Austin Bouck at Animal Science Review recently posted about the benefits of group housing for cats in shelters. (Well, sort of recently. I meant to write about this two weeks ago!) Apparently adopters prefer group-housed cats as adoption prospects. Decreasing the length of an animal’s stay in a shelter is a very important tool in decreasing shelter overcrowding, so this is good information for shelters. Austin adds, “Arguments against housing cats in groups are primarily based on disease management,” citing upper respiratory infection (URI) as the most common disease seen in sheltered cats. (Too true.) So is group housing a good idea for cats in shelters, then? What should shelters be considering if they are designing a plan for cat group housing? I turned to my new bible, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters, to see what it had to say about group housing. It has an entire section on this topic.
Risks and benefits of group housing
Absolutely, group housed animals can pass infectious disease back and forth. A quick Dog Zombie sidenote about infectious diseases of cats in shelters, not covered by the Guidelines in this particular section: about half of shelter cats will get a URI within two weeks of their introduction to the shelter, and they may well pass that URI to other cats with whom they come in contact. However, the main cause of URI in shelters is stress, which causes viruses which the cats have been carrying without trouble for years to reactivate. So if the group housing is lower stress than individual housing, I am less concerned about URI. I would be concerned about ringworm (highly contagious!), as well as FIV (feline AIDS) and FeLV (feline leukemia). These last two are less infectious, but very serious (life shortening) if acquired. All animals should be tested for FIV/FeLV and inspected for ringworm lesions before they are put in with other cats. The Guidelines do cover these diseases, but not in the group housing section.
Aside from risk of infectious diseases, what else should we be concerned about? “Stress, fear, and anxiety.” Some cats like group housing. Some don’t. Make sure you don’t put a timid cat in with bullies. It can be easy to miss these kinds of social interactions in a busy shelter, but if you are group housing animals, you have to take the time to make sure everyone gets along.
Speaking of which, it can be difficult to keep an eye on everyone in a group housing situation. A cat in a cage is easy to check up on. But if you have 10 cats in one room, it is easy to miss the little one who hides in her hide box all day. It is even harder to tell who is not eating, or who had that stinky diarrhea in the litter box. So group housing can be a lot of work to manage. But the consequences are serious if some cats become sick and early signs are missed.
There are benefits, though, even aside from increased attractiveness to adopters. Many cats very much enjoy the company of other cats. They like the opportunity to sleep together, groom each other, and play together. Shelters can be very sterile environments, and there’s little that is as enriching to a social animal as a well-matched member of your own species.
One danger of group housing is that an overcrowded shelter might see it as a way to save space. Well designed group housing won’t actually save any space, although it may redistribute space (enabling more vertical space, which cats enjoy so much). The Guidelines recommend at least 18 square feet per cat. That’s a lot, but it provides cats with room to get away from each other when they need to. Of course, you also need enough feeding stations, litter boxes, hide boxes, and elevated perches. I have been told that it’s a good idea to have more elevated perches than cats so no one is fighting over the best one! If you look at cats in group housing, it is often true that most of them are off the ground at any one time.
We already talked about some selection criteria for cats being put into group housing: do they like other cats? Are they sick? Cats should be grouped by age (no energetic kittens in with old codgers). Obviously, intact males should not be put in with intact females (you’d be surprised, but some facilities don’t take these simplest of precautions against breeding).
Since we’re worrying about disease, it’s worth mentioning that a lot of population turnover (a new cat put in to an enclosure whenever an old one is removed) is a prime cause of disease. Remember, a cat is liable to come down with URI soon after it arrives at the shelter. Do you want to put it in with a population of healthy cats? (I said that the cats came down with URI because they were stressed, but that doesn’t mean that the virus that reactivates isn’t infectious to other cats, not to mention bacteria that take advantage and colonize a sick animal.) It is an excellent idea to have stable populations per group room, let the group size diminish as animals are adopted out, and then start an entirely new group periodically. Animals who stay in the shelter for a very short period of time may never make it in to a group housing situation, which is fine. This “all in, all out” method of group management is also used in farm animal husbandry, by the way.
Group size? With cats, 10-12 is a good group size. More than that can be really unmanageable. The shelters I have seen that do cat group housing well have multiple rooms with groups about this size. It can be tempting to have one large room with all your cats in it. I have seen this done as well. It was a disaster, with rampant disease and fighting.
Is group housing a good thing?
I definitely think group housing is a good thing for cats in shelters when done well. But it does have to be done thoughtfully and with planning. It is good for the cats, but it is not a way to save time or money.
I haven’t seen group housing for dogs in a shelter yet. Word on the street is that there is a shelter a few hours from me that does this, and I really want to check it out. I will report back if I do!