Comfortable Environmentally Enriched Housing For Domestic Cats

by Geoffrey G. Loveridge


The design of long-term housing for cats under study should aim to provide space which is safe for both cats and care givers, provide pleasant sights and sounds, is easily cleaned, has satisfactory ventilation and is both mentally and physically stimulating.

Health and safety for both cats and care givers is of primary importance. Surfaces, not just of floors but also of shelves, should be reasonably non-slip when wet. Ceilings and doorways should be high enough to allow ease of movement and steps should be avoided, particularly where equipment or cats need to be moved. There should be no sharp protrusions at human or cat level.

Food preparation areas, handling rooms, and cleaning- and wash-down-areas should be close to the cat rooms to allow care givers to view the cats while undertaking other activities and to allow the cats to see the activities of the caregivers. This makes the ambient environment more interesting throughout the day. A high standard of hygiene should be maintained in the entire facility—not just the area housing the cats—in order to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

The provision and frequent emptying and cleaning of sanitary litter trays (Figure 1) will allow cats to display their habitual cleanliness and bury their urine and feces, leaving the rest of the room unsoiled, with reduced odor. Housing should be cleaned and disinfected daily, including all litter trays, shelves, toys, beds, food and water bowls. Selection of a high quality floor surface, such as sheet seam welded vinyl, which can be extended up walls, with all corners curved, is a major advantage.

Good ventilation is essential, not only to provide sufficient air circulation for cats and caregivers, but to regulate temperature and humidity and reduce levels of odor, dust and infectious agents. The ventilation regulation of a room should be related to stocking density and any heat generated by other factors. For cats, 10-12 air changes per hour, while maintaining a temperature of 22°-24°C and a relative humidity of 45-65%, are considered acceptable. It also provides a pleasant, comfortable work space for care givers.

Readily accessible fresh drinking water must be available at all times. Self filling bowls (Figure 11) ensure a constant water supply but care must be taken that they are regularly emptied, cleaned and refilled. An adequate supply of food, appropriate for each given life stage is essential. Cats which are group-housed can be fed in the group; however, care must be taken that certain individuals do not become obese. Some competition is beneficial as slow eaters are encouraged by seeing others feed. An organized, structured feeding regime is beneficial as the intelligent cat will quickly learn to expect food at certain times and appreciate that there is enough food for all. A sufficient number of feeding stations should therefore be provided to make sure that all cats—even subordinate ones—can access the food. Otherwise, some dominant cats may monopolize the food.

The design of the facilities should be modified to take into account the various life stages of cats and of the studies to be carried out. A basic room design can be scaled up or down to accommodate different group sizes. If space planning allows, rooms should be designed in such a way that relatively large groups of cats can be accommodated, as small groups can be kept in a large room but a large group cannot be satisfactorily housed in a small room.

Cats must have adequate space to move around. This should include enough height to allow the cats to stretch upwards. The experience of The Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition (WCPN), which has maintained feline colonies since 1965, has shown that a generous allocation of space reduces stress and buffers cat-to-cat aggression, eliminating eye and ear injuries. All group-housed cats are given 1.0m2 of floor space per animal plus space at higher levels provided in the form of shelving and window sills. Enclosures are at least 2.0m high.

The singly-housed cat does not have the benefit of conspecific companionship. Because of the relatively small size of cages and the fact that the cat can generally only be approached from one direction, cat-to-caregiver contact is limited. Cages should provide at least 0.75m2 of horizontal floor area and 80cm height. They should be fitted with a shelf partway up the rear or side wall to allow choice of vantage point. Scratching pads or posts can be fixed to the front. If the cages can be placed in facing rows, the cats can at least see and communicate with each other.

Care givers need to work steadily and without undue, sudden noise as the cage restricts the cats' field of vision. They should talk to their charges and initiate touch firstly through the mesh of the cage front and, when appropriate with an open door. The cats should be stroked and handled each day during routine feeding, cleaning and weighing and, if possible, during allocated play sessions with the attending care givers. There should be occasions when the cats can be allowed, either singly or in small groups, to leave their home cages and roam around freely in the room. These provisions will build up trust and will ease potential difficulties during handling procedures.

