As a welfare scientist, there is nothing nicer than seeing the results of your research being used in the ‘real world’. Quite a while ago, I did some research with students Kristen Kry and Kim Hawkins investigating the value of giving cats somewhere to hide when they first came into a re-homing centre. The rationale behind this research was quite simple: when cats are worried, their preferred ‘strategy’ is to get away. And if you’re a cat, getting away means running away, climbing upwards or hiding inside something.
In a shelter environment it is clearly impractical to allow a cat to either run away or climb high. But it is feasible to give them somewhere to hide. Some shelters were already giving particularly nervous cats a hiding place, but it was not a universally accepted practice. In fact, there was some controversy as to whether enabling hiding in cats might have a negative impact. For example, it was possible that cats which were hiding would not be as easily seen by potential adopters – and as a result would remain in the centres longer before being re-homed.
We were therefore interested in seeing exactly what effect giving ‘hiding enrichment’ would have for all cats coming into a re-homing centre, and to measure whether cats allowed to hide took longer to re-home. Our studies used both plain cardboard boxes with one side cut away, and the very nicely designed ‘Hide and Perch’ box from the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BCSPCA) in Canada – which has since been developed further into the ‘Hide Perch & GoTM box’1 to incorporate a cat carrier for use when cats are re-homed. Which is a neat idea, as the cat goes home in something that smells familiar.
Our studies compared cats provided with boxes and those without, over the first 14 days after they came into the centres. Cats vary a lot in how they first react on arrival, but we know from previous studies that on average most stress measures decline over the first week or two as they adapt to the new environment (something I’ll come back to in a later blog). So, we were interested in how the cats with and without boxes differed in this rate of decline – in other words whether the boxes helped them adapt to their new surroundings.
The studies used a behavioural measure of stress which has been used quite widely in cat welfare research. Originally developed by Sandra McCune2, it is a scale derived by combining together different individual behaviours into an overall numerical ‘cat stress score’ (CSS). The measure has been developed a few times over the years – for example by the Swiss researchers Kessler and Turner3, and then further in our group at the start of Kim’s PhD4 – if you’re interested there is a full description of the revised scale in a recent textbook5.
Our studies revealed that providing cats with boxes did lead to a significant decline in CSS over the first 14 days. Cats with boxes were also more likely to approach a person standing outside the pen door, and importantly there was no difference in how long the two groups were in the centre before being re-homed6. We also found that if boxes were removed from cats once they had them, they showed significantly more behavioural signs of stress, further confirming the importance of having a hiding place for cat welfare4.
With all these interesting findings about the importance of hiding enrichment for shelter cats, I was delighted to hear that the fantastic veterinary team at Cats Protection were developing a hiding enrichment system for use within the charity7 based on our research (the Feline Fort®).
The Feline Fort® has multiple elements – steps as well as hiding boxes, and is designed to enable cats to both climb and hide. This will have such an important impact on cats in re-homing centres. But also anywhere that cats feel stressed – such as veterinary practices8. As the picture sent to me by CP’s behaviour manager Nicky Trevorrow below shows – it’s not just useful for cats!
- McCune, S. (1992). Temperament and welfare of caged cats. PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, UK.
- Kessler, M.R. and Turner, C.D. (1988). Effects of density and cage size on stress in domestic cats (Felis Silvestris Catus) housed in animal shelters and boarding catteries. Animal Welfare, 8, 259-267.
- Hawkins, K.R. (2005). Stress, enrichment and the welfare of domestic cats in rescue shelters. PhD Thesis, University of Bristol, UK.
- Bradshaw, J.W.S., Casey, R.A. and Brown, S.L. (2012). The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat. 2nd edition. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. Pp. 179-181.
- Kry, K. and Casey, R.A. (2007). The effect of hiding enrichment on stress levels and behaviour of domestic cats (Felis sylvestris catus) in a shelter setting and the implications for adoption potential. Animal Welfare, 16, 375-383.