Research is finding that shelter conditions make cats sick from the stress. Pennsylvania veterinarian Michael Moyer said he used to think cats were better off in shelters than out in the elements. Even if they were put to sleep, he assumed they’d die a worse death on the mean city streets. But after years specializing in shelter medicine and running a Chester County shelter, he has changed his mind. Part of the problem is that shelter conditions fine for small dogs will make cats sick from stress, said Moyer, who lectured last month as part of the Penn Science Cafe series, held at the MarBar, 40th and Walnut Streets. Stress can also make shelter cats temporarily antisocial, thus killing any hope they might have of being adopted, Moyer said. More than 7,000 cats are euthanized in Philadelphia shelters every year, many for behavior or health problems.
“It was kind of a ‘no duh’ moment,” said Moyer, when he realized shelters were not very sheltering for felines. “Cats are different in so many physiological and medical ways. And yet we treat them like they’re small dogs.” Dogs love novelty, change of scenery, and, in most cases, car rides. “Cats – not so much,” he said. One of his more counterintuitive discoveries was that keeping the cages sparkling clean makes cats sicker. That’s because a cat will get comfort from anything familiar – even a piece of old newspaper covered in cat dander. When you remove what the cat considers its possessions, however meager, “cats will wig out,” he said. Disinfecting their cages with chemicals scares them even more by destroying any scent that has become familiar.
Cats also need more space than the same-size dogs, he said, and typical 2-foot-square cages force them to eat close to their litter boxes. That distresses them just as it would for people to eat in the bathroom. Stress makes cats sick by allowing latent viruses to emerge and spread, he said. Strays carry a number of pathogens, including herpes and calicivirus. And while these illnesses may not be deadly, cats that get ill in shelters are likelier to be euthanized.
“There’s no shortage of cats,” Moyer said. So there’s usually little hope for an asocial, frightened cat in a shelter, even though these animals might be capable of friendly, affectionate behavior under better conditions. Research is starting to back up the observations that cats need different conditions from dogs, said Julie Levy, a shelter specialist with the University of Florida School of Veterinary Medicine. “Every shelter in the United States was built around the concept that you can stuff a cat in a small cage,” she said. “It’s extremely stressful for the cats – they have no control.”
Luckily, cat shelter care is evolving fast, said Aime Berman, medical director for the Philadelphia SPCA. She said she was excited about a new set of guidelines laying out five “freedoms” that cats need to maintain emotional and physical health – including cage space and behavioral enrichment. One such tool she uses are special cat videos that show dogs, cockroaches, and other cats cavorting. The cats become more active after viewing them, she said. The downside is that abiding by these freedoms is expensive, considering how many people here abandon cats or fail to get them spayed or neutered.
More than 18,000 cats were taken into Philadelphia’s shelters during 2010, according to the SPCA’s website. Of those, only 103 were reunited with owners; 7,280 were euthanized; and 1,677 died or could not be accounted for. Only 3,583 were adopted. Moyer says he’s convinced that cats are better off avoiding shelters. He and others at the Penn vet school do the surgeries for programs that try to limit stray-cat populations by neutering or spaying them, and putting them back out on the streets. Such cats also get rabies shots. Several thousand Philadelphia strays are neutered or spayed every year by SPCA and other animal-welfare groups. Moyer said students at the Penn vet school were on track to do about 3,700 such surgeries this year, some of which are strays to be returned to the streets.
In the city, “cats can live a pretty respectable cat life,” he said. “We tend to think their lives must be nasty, brutish, and short, but they live about as long on average as house cats.” There’s often ample food among the rats, mice, pigeons, and Dumpsters. In more-suburban areas, however, stray and feral cats may create problems by eating songbirds. And unvaccinated strays can pick up rabies from raccoons or other wild animals. Florida’s Levy has done studies showing that so-called trap-neuter-return programs can control smaller populations. In one Florida study, such a program reduced a growing colony of 100 feral cats to just 10 geriatric cats. In Philly, however, there are hundreds of thousands of stray cats, and they may be multiplying faster than they can be trapped and neutered.
Levy sees the ultimate hope in nonsurgical contraception – maybe an injectable vaccine that cats could get, replacing the need for surgery. Some new research shows that cat fertility is curbed by a vaccine that was developed to control deer. When injected, she said, the vaccine blocks a hormone in the brain called GnRH – a kind of master switch behind the whole reproductive cycle. It works in males and females and also seems to make cats behave as if they were neutered. So the male cats are not compelled to fight or spray urine around.
Moyer said he didn’t want to take away from the hard work that’s done in shelters – much of it by volunteers. The problems faced by cats in shelters are caused, ultimately, by irresponsible people who fail to spay or neuter their pets or who get a pet without considering that it’s a years-long commitment.