At WCPN, the cage is replaced with a two-roomed lodge (Figure 2). The lodge consists of an inner room and an outer glazed conservatory (total floor area 2.6 m2 height 2.0m). The floor covering of both rooms is welded seam vinyl extending 40 cm up the walls and curved at the corners for easy cleaning. The walls are glazed above the vinyl to the ceiling (Figure 3). The use of glass for all walls and doors enables the cat to be visually stimulated by the cats on each side and by the activities in the gardens that surround each building. Also the glazed door from the inner room to the central court enables the cat to be stimulated by routine everyday procedures such as, weighing, feeding and cleaning and by the activities of researchers and visitors. Holes (Figure 4) have been drilled in the lodge walls at ear and nose level to allow the cats to communicate with each other utilizing their highly specialized olfactory senses. A tray is placed in one corner of the inner room (Figure 4) where the cats urinate and defecate, leaving the rest of the lodge unsoiled. The two meter high construction enables the care givers to enter the lodge and be with the cats during routine activities, thus providing an increased number of opportunities of human-cat interaction. In the morning these activities include feces collection, cleaning and drying of lodges, removal of bedding, cleaning of water bowls and feeding. Whilst the cargivers are encouraged to interact with the cat on each of these occasions, the design of the two-roomed lodge allows the cat to move away if he or she wishes. Longer periods of time are spent with the cats during weekly weighing, health check and grooming sessions. These events are scheduled to take place on different days, thus ensuring that the cats are handled individually on as many occasions as possible (FIgure 3). Regular handling also has the benefit of identifying any health problems requiring veterinary care.

At WCPN, time is set aside each afternoon to give individual cats personal attention (Figure 3). A number of different care givers take part in regular sessions of human-cat interaction, so that the cats meet and play with many different people. During these events, the care givers will vary the activities, taking into account the personality and responses of individual cats. The activities range from simply sitting quietly talking to the cat and stroking him/her, or initiating play with a variety of toys. These toys include balls, clockwork mice or devices incorporating fur and feathers. Toy "fishing rods" are particularly popular with young cats. Kibbles of dry food can be placed in food puzzles, which provide both mental and physical stimulation. The cat has to expend energy and show dexterity to retrieve the food (Figure 7).

The most successful environmental enrichment is based on cat choice as cats are individualists and have different preferences for environmental conditions, levels of activity, social interaction and interaction with care givers. Variety and therefore choice within housing will help to enrich the environment for cats.

Use of natural light creates a pleasant atmosphere. If windows are provided, this allows the cats a view of their surroundings and any activities taking place (Figure 5) without being disturbed by the sudden movement of care givers. Outer areas built as glazed conservatories, provide a choice of temperatures for the animals. The outer conservatory obviates the need for access to the outside, allowing choice without the disease risks from feral animals and birds.

Accommodation must provide freedom of movement, but the quality of the space provided is as important as the quantity. Cats are very agile; therefore, provision of shelving at different heights (Figures 3 and 6) adds to the space available and provides opportunities for physical exercise and vantage points for attentive observation. Wide window sills fulfill a similar function allowing views and access to sunlight. It should be acknowledged that cats rest and sleep for most of the time, and shelves provide an adequate environment for this natural behavior.

Cats generally enjoy the company of other cats. They should have access to large beds where several of them can sleep together, as well as smaller boxes (Figure 8) as beds for individuals.

Surfaces of varied texture are beneficial for cats. These surfaces can be provided in the form of wood and hessian scratching posts, vinyl floors and window sills, cardboard boxes, fleece bedding and shelves of varying materials including plastic and wood. Ease of cleaning is of course important. Cardboard, wood and fleece bedding are all insulating and retain the body heat of the cat lying on them, thus improving comfort. Cardboard is low cost and can be disposed of and recycled, fleece bedding can be laundered. Wood can be scratched and scent marked, allowing natural behavior patterns. It can be cleaned with normal disinfectants. The provision of ropes, scratching posts and scratching pads (Figure 9) of differing sizes and heights allows cats to scratch in order to keep their claws sharpened. This satisfies a basic instinct and helps to relieve tension and frustration.

