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Providing Enrichment Programs for Shelter Cats

Jacque Lynn Schultz, CPDT


Providing Enrichment Programs for Shelter Cats

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, cats are particularly prone to this 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.

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 all together. 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?

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 programs run the financial gamut from recycling items such as paper bags and shoe boxes 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 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 daycare 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.)

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?

Jacque Lynn Schultz, CPDT (certified pet dog trainer) is currently the Companion Animal Programs Advisor for the ASPCA’s National Shelter Outreach department and the administrator of the ASPCA Greyhound Rescue Fund.

Courtesy of

424 East 92nd Street
New York, NY 10128-6804


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