As I continue my research trend concerning adoption rates in shelter cats, I came across this thesis by Nadine Gourkow, who is much more famous than I ever realized while reading the article. A brief google search of her name reveals that she is at the forefront of shelter cat welfare, and clearly I need to read more of her work as I continue to shape my study.
Her masters thesis explores the background for my intended study, in that it seeks to examine not only those factors inherent to the cats and their housing situation, but in what potential adopters are looking for. I’m hoping to collect as much of this information as possible to develop a hypothesis as to whether shelter layout could increase adoption rates by marketing less attractive cats in situations where they may be perceived as more adoptable.
I’ll admit firsthand that I didn’t read all 80 pages of the thesis, I was primarily interested in the methods, results, and discussion, as such I may have missed some of the finer points of Ms. Gourkow’s introduction. My personal interest was in the conclusions she drew based on the study design and how they could impact my own study design.
Four treatments were used in the study, which varied by complexity of cages (from a single animal in a barren cage to multiple cats in an enriched enclosure) and frequency/consistency of handling by shelter staff. I was primarily interested in the difference between singly housed cats compared with multiple cat housing.
I was pleased to see that this study only contained adult cats, as I’ve had concerns about the skewed adoption rate of kittens found more often in group housing in other studies. It was unfortunate that the handling effects could not be separated from the housing treatment in the analysis, however, it seems clear that either the consistent handling or cage enrichment had a large effect.
Where the cats in the single, barren, cage (standard) treatment experienced a 45% adoption rate, all of the other treatments had 74% or more adopted.
Did you read that? By adding a perch and hiding area (along with consistent handling) to a cat housed alone, they increased the number of cats adopted by 29%.
That’s an impressive change, however, I am more concerned with single vs. group housing, and thus was even more interested in what adopters listed as important criteria in their selection of a cat. The results clearly suggest that cats housed in groups have an advantage.
When it comes down to what adopters want to see in a cat, we can’t necessarily alter desirable traits such as “friendliness towards adopter,” “playfulness,” or “happy disposition.” But we can suppress other desirable traits by not providing opportunities for animals to exhibit them. The factors that I want to focus on are those that are enhanced or only provided through the use of group housing.
Being able to enter the cage with cats (74% of respondents)
Friendly with other cats (69%)
Able to view with other cats (52%)
Alternatively, while it may be essential for the cats’ mental well being, seeing perches and toys in cages was not very influential for adopters (38% or lower). These items may still play a large role in adoption rates due to other factors such as playfulness (86%) and reduction of fear behaviors (which dramatically increase euthanasia rates), but from a marketing and management standpoint, the easy change would be to house more cats in groups.
Arguments against housing cats in groups are primarily based on disease management. I recently read that roughly half of the cats in shelter environments become infected with contagious upper respiratory disease during their stay, and my own anecdotal experience supports that percentage. The article here, however, showed no difference in animals quarantined or euthanized due to illness between single and group treatments.
Another argument suggests that strange cats experience more stress when placed together, but Kessler and Turner along with Ms. Gourkow both reveal that space per cat plays a larger role in mitigating that stress, and that after a certain period stress levels become similar across all groups.
The picture that I’m beginning to piece together from these papers is that cats that are housed in groups are more desirable and consistently enjoy higher adoption rates. To use this information, I would hope that shelters would incorporate more group housing, and select animals for limited space based on adoptable attributes. I’ll continue exploring group housing’s influence on adoption rates, but now I’m interested in finding other traits that could make animals less desirable so that we can make placement decisions based on an animals marketable traits. The goal of this line of thinking being: if we can increase adoption rates for our less adoptable animals, can we reduce euthanasia rates overall?
Edit: I found the published version of the study featured in this thesis, and added the citation below.
Nadine Gourkow (2001). FACTORS AFFECTING THE WELFARE AND ADOPTION RATE OF CATS IN AN ANIMAL SHELTER University of British Columbia
N Gourkow, & D Fraser (2006). The effect of housing and handling practices on the welfare, behavior and selection of domestic cats (Felis sylvestris catus) by adopters in an animal shelter Animal Welfare, 15, 371-377