A low level of background noise, such as that provided by a radio, may lessen the effects of a sudden, loud or unfamiliar sound. Most care givers also enjoy listening to the radio and happy care givers will help create a relaxed atmosphere for the cats.

Cats enjoy contact with humans (Figure 10). For this reason, and to ensure that they can be handled easily, cats should undergo a regular program of socialization with humans from birth (Figure 11) through adulthood (Figure 3). This is an important condition for relatively stress-free handling for the cat during veterinary inspection and treatment (Figure 12).

Regular grooming (Figure 13) provides contact between care givers and cat. In addition to keeping the coat in good condition, it fosters the bond between cat and caregiver, while the caregiver has an opportunity to check the animal for early signs of disease. Often, the grooming time can also be used to carry out veterinary examinations. Cat accommodation should provide comfortable housing, choice of environment, sensory and mental stimulation and physical exercise, while care programing should emphasize feline companionship and the human-pet relationship.

This will result in friendly, adaptable and stimulated animals, which provide a balanced study resource from which high quality data can be collected.

Suggested Further Reading:

Behrend K and Wegler M 1991. Complete Book of Cat Care: How to raise a Happy and Healthy Cat. Barron's Educational Series, Inc.: Hauppauge, NY.

Bradshaw JWS 1992. The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat. Redwood Press Ltd: Melksham, U.K.

Hayes AA 1985. Keeping your cat healthy: Play/Exercise. In: The Complete Book of Cat Health, W.J. Kay and E. Randolph (eds.), Macmillan Publishing Company: New York, NY, pp. 52-53.

Hurni H and Rossbach W 1987. The laboratory cat. In: The UFAW Handbook on the Care and Management of Laboratory Animals, 6th Edition, T.B. Poole (ed.), Longman Scientific and Technical: Harlow, pp. 476-492.

Karsh EB 1983. The effects of early handling on the development of social bonds between cats and people. In: New Perspectives on Our Lives with Companion Animals, A.H. Katcher and A. M. Beck (eds.), University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, PA, pp. 22-28.

Karsh E 1984. Factors influencing the socialization of cats to people. In: The Pet Connection: Its Influence on Our Health and Quality of Life. R.K. Anderson, B.L. Hart and L.A. Hart (eds.), University of Minnesota: Minneapolis, Minn., pp. 207 -215.

Leyhausen P 1979. Cat Behaviour: The Predatory and Social Behaviour Of Domestic and Wild Cats. Garland STPM Press: New York.

Loveridge G, Horrocks LJ and Hawthorne AJ 1995. Environmentally enriched housing for cats when singly housed. Animal Welfare 4(2): 135- 141.

Loveridge G 1994. Provision of environmentally enriched housing for cats. Animal Technology: Journal of the Institute of Animal Technology 45(2):69-87.

Loveridge G 1984. The establishment of a barriered respiratory disease-free cat breeding colony. Animal Technology: Journal of the Institute of Animal Technology 35:83 -92.

McCune S, McPherson, JA and Bradshaw JWS 1995. Avoiding problems: The importance of socialization. In: The Waltham Book of Human-Animal Interactions, I. Robinson (ed.), Pergamon Press: Oxford.

McCune S 1995. Coping with confinement: Temperament effects on how domestic cats adjust to caging and handlers. In: Environmental Enrichment for Captive Animals, D. Shepherdson, J. Mellen and M. Hutchins (eds.), Smithsonian Institution Press: Washington DC.

McCune S 1995. Enriching the Environment of the Laboratory Cat. In: Environmental Enrichment Information Resources for Laboratory Animals: 1965-1995. I. Smith, C. Petrie and V. Taylor (eds.), Animal Welfare Information Center: US, pp. 27-33. National Research Council 1986. Nutrient requirements of cats. National Academy Press: Washington D.C.

Turner DC 1991. The ethology of the human-cat relationship. Schweizer Archiv Für Tierheilkunde 133(2):63-70.