who are supposed to be really knowledgeable about cats?
16:58 JS: Yeah, so this was... We had 138 cat and guardian dyads that we asked these questions. And we had this long questionnaire about different management resources. If they were indoor, what they fed them, how much food, where the litter boxes were, all types of things. And what we found was that only on the good side, on the upside, we found about 74% of the owners housed their cats indoors only, which is great because that's what the veterinarians recommend, ABMA recommends. It protects wildlife, keeps the cats from getting hit by a car and minimizes the risk of infectious disease. So that's good. But if you're going to keep them inside, then we need to provide a really enriched home environment for them. And what we found was that even just basic things that we recommend, like making sure that resources such as food, bowls, litter boxes, resting areas are in an area that the cat is unlikely to be disturbed in. So if they want to... Remember, they're solitary. They like to spend some time by themselves. So if they choose to go away and get out of the middle of the living room with the dogs and the kids playing, they need to have a resting area where they can't be disturbed.
18:16 JS: And what we found was that 31% of cats had a resting area that was located in an area where they would be disturbed. 53% of feeding areas were in an area where the cat could be disturbed. And 30% of their litter boxes of their eliminating areas were where they could be disturbed. So that's like a third to a half of the three primary resources that are in areas where they're likely to be disturbed again increases their perception of threat. We also found that just basic litter box care because eliminating out of the litter box is a big thing with cats. It's a behavior problem. It's pretty common. 35% of these cats are not provided with a litter box in a private area. 51% did not have a litter pan in multiple areas of the house which is recommended. And 73% of the owners did not routinely clean the litter pan. So if cats are having are not using their litter boxes, is it because they have a behavior problem or is it because it's just not to their liking?
19:23 JS: And then 38% didn't have other things. They didn't have horizontal scratching opportunities. That's another species-typical behavior they're highly motivated to engage in. They're going to scratch on something. And if you're not providing it for them, they're going to scratch on your furniture. And 51% didn't have... Or no, 32% didn't have any kind of toys to play with. So all of this is likely to negatively impact their health and behavior. The environment's just not optimized in order for them to do well. And we don't know how much of this has to... How much of this is reflected in ending up at behavior specialty services or being euthanized or ending up in shelters.
20:07 KD: Right. Well, I found that paper really interesting because I think, again, the shocking part, well, maybe not shocking, was that you're selecting from people who in theory should have access to this information and me being as guilty as anybody else. And I think you also pointed out in your paper, I think we think sometimes for some providing things for kittens. And it was clear, like "No adult cats should have toys." And these different... And not being disturbed was one that I think a lot of us are guilty of. We often have cat trees and things right in the family room, right? And...
20:49 JS: Yeah.
20:49 KD: [chuckle] So they're, "Oh, look at the cat tree." So anyway, they're right out there. And I think it really drove home for me as a cat owner to have more personal space, really put some of these things in an out-of-way area as you mentioned, where my kids aren't going to trip over them or pull... You know what I mean, interrupt them... Or the dog is not going to come in on them. And so I think it's a really great, it's a really cool paper. So we talked about what you found, and I was just wondering how are people using your findings? Have you consulted with people? You obviously did this at a university. Did they incorporate any of the findings when you talked about this or where is that kind of stand? Are you out talking about this to people?
21:40 JS: Well, I mean, I've gone to lessons, conferences and things. And I'm trying to get the word out and trying to make it easy because I think that there are really easy things that we can do. When you look at it all encompassing, it seems to be overwhelming when you're running a shelter like, "I can't do any of this. What are we going to do?" And I think this is really easy things that you can recommend. A quiet room. I feel like that's really easy, that all of us could do that, no matter where we're housing our cats. Make the room be quiet. Put signs on the door, "This is a cat area, voices down." It also, it's a way to start educating the public. If you're going to adopt a cat, it's going to need this in a home as well, right? That too, they should have a refuge or an area that they can get away where it is quiet and they're undisturbed. I think another thing that is extremely important for cats is providing hiding and perching opportunities. Even in a veterinary hospital, even if the cat is on IV fluid you can cover the front of the cage, so that effectively the entire cage becomes a hiding box for them.
22:48 JS: There are ways that we can do this, no matter where they are. It's a really... Again, highly motivated thing. Remember that when they're in these facilities, they're probably feeling like prey more than predators, being surrounded by barking dogs and strange people. So we need to make sure that they can sort of hide and get away, and that will help them cope. And I do think that some of this is being incorporated. I know that at Ohio State, they developed a cat ward, they never had it. Each service pretty much housed cats and dogs together. So they do now have a dedicated space that is just for cats that are in the hospitals short-term, long-term. They have a dedicated space for them. And they did... There are hiding areas. There are posters on the wall to teach the students how to set the cage up. Another easy thing we can do is put the litter box in the front part of the cage. We tend to put litter boxes in the back half of the cage. But if you ever walk through a cat housing area, the cats are always in the back half of the cage.
23:51 JS: So we need to put the resources that they're using most or that they're most motivated to use in the back half of the cage and put things like a litter box in the front where they aren't spending their time. People are playing music, cat-specific music that sort of has a calming effect on them. Yeah, so I do think things are getting done. You can dim the lights in the housing room. They can see in really dim light, so bright light is kind of harsh for them. So yeah, I think that some of those things are being incorporated. I find that more often when I go to shelters and veterinary hospitals, more often I see cat-dedicated housing, quieter rooms, hiding boxes provided. So, the word's getting out.
24:35 KD: Good. You alluded to some success stories. Have you had anybody personally say something to you after listening to you and said "Hey, we implemented this in our shelter or veterinary hospital."
