After listening to the Cat Talk Radio podcast "What Stresses Your Cat Out" a listener asked me to do a podcast on how to reduce stress in shelter cats. We did that podcast and I thought it would benefit from having visuals, which I've added below.
The corresponding Cat Talk Radio podcast, and this blog were done during the COVID-19 shelter in place order, when the public shelters are closed to the public and running on very minimal staff.
#1: Routine - Cats are creatures of habit; they like to know what's going to happen and when. Predictability gives them a sense of control, which boosts confidence and trust. When a cat enters a shelter, it's stripped of all control and begins to emotionally shut down. Since your shelter has likely been shut down these past few weeks, the cats' routine is different, adding additional stress. Feed, clean litter, enrichment - all should happen at the same time every day.
#2: Foster - Get as many cats as you can out of the shelter and into foster homes. The home setting and regular social interaction far outweigh any potential stress the change in environment might bring. Also, in a home setting, you'll get to see see real personality of the cat, which will make it easier to promote to potential adopters. And of course we all root for foster failures!
#3: Pheromones - Pheromones can help the cats to feel more comfortable by simulating facial scent markers. Tests were conducted to compare Feliway to placebos and found more incidents of grooming and eating with Feliway.
By itself, it isn't a magic wand to fix all things stress,
but it helps to overlay the other things you're doing.
#4: Music - Classical music has been found to have the least stress-causing frequencies for cats. iCalm cat scientifically modulates music to remove stress frequencies. I highly recommend using it in a shelter setting - and note the dog music is different than cat because each species ears different frequencies. If iCalm cat is not in your budget, play relaxing classical piano music.
#5: Catnip/Silvervine - Only about 50% of cats react to catnip, but many more find silvervine, and valarian root enjoyable so I recommend using a combination product. I have custom-blended a mix I call "Meowsa" that I use in shelters. Sometimes that little bit of nip stimulant is enough to get a cat out of his funk; it can be a great ice-breaker.
#6: Interactive Play - Prey Play is amazing at making a cat feel like a cat. It's challenging to do in a small kennel, but very important to find a way. I recommend the Go Cat Catcher with wire for kennel play and the Da Bird for community rooms. There is nothing like a good "hunt" to stimulate a cat's mojo.
#7: Establish Scent - Stop hard-cleaning every day and allow the cat to build up his
own sent within his kennel. I don't recommend changing bedding or toys at all, unless badly soiled. Be sure to hard clean between cats, but let them scent-up their own things while there - this will provide a sense of security and control over their limited domain.
#8: Hiding place - Not all cats like to hide, but some do so give them an option with a Kuranda bed with towel draped over or a cubby. The confident cat might not use it, but the high stressed cats will find a lot of relief in being able to duck out when the environment becomes too much for them.
#9: Disco Ball - Light therapy can go a long way for keeping your shelter kitties entertained. Watching the lights go around is mentally stimulating, different, and can bring about excitement associated with hunting. Don't run it full time but schedule 15-20 minutes each day to have "disco time" - please don't play corresponding music; stick to the iCalm classical!
#10: Rodent Ball - I'm taking an unconventional left turn here by suggesting you allow a mouse or hamster to run around the cat room in a clear exercise ball. Please don't stress out your rodents, but I've found they usually don't perceive the cats as a threat. Rats to especially well, because they aren't commonly fearful of cats. With both the rodent ball and disco lights, be sure to deliver treats to your cats after this enrichment.
#11: Operant Conditioning - You can use operant conditioning techniques in your shelter without a formal program. You can simply reward the cats with a super yummy treat, when they are calm. For the treats, try something unique and different such as shaved turkey or chicken baby food. You can also do clicker training for cats - it instills confidence and works well to bring them out of their emotional funk. You can apply for a grant into Jackson Galaxy's Cat Pawsitive Pro shelter training where we will teach your volunteers and staff how to clicker train your cats.
#12: Scratchers - Just like placing facial pheromones on items to incorporate them into familiar territory, cats deposit scent from glands between their toes when scratching. Scratching is essential for a cat, and not easy to facilitate in a small shelter kennel. I call commercial carpet companies and ask them to donate their samples. Most of the samples are 24" square - perfectly sized for kennel use. This allows the cat the longest stretch possible in a confined space. I recommend sending the cat home with the square of carpet so there is something in the new place that smells like them. It also presents a great "go to place" object for clicker training!