Main Content

Enrichment Programs to Reduce Stress in Shelter Cats | Petfinder

By Jacque Lynn Schultz, CPDT (Certified Pet Dog Trainer)
She is currently the Companion Animal Programs Advisor for the ASPCA’s National Shelter Outreach department and the administrator of the ASPCA Greyhound Rescue Fund.


Spay/neuter programs are working. They are having a major impact on the number of animals relinquished to shelters in many regions of the country. Animal care and control facilities are finding they are able to keep cats and dogs available for adoption much longer than they did even five years ago. But while longer stays give animals a better chance at adoption, they also prolong the stress of life in the shelter. As territorial creatures of routine, this results in cat stress. Providing some of the comforts of home will improve their disposition no matter how short their stay. If the length of stay generally extends to more than two weeks, a feline enrichment program is not an option; it’s a necessity.

The following nine recommendations will show you how to reduce stress in cats and enrich their lives, so you can showcase them at their best:


  • Provide hide-outs that are dark and cozy or high off the ground. Stressed newcomers need a retreat from which they can assess their novel surroundings unobserved. Hide-outs can be as opulent as whimsical skywalks in colony housing or as simple as a paper bag in the back of a traditional cage. Avoid placing fearful cats in bottom cages as it increases their feelings of vulnerability. Utilize vertical space in colony housing by installing disinfectable multi-level climbing furniture.
  • Handle with care. Before quickly grabbing for a cat, spend a moment quietly talking to her. Offer a single finger to see if she will mark it with her facial pheromones. (Glands are located in the chin, whisker bed and above the outer corner of the eyes.) Once you smell like her she is more apt to relax and accept handling. Always disinfect your hands before touching another cat.
  • Ensure that the lighting in the cat kennels mimics natural day/night light cycles. Contrary to popular belief cats are not nocturnal. They are crepuscular creatures, most active at dusk and dawn. Too many hours of darkness or fluorescent lighting are harmful to their well-being.
  • Quiet please! Cats have more sensitive hearing than humans and can startle and aggressively strike out when under stress. Colony housing and cat wards should be quiet, well sound-proofed rooms that house only members of the feline persuasion. While most studies of music in kennels have focused on dogs, common sense leads one to conclude that classical music, light jazz, new age music, and even lullabies set to the rhythm of the human heart (Heartbeat Music Therapy) arc more relaxing for cats than rap, rock, and hip-hop.
  • Deliver meals on schedule. Cats thrive on routine. Serving meals at the same time each day is comforting to them. If possible, offer both canned and dry food until it is determined which food the cat favors. Some cats will fast to the point of starvation rather than eat unfamiliar food.
  • Install comfortable bedding to promote sweet dreams. In a home setting, cats seek out warm, upholstered surfaces for their many catnaps. Make sure every cat has something padded to lie on. Whether you use plush cat beds, volunteer-crocheted cage cozies, or shoe boxes lined with donated towels from the local health club, your cats will be snoozing in comfort.
  • Engage the cats in play. Young cats in particular need the chance to blow off steam, especially those held in small stainless steel cages. Grab a feather wand or other interactive toy and let these pint-sized predators stalk, pounce, and “kill” to their heart’s content. A tired cat is less likely to swat at potential adopters or engage in play aggression.
  • Soothe your shelter cats with a light touch. Cats will benefit from soft brushing, gentle stroking, or any of the recognized forms of cat massage such as Tellington Touch. Not only is daily touch therapeutic, but the handling can double as a mini-physical exam, revealing any new injuries, illnesses, or parasites.
  • Stimulate their minds. All alone in a sterile cage with nothing to do…why a cat could go crazy! Catnip, toys, mobiles, scratch pads, kitty videos, fish tanks, maybe a few well-placed birdfeeders outside the cat ward windows can occupy a shelter cat’s attention and make the facility a more scintillating place to be.


Why Bother?

Stress lowers immunity. When the cats in your facility are highly stressed, they are more susceptible to upper respiratory infections among other diseases. Both stress and illness can cause loss of appetite and weight loss is a sign of failure to thrive. Some cats engage in stereotypies – repeated behaviors that may be damaging to the animal such as over-grooming or, as in one case we had, self-nursing. Or, cats may become lethargic and give up grooming altogether. When overwhelmed, they seek out hiding places. In too many shelters, their only options are to “play ostrich” by hunkering down in their litter boxes. How desperate does one need to be to lay in one’s own feces and urine? And how appealing is that image to potential adopters?


