2018-08-15 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Can the amount of space shelter cats have in their cages determine the likelihood of whether or not they contract an upper respiratory infection (URI)? A recent study says “YES.”

An estimated 3.2 million cats enter U.S. shelters each year. For lots of reasons, including blank slate medical histories, overcrowding and varying sanitation protocols, these cats are considered to be at increased risk for contracting various illnesses.

Feline URI is one of the most commonly reported types of illness, with incidence rates as high as 30%. Because it spreads quickly among cats, URI is believed to be a common reason for feline euthanasia in shelters. When young kittens are treated in isolation, they often lose their short-lived “tiny kitten window of adoption opportunity” because they have grown bigger before being healthy enough to be spay/neutered and put back on the showing floor.

A double compartment cat cage. Notice the round opening which allows the cat to go from side to side. A double compartment cat cage. Notice the round opening which allows the cat to go from side to side. Understanding that URI could be linked to stress, and that shelter animals are prone to increased levels of stress, researchers from the University of California, Davis conducted a study to assess whether modifications could be made in animal shelters that would impact URI rates. Based on their findings, which were published in PLOS One Jan. 2, 2018, the authors determined that although introduction of germs and viruses into shelter populations may be inevitable, disease resulting from those pathogens is not.

Feline upper respiratory infection in shelter cats can be dramatically decreased by doubling cage sizes and providing cats with two compartments, reported Morris Animal Foundation-funded research at the University of California, Davis.

“Shelters can take immediate practical action based on the results of this study,” said Dr. Kelly Diehl, Senior Scientific Programs and Communications Adviser at Morris Animal Foundation. “These changes can improve cats’ well-being and ultimately save lives, important goals for both shelters and Morris Animal Foundation.”

Feline URI resembles the common cold in humans, with symptoms such as sneezing, nasal congestion and discharge from the eyes. In cats, the disease commonly is caused by feline herpes virus Type-1 or feline calicivirus and often emerges during times of stress. Studies have shown that a substantial number of cats develop URIs within their first two weeks of coming to a shelter. Many shelters invest as much as a third of their resources for cat care dealing with this one disease.

To better understand and combat the problem, the UC Davis team worked with over 18,000 cats at nine animal shelters around North America. Shelter staff recorded data daily about their feline populations, such as how many of their cats had a URI and how long those cats had been at the shelter. Staff also filled out surveys, which included questions about cage size, hide boxes, disinfection practices and vaccinations.

The UC Davis team discovered that to minimize stress and cases of URI, cats needed about eight square feet of floor space in their cages, rather than the common average of four square feet. Cats also were less likely to get sick at shelters with double-compartment cages that allowed each cat to remain comfortably on one side of the cage while the other side was cleaned. This type of cage also allowed separation of the litter box from food, water and bed, which may have further lowered stress.

Cats that were moved between cages less than two times in the first week of arrival were also less likely to contract URI compared with cats that experienced more frequent movement. The authors attributed this to stress levels associated with frequent changes in housing. Cats are creatures of habit. They do not like change.

Dr. Hurley and her team are using the information from this study to assist interested shelters in making adequate changes to their cage configurations for cats. Although there is an initial cost associated with remodeling existing cages, Dr. Hurley explained that in the long-term, the animal shelters would likely end up saving a significant money on providing medical care for sick cats, especially when we remember one third of resources allotted for shelter cat care is presently being used to treat URI infections. In addition, URIs left untreated too long can cause permanent damage to kittens’ eyes. Some are left with corneal scarring, while more severe cases may require the diseased eye to be enucleated (removed). Few public shelters have the resources to do these surgeries, so kittens with advanced eye infections are often put down.

“Our study demonstrated that a disease we thought was almost inevitable in shelters is absolutely preventable, and prevention could be as simple as just giving the cat enough space,” said Dr. Kate Hurley, director of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program. “The benefits go far beyond just preventing URI. By making these changes, shelters can make cats happier, lower staff stress by making their jobs easier, and increase adoptions and shelter success in saving lives.”

Kittens for Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (631-643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: All the shelter’s cats and kittens are Felv/FIV negative, current on vaccinations and parasite prevention, altered and micro-chipped. “Dixi” the tabby 8-186 arrived during May when she was about five weeks old. She is very affectionate and plays with enthusiasm. “Cher” 8-326 a tiny tuxedo came into the shelter at the end of July. Yes, she has a sibling named “Sonny.”

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