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Guidelines for Communal Housing of Cats

Dr. Lila Miller, DVM, Sr. Director, Animal Sciences & Vet Advisor, ASPCA


Shelters that routinely have cats up for adoption for one month or longer may benefit from placing cats in cageless colonies. This creates a more home-like environment for cats and more natural interaction between adopters and cats. Older, harder to place cats can particularly benefit from being displayed in a cageless room. There are many ways to successfully set up and manage feline colonies. These guidelines are suggestions of how to ideally minimize stress and disease transmission. Individual shelters should feel free to modify these guidelines to fit their resources and needs.

Quarantine || Nutrition || Colony Guidelines || Sanitation || Ventilation


  1. Cats should be examined as soon as they enter your facility and placed in a 14-day quarantine to observe for signs of infectious disease. Most infectious cat diseases have an incubation period of up to 10 days, so signs of illness should appear by then. Disease symptoms include listlessness, depression, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, ocular and nasal discharges and fever. Check for fleas and signs of skin disease like ringworm, flea allergies, mange and ear mites. Isolate these animals immediately.
  2. Vaccinate for distemper (panleukopenia), rhinotracheitis and calici virus, preferably upon entry. These are considered the core vaccines for any shelter. Other feline vaccines are available, but should be considered elective. There is a vaccine available for upper respiratory caused by Bordetella, but its use is still controversial and not recommended as a core vaccine.
  3. Perform fecals and deworm all kittens and cats with a broad-spectrum drug like Drontal even if the fecal results are negative. Shelters that can afford Revolution, a spot on product, should consider using it, as it kills fleas, ear mites, most intestinal worms and acts as a heartworm preventative.
  4. Test for feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency (FIV) virus. Cats that test positive should be isolated and caged individually. They should not be housed in the colony.
  5. If ringworm is or has been a problem in your shelter or area, consider performing a toothbrush culture on all cats during the quarantine period. Cats can be inapparent carriers of the fungus, meaning they themselves have developed immunity to the spores and have no outward signs of the disease, but can pass it on to others. Conventional culture testing of inapparent carriers cannot be performed because there are no obvious lesions to culture. The toothbrush culture method allows for good random body sampling that should pick up any disease spores. (To perform a toothbrush culture, vigorously brush the cat with a new toothbrush and gently place the collected hair and scales onto the fungal culture medium.) The cultures should not be considered negative until after 14 days.

Alternatively, rather than culturing, consider dipping each animal in lime sulfur upon arrival.


Feed the best nutritionally complete dry food diet you can afford. Good nutrition is essential for maintaining optimum health. Cats with individual feeding requirements should not be communally housed, as their appetite and food consumption cannot be accurately monitored.


  1. Segregate the cats by age. Cats over the age of 8 should be housed in a separate colony from kittens and other adult animals. Kittens under 6 months of age should not be placed with adult cats. From a disease transmission point, kittens should be segregated further into groups over and under 3 months of age. Litters of kittens under 3 months of age should not be mixed and housed together. Kittens do not become immune competent until they are 12 weeks of age, which means they are more susceptible to diseases the adults may be carrying subclinically.
  2. Observe the behavior of the cats closely before and after they are in the colony. Some cats do not get along well with other cats and should be housed separately for the overall well being of the entire group, as well as for the individual. Watch the group dynamics, and give each cat a day or two to adjust.
  3. Make certain that the space provided is large enough for each cat to have enough room to escape to his or her own area. Overcrowding will lead to stress that will contribute to disease. It is difficult to set a formula for determining the maximum number of cats per enclosure. The National Academy of Science Guide to the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals states the following: “An animal’s space needs are complex and consideration of only the animal’s body weight or surface area is insufficient… Vertical height, structuring of the space and enrichments can clearly affect animal’s use of space…Cats benefit more from cage complexities than simple increases in floor space. For cats, a raised resting surface should be included in the cage.” Consideration must be given to the size and temperament of the animals as well as the number of shelves or other enrichments and hiding places that are included in the enclosure. If cats are fighting, constantly hiding, refusing to eat or use the litter boxes, consider reducing the size of the colony. One of the main reasons these colonies seem to work well is because the reduction in stress levels helps the animals remain healthy.
  4. The cats should all be neutered. If the shelter does not have the resources to neuter all the animals, the males should be neutered as this procedure is minimally invasive, inexpensive and will reduce urine odors and spraying. The other alternative is to separate males from females, but remember, intact male cats may often fight.
  5. Loud noise should be kept to a minimum. The colony should not be in close proximity to barking dogs, if at all possible.


  1. The enclosure should be made of non-porous material so it can be thoroughly cleaned with soap and hot water. All enrichment equipment (toys, shelves, bedding, etc) should either be non-porous so it can be disinfected, or washable.
  2. The entire area should be cleaned AND disinfected daily with a parvocidal product. Make certain the entire enclosure is cleaned, including walls and shelves. If the decision is made not to disinfect daily because the colony is stable and apparently healthy, it must still be cleaned daily.
  3. Cleaning should be scheduled at the same time each day to establish a routine and thus minimize stress, and cats should be taken out of the enclosure during the cleaning process.
  4. The area should be completely dry before cats are returned to it.
  5. Clean and disinfect all food and water dishes daily.
  6. Make certain there are enough litter boxes for the colony. A rule of thumb is probably one litter box per 2-3 cats. Increase the number of boxes if stools or urine are found outside the box to one box per cat, or reduce the size of the colony. If scoopable litter is used, the box may be scooped as needed during the day, but dispose of all litter daily. Use disposable litter trays or scrub and disinfect the litter boxes daily.


  1. Adequate ventilation is critical to prevent disease transmission. Make sure the ventilation system is adequate for the colony size and air is exchanged with outside air if at all possible, rather than just changed. Twelve to fifteen air changes per hour is considered minimal to maintain a healthy environment
  2. Make certain that air circulation patterns circulate air from healthy areas to less healthy areas if an air change system is in use.
  3. Anecdotal information from some shelters indicates that properly maintained industrial hepa filters may help reduce odors and some disease particles.

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