Katenna Jones, animal behaviorist at American Humane, says:

“When I was the animal behaviorist at my previous shelter, I strongly encouraged my staff and volunteers to enrich the animals constantly. Initially, many felt it was too much work and money. Once we implemented it, we never had an outbreak of kennel cough or parvo, URI in the cat room was drastically reduced and we had no distemper at all. And in most cases, enrichment improves the animal’s overall disposition and behavior, thereby making the animal much more appealing to adopters. It absolutely works, and the staff enthusiastically jumped on board!”

Jones believes enrichment not only improves the health and increases the happiness of animals in shelters and foster care, but also holds incredible educational impact for the community.

“Enrichment is an ideal opportunity to foster service learning in an organization while addressing the needs of the shelter animals,” she states. “Such programs offer the possibility to increase volunteer retention, adoptions, and public support while decreasing staff turnover and euthanasia.”


The standard cat cage is a small metal box. While stainless steel cages are easy to clean and hold up well over years of use, they are cold, hard, and amplify ambient noises. Your cats need help! Enrichment animal shelter programs run the financial gamut from recycling items such as paper bags and shoeboxes to provide frightened cats a place to hide, to building a series of state-of-the-art colony rooms. No matter what your budget, there are improvements that can be implemented. Luckily, cats find many simple household items amusing. Plastic film canisters with a little litter inside are great to bat around as are plastic milk caps, a short chain of old shower curtain rings, or used pens with the ink cartridges removed. And all can be soaked in a bucket of bleach and water (Use a 1:32 ratio.) to disinfect them before passing them on to other cats. Fostering an older cat whose life has been turned upside down in someone’s office for a few hours each day will provide that animal a meaningful respite for no cost at all.


It Takes a Village

Even better strides can be made if you have a volunteer program or a “friends of animal control” group working with you. Extra unpaid hands are necessary for socialization and handling efforts. These programs are particularly important for gentling young feral kittens or those born to outdoors-only cats. Every cat can benefit from the relaxation brought on by a one-on-one massage or grooming session. Older kittens and adolescents will be easier to handle after they have had the chance to burn up some energy in inter-active play with a volunteer wielding a feather wand or kitty fishing pole.

Let the public know what your cats’ needs are. Know someone who wants to help but gets too emotional to enter your facility or needs to volunteer from home? She would make the perfect community contact volunteer. Her job would include: Contact scout troops, school classes, or after-school programs to make catnip toys, so each adopted cat can go home with his own toy. Solicit local hotels and health clubs for donations of old towels and blankets for bedding or coverings for the cages of fearful newcomers. Call recreational directors of local nursing homes or adult day care programs to inquire if their clients would be interested in sewing cage comforters or knitting cat blankets. Ask local church groups to collect the scrap fabric and yarn necessary to sustain the program. Post a wish list on your website that includes plastic step stools, salad bowls, or stainless steel cage shelves so the cats have a resting area off of the cage floor.

If you are in the throes of planning a new shelter, consider adding colony housing for longer-term healthy adoptable cats. When adopters see cats in a more natural, relaxed setting, they have an easier time visualizing them in their homes. The ASPCA’s cat adoptions increased more than 33% after we opened their Urban Cat Habitat. (Contact the ASPCA at for more information on colony housing. Remember to include your mailing address if you want hard copies sent.)


Shelter Cat Enrichment Video:


Enrichment for cats has two main parts – a physical part to exercise their bodies, and a mental part to exercise their brains. Both are equally important for a well-rounded and healthy cat population in shelters.


The pluses of enrichment programs are many. The cats stay healthier, are more relaxed and easier to handle and, thus, are more adoptable. But the benefits aren’t just for the cats. Enrichment programs improve staff morale. Your community partners will also note your efforts resulting in improved word-of-mouth. This leads to increased public confidence in your staff and facility. Instituting a feline enrichment program is a win-win situation; what have you got to lose?



Pieces of this article are from the Summer 2010 issue of Protecting Animals, American Humane’s quarterly journal for animal welfare professionals. Used by permission. To learn more, visit

Share this Article

Recently Viewed Pets