How to Set Up a Comfy Cat Cage
Illustrations by Susie Duckworth
If you try to see the world through the eyes of someone who normally alternates his day between sacking out on the couch and hunting formidable prey like bugs and plush balls, the new environment of the shelter can make for a pretty scary adventure. Its a foreign land for a cat, who sometimes has nothing remaining of his old life but the odor left on his fur by the hands of his relinquisher. The sights, sounds, and smells are so new and so varied that cats may become easily disoriented and feel theyve lost their treasured ability to decide who is friend and who is foe. But in the absence of a permanent home, a soft and stimulating cage can be enough to keep kitties content during their stay and give staff and volunteers something to purr about.
1. Walk the Catwalk
Shed your human instincts and walk through your shelter pretending youve got whiskers, a tail, and a predilection for mice. If you were a cat, what sounds, sights, smells, and vibrations would scare you? Would you be bothered by the whirr of fans and air filters, or would you tune those out and focus instead on slamming kennel doors, overhead paging, and cries from your kitty kin? Would you catch a whiff of 50 different dogs at once and become paralyzed with fear, or would you favor those canine smoke signals over the nostril-penetrating stench of bleach and quats?
It would depend, of course, on what kind of life youve lived. If you have a history of getting along with other animals and youve got lots of energy, maybe you wouldnt mind the occasional woofs of the wagging beasts in the next room; maybe youd enjoy being in a spot directly across from other cat cages, where you can keep up your busybody ways. But if youve shown more fearful tendencies during your introduction to the shelter environment, curling up in a ball and shying away from human advances, you might need a reprieve from all the direct eye contact and interspecies relations.
2. Call in the EPA
If your cat-walk through your facility has revealed that youre dealing with a Superfund site of environmental stress, the first thing you need to do is create some safe spots. Think about how cats at home would react to the abruptness of slammed cage doors, dropped carriers, tossed food bowls, and shouted conversation; many would make a mad dash for the nearest coffee-table hideout. What people see as everyday behavior is often perceived as aggression by animals, so try to improve our species sullied reputation by closing gates and doors gently, talking in mellow tones, and keeping your movements as measured as possible.
Look elsewhere in your surroundings for potential adjustments. While some auditory, visual, and olfactory stressors in the shelter are just the nature of the beast, others are often unnecessary and can at least be minimized. For example, a boom box screeching your favorite electric guitar solo on top of a cage bank not only blares at the kitties below but also vibrates on the metal. Consider changing your tune: move the radio, switch the station to something more soothing, and turn the volume down a few notches.
3. Arrange the Seating Chart
Once youve taken an environmental inventory and made adjustments where you can, you can try matching incoming animals to the spots best suited to their moods and personalities. It may seem like an overwhelming task if your facility is already filled to capacity, but you dont have to do it all at once. Start slowly by putting the lethargic but friendly cat in an area where he can watch the goings-on and make friends with visitors and volunteers. See how the social butterfly cat likes being near the door where he can act as the resident greeter. And tuck the scaredycat away near a path less traveled, where he can have time to adjust to his new territory; in a few days, he may begin to feel less threatened and unfurl himself from his spiral-shell position.
4. Give Them Some Elbow Room
Whats going on inside the cage is just as important as the world beyond, and sometimes more so. Sure, your cats have all their basic needs for survival met: a food bowl, a water bowl, a litter box. But be careful not to underestimate the role of emotional and psychological needs in physical and behavioral health. While its true that cats spend much of their day snoozing, theyve still got up to eight hours of waking moments to filland possibly even more if theyre not relaxed enough to get some rest. Just as you took a cat-walk through the shelter, imagine now what it would be like to catnap in one of your facilitys cages. How does the surface of the cage feel? Is there much room for resting, or does the litter box dominate the space? What is there to do in there? Is there any way to curl up and watch the world go by in relative peace?
5. Throw in the Towel—-or a Baby or Two
If your cages and litter boxes are both standard sizes, you may find its a pretty tight squeeze. Since cats arent comfortable contorting themselves in tiny boxes just to take a wiz, your expansion options may be limited. In this case, think vertically: Consider asking community members to help you purchase washable resting perches that can be attached to the insides of cage walls. Some modern cages already include these little raised benches, but older cages can be outfitted with perches that attach and detach for easy cleaning. If you do have the space, add a favorite cat hideawaypaper bags and shoeboxes are disposable and wont cost you a penny. Another easy way to help a particularly shy cat get some time to himself is to hang a towel or a piece of newspaper over half of his cage front.
When looking for other comfort items, remember that one persons trash can be a critters treasure. Members of your community may be tired of looking at that hot pink, plush toilet seat cover from 1979, but your kitties will think its quite heavenly. The same goes for old towels; you can disinfect these items easily by just tossing them into your washing machine. Collect soft stuffed animal babies for your kitties to curl up withthe velveteen rabbit will never stop getting love if hes in the shelter. (Just be sure the substitute friends are soft and washable, and remove any items that kitty could hurt himself withbuttons, ribbons, whiskers, and the like.) Ask local carpet retailers if they will supply you with leftovers; while these arent washable, theyre free, and you can make a lot of cats happy with just one truckload.
6. Playtime is the Cat’s Meow
Everyone knows that no work and all play makes kitty a happy boy. At home, cats like to make their own fun with everything from store-bought feathery toys to plastic milk jug rings. In the shelter, you can provide similar items. Hard plastic shower curtain rings linked in pairs and attached to gate bars can be great punching bags for kitties; place them high enough up on the bars that the cat has to stretch or jump to bat them around. A single ring inside the cage can serve as a feline soccer ball; the cat can bat it around under his towel or newspaper. Ping-Pong balls are also washable, but be careful with anything so small that it could either choke an animal or fall out of the cage and cause a person to slip and fall.
Using paper towel rolls as cat toys represents the ultimate in recycling. Place them between the cage bars and watch cats go in for the kill. Cardboard rolls are obviously not made for disinfection, but theyre free and theyll probably be torn to shreds within hours anyway. (Just be sure not to hang anything with ribbons or strings, as they may get tangled up in a cats paws, claws, neck, and even intestines.)
Aside from the obvious mental stimulation toys provide, their presence has a side benefit: they make animals more appealing to potential adopters. So if you havent already, turn on those animal instincts and take some time to figure out not just what your kitties need for living but what they crave for living wellevery time you walk into the cat rooms and see your feline charges in turbo action or in dream states, youll be glad you did.