24:51 JS: So one of the shelters that I worked with when I was... During my graduate program here in Columbus, they did some things. They did, they went out and repainted the cat housing room so that they were this nice greenish-blue color that was supposedly calming. And they did provide everybody with boxes, and they seemed to think that it made a difference. And they didn't have a decrease in adoption rate due to the cats being in hiding boxes. And that's been shown before. If you give them a hiding box and they can retreat when they're fearful, they tend to actually spend more time interacting with people because they feel more comfortable. So that was good.
25:30 KD: That's a really great... Actually, that's really interesting to say that because I think that would be maybe a stumbling block for some people, like a shelter where you're trying to get a cat adopted and people come in and there's the box and there's the cat and there's somewhere. But the fact that just giving them a box doesn't mean they're more reclusive then is actually a really interesting observation, I think, and a powerful argument for people not to worry about doing that, right? That somehow that's going to be negative. So that's really, really cool. So you alluded to something. So, as veterinarians, what can we be doing in our clinics to help hospitalized cats. And I think you said it maybe obviously dedicated cat ward, which I think more people are doing and trying to do some sound proofing. The color is cool. Is that scientific that... I think we think of greens and blues for people being often very soothing. But was there any research into that or people just said, "I tried it and it seemed to work," or...
26:34 JS: Yeah, it was just that they tried it and they thought it works. So it might just be that it calms them. I don't really know, but I'm sure it doesn't. I don't know that there's any science in that although the cat-specific music, there is science behind that. And people... There is a psychologist. I believe, he is at the University of Maryland, who has actually looked at species-specific music and developed music that the individual species like. So dog music is different than cat music, and you can buy that. And that has been shown to be effective. So that's something that you can just play in wards. It sort of masks a little bit of the noise outside of the doors as well. Just be careful that you don't play it too loud because then it just becomes noise. So you don't want to drown it out. We recommend about 60 decibels, and you can get little monitors that you can hang on the wall and set it so that it'll do regular green kind of thing. And when you're in the green zone, you're going to be at less than 60 decibels whereas yellow you're getting a little loud. Red, you're over that.
27:39 JS: And we say 60 decibels just because that's pretty much nature. That's what the savannah is about 60 background noise is about 60,70 decibels. Yeah, I think for veterinary hospitals, I think, start with the lobby and move your way in. You should even start before that. Start talking to owners about training their cats to lie, to be in crates, to be comfortable in a crate. If you need to, I think that it's okay to give them some sort of medication to help them beforehand. Feliway is great. So, Feliway on blankets. Cover the carriers. Have space in the lobby that's cat specific. Have cat exam rooms, dedicated exams rooms for cats, use low stress handling. Like I said, Feliway plugins everywhere. And then for hospitalized cats, nice quiet room. If they can have a consistent caretaker. So, one technician that does most of the treatments, one caretaker. Cats, they respond pretty quickly to having one person within 24-48 hours. If you're the caretaker, they start to recognize you and respond to that. And I think that that decreases stress a little bit. Yeah, and then I think providing hiding opportunities is really important. The litter box, putting the litter box in the front half of the cage, which seems counter-intuitive and most people don't do that, as well as just maintaining that litter box. So clean it at least twice a day, when they're in a small cage if not more often.
29:18 JS: And then the only other thing I can say for hospitalized cats or even cats that have to be boarded somewhere for whatever reason, if you can get the owners to provide their regular food and litter, that also helps them cope a little bit.
29:33 KD: So looking ahead at future research, and maybe you can talk about what you're doing now. What questions do you feel need to be answered next? What are you looking to do next with looking into specifically cat welfare?
29:49 JS: Well, I'm really interested in looking at group housing versus single housing. And again, going back to the natural history of the cat, they tend to be more solitary than, say, dogs. And we often will group house cats whether it's group housing in a laboratory environment. So in a vivarium where we're doing research on them, or if it's in a shelter, there's a lot of group housing and there's good reasons for that, but those groups are not natural groups for cats. So I think it's important to see if... Look for evidence. There is some evidence that group housed cats tend to establish micro territories both within a home as well as in even feral, free-roaming cats, they'll establish micro territories, and/or they will time share resources, so like feeding sites. So it's probably really important how we place resources, litter pans and feeding areas within group housing rooms. And other factors that we need to look into more, the composition and consistency of the groups. Unstable groups are probably going to be a lot more stressful. The size of the group. I would say we should keep groups relatively small, like three to five cats and not have giant groups of eight to 10.
31:09 JS: The density. How much space allocation each cat has and as well as the complexity of the environment. I do not think any of this is well-understood, and it really warrants a lot more investigation. I think that that's the next area I'd really like to focus on. And then the other thing that I'm doing right now is looking at ways that we can actually do welfare assessments of free-roaming cats, specifically colony cats. So if we have somebody that's feeding the cats every day and maintaining that colony, how do we monitor their well-being when they're just outside free-roaming cats. So just coming up with easy-to-use metrics that incorporate behavior as well as physical health to see if we can make sure that they're doing okay and intervene sooner rather than later.
32:00 KD: Right. Well, that sounds really great, Judi. And I know we will be looking forward to reading more about your research and improving the health of cats. So again, thanks so much for joining us today and telling us about this issue. It was awesome, talking to you.
32:17 JS: You are very welcome.
32:18 KD: So thanks again. So that does it for this episode of Fresh Scoop. And once again, many thanks to Dr. Judi Stella for joining us, and we'll be back with another episode next month that we hope you'll find just as informative. We know that the science of animal health is ever changing and veterinarians need cutting-edge research information to give their patients the best possible care. And that's why we're here. So you can find us on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts and Stitcher. And to learn more about Morris Animal Foundation's work, again, go to morrisanimalfoundation.org. There, you'll see just how we bridge science and resources to advance the health of animals. And you can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I'm Dr. Kelly Diehl, and we'll talk soon.