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Colony Housing for Shelter Cats

ASPCA, National Shelter Outreach

Colony Housing for Shelter Cats


Colony housing for cats can provide a positive alternative to individual cat cages. Cats can roam free in a home like environment, have the opportunity for greater activity such as climbing, perching and window viewing as well as social interaction. However, disease control and fighting in cat colony housing pose special challenges.


Cats in nature usually are loners or members of small groups. As such, no complex dominance hierarchy exists. Usually one male is top cat, one or two other cats are the “pariahs” at the bottom of the totem pole and any other cats are equal in their positions. Crowding increases the rigidity of the group and a more distinct hierarchy occurs. Extreme crowding in an enclosed area leads to each cat huddling in one spot. In multi-cat cages at animal shelters hierarchies do develop. The cats which make the most adoptable pets are those “in-betweens,” because most top cats are extremely aggressive and the pariahs often fear their own shadows.


Cats living in colony housing are particularly susceptible to infectious parasitic diseases if not carefully maintained. Colonies with chronic problems with infectious diseases should determine if one of the common culprits is present: mixing of cats of different age groups and overall health; the presence of previously undetected carriers; inadequate vaccination protocols; the accumulation of pathogens as a result of inadequate sanitation and/or ventilation; the uncontrolled introduction of new animals into the group; or an inappropriately high population density.

Overcrowding is the most common cause of increased diseases in colony housing. Multiple cat housing should not be overcrowded.

Cat colony housing requires a sound preventive health-care program, scrupulous sanitation practices, and adequate air handling and filtration.

Isolation is essential when infectious disease is high. All proven and even suspected disease carriers must be removed from the population.


Long-term housing emphasizes comfort, care and adequate space.

Recommend one litter box per cat and one extra. An inadequate number of litter boxes often leads to indiscriminate elimination, one of the major reasons that cats are brought to shelters.

Litter boxes should be kept immaculately clean. Scoop out feces and litter balls at least once a day (twice or more is recommended). Litter boxes should be soaked and scrubbed at least twice a week for regular litter and once a week for clumping litter. Follow the manufacturer’s directions regarding the length of time for disinfectant soaking. Use simple clay or unscented clumping litter — no liners, no hoods.

Furniture offers mental and physical stimulation, gives cats hidey holes and gives the public a warm feeling about the colony. Use furniture that can be disinfected such as resin chairs and PVC perches. Cover perches with washable towels and covers. Give cats perch opportunities at varying heights. Cubby holes where shyer or new cats adjusting to the colony can hide is a good idea.

Safe outdoor enclosures with adequate shade and protection from the elements can enrich the lives of indoor cats by offering access to the great outdoors without risk. Make sure that cats have access to the indoor enclosure at all times.


No cat should be introduced into colony housing until it has been spayed or neutered, vaccinated and tested for feline leukemia. Wait at least ten days after cats are vaccinated to introduce them into the colony. Have a veterinarian verify that they are in excellent health.

All cats, even if currently vaccinated, should not be placed into a colony for at least ten days after admittance to the shelter. It’s best to wait a few weeks to judge the cat’s attitude.

Colonies should contain cats of similar ages, i.e less than a year, elderly (greater than eight years) and middle-aged.

Cats that are good colony candidates can be introduced in several ways. Some shelters set up cages within the colony room for new admittances. Otherwise make some sort of arrangement to introduce new cats gradually. Some shelters will choose five to ten compatible cats and set up a complete colony that they do not add to. The entire colony is adopted out, the room is thoroughly disinfected, and a new colony is then created.

Cats need space! For instance, a typical 8′ x 10′ room would accommodate ten cats comfortably depending on their temperament.

Cats like quiet! Avoid setting up a cat colony in hearing range of barking dogs.

Most shelter staff and volunteers can quickly lose their sensitivity to cat odors. If an odor is offensive to a person it has been offending a cat for days. Ask friends and family who will be honest (cat “haters” are ideal) to visit the shelter for a sniff test.

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