I’ve recently been collectingevidence that suggests that we could increase adoption rates by incorporating more group housing into shelters. In building my study, I’m now interested in what factors make cats less desirable at shelters so that potentially we could market less desirable cats by placing them in housing that will make them more desirable. Lepper et. al (2002) examined just that, in a study with over 4000 cats they examined multiple variables in order to determine certain predictors of adoption. They also examined dogs, but I’ll just be discussing the cats today. Check out the article for yourself if you are interested in the dog analysis.
It has been shown that there is a clear correlation with fearful behaviors and euthanasia (Gourkow and Fraser, 2006), therefore we should be doing everything we can to reduce fearful behaviors. I’ve suggested that when we are forced to make euthanasia decisions based on space, we need to take temperament into account to evaluate the potential for adoption.
Among other variables however, this study illuminates factors outside the control of behavior modification that may
influence adopt-ability. Comparing coat color, the authors chose to set tabby cats as the standard, and were able to determine that white, color point, and grey cats were the most likely to be adopted. Brown and Black were the least likely, a fact that any former shelter employee wouldn’t be surprised to hear.
Cats’ whose color or features could be attributed to a specific breed (such as Persians) were in high demand. This study found that coat length did not have an effect on adoption rates, but other researchers have found that more than half of adopters list coat length as an important factor in their selection. Interestingly, Siamese cats had no higher rate of adoption than other cats in the study.
To me, this information says that we could easily be selecting animals that are potentially less desirable, and placing them in the front or lobby areas of shelters in group settings, and keeping kittens and more desirable animals in less prominent housing. This simple management change could potentially increase adoption rates overall, and of course reduce euthanasia rates, the goal of any shelter.
Merry Lepper, Philip H. Kass, & Lynette A. Hart (2002). Prediction of Adoption Versus Euthanasia Among Dogs and Cats in a California Animal Shelter Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 5, 29-42 DOI: 10.1207/S15327604JAWS0501_3
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
This article is one of many that I’m currently reviewing to build the introduction for the original research I plan to complete this summer/fall. This is the first of several posts discussing shelter cats to come in the next several weeks.
This study by Kessler and Turner (1997) took a look at the stress levels of cats introduced to a shelter/boarding facility-type environment over the first two weeks of their stay, and cross-examined those housed alone, in pairs, and in groups. 45 homeless animals that had already been at the facilities for some time were selected as a control, and 140 animals staying for temporary boarding were observed for the first two weeks of their stay.
Overall, the authors were able to conclude that in a two week stay, two-thirds of the cats acclimated very well, and after two weeks their stress levels, while still higher, were very comparable to the control. They suggest that other options be explored by the owners of the other third, with a special emphasis on the 4% of the cats who were extremely stressed even after a two week stay.
I endorse this wholeheartedly as I often watched animals for owners as a job when I was much younger. While they may be given more brief human contact, working out a deal with a house-sitter or neighbor to take care of your pets while you are away can be much less stressful for them than if they are placed in an unfamiliar environment with strange people and animals. You reduce their risk of exposure to disease, and help some young lad save money for college (I did…though some of it bought movie popcorn).
The more surprising conclusion was that housing the cats singly, pairs, or groups appeared to have no influence on the stress levels of the animals. There appears to be a slightly faster decline in stress for group housed cats on the authors’ graph, however it isn’t addressed, and the difference is minimal.
The conclusions have merit, but I have several problems with the selection of control animals in this study, namely, the fact that they aren’t representative of the experimental group. The biggest problem is that only homeless shelter cats were used for the control, and only boarding cats for the experimental group, where either all homeless shelter cats or all boarding cats should have been included. The second large flaw I see is that all of the control animals were housed in groups of 6 to eight, effectively ruining any comparisons you may want to make when looking at the other housing situations. In a study named Stress and Adaptation of Cats (Felis silvestris catus) Housed Singly, in Pairs, and in Groups, you would think the control would use all of those situations.
The authors briefly mentioned the stress caused by cats that may be less social, or housed with familiar animals versus strangers, but were unable to control those factors with the way the data was collected and prepared. When it comes down to it, the control group just wasn’t…controlled. They were unable to fully examine how quickly single or pair cats acclimated to the boarding facility because you couldn’t compare them to a control cat in the same situation.
Kessler and Turner have another study (1999) examining stress levels of shelter cats in terms of animal density and cage size. Interestingly enough, they found that group density was “highly correlated with the stress level of animals housed in groups”, indicating that we should have seen some differences from the study above as well. That research was done two years after the 1997 study, so perhaps the authors also thought that those questions remained unanswered from the original study. I’ll be looking out for some newer research on the subject and may chime in on it again soon.
M R Kessler, & D C Turner (1997). Stress and Adaptation of Cats (Felis Silvestris Catus) Housed Singly, in Pairs and in Groups in Boarding Catteries Animal Welfare, 6, 243-254
M R Kessler, & D C Turner (1999). Effects of Density and Cage Size on Stress in Domestic Cats (Felis Silvestris Catus) Housed in Animal Shelters and Boarding Catteries Animal Welfare, 8, 259-267
I recently had a professor tell me that if I didn’t let them know if I made it into vet school, they would forever curse me with fat, in heat, Labrador spays for the rest of my career. I can think of few fates worse for a future veterinarian (though I did mention that the owners also had to have no way to pay, and will forget to mention this until after the procedure). Today’s article is really cool and discusses the prevalence of ovariohysterectomy and orchiectomy (spaying and neutering, fixing, castration, gonad removal,de-nutting, whatever you prefer to call it) in the USA. It breaks the percentages down into region, animal species, animal breed, animal age, and enrollment in wellness plan from Banfield (animal health insurance).
Banfield Pet Hospital is an amazing organization for animal research because all of their records are computerized and kept in a central database (I should mention that the man who made Banfield what it is today is an OSU alum, go beavs). Because of this treasure trove of data, this study was able to get a sample size of over 300,000 cats and over one million dogs. While this represents less than 1% of the US pet population, its still a valuable amount of data, and we can reasonably assume that Banfield has a decent representation of the rest of the pet population that regularly visits private clinics. The article mentions that one of the only large differences is the mean age at clinics (Banfield’s is slightly lower). The numbers found in this study also line up well with previous examinations using distributed surveys to collect data.
I’m very proud to say that the Northwest region (making up Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana) has the highest percentage of castrated cats and dogs compared to any other region (tied with the North Central region for percentage of dogs) according to the study. The region with the lowest percentage was the Southeast region (making up Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee). That’s an area of the country I haven’t ever visited, so I can’t comment on cultural factors that may influence the decision to castrate pets, but clearly more outreach could be focused on that area.
The breed distribution is interesting, but doesn’t offer too much information for most breeds. In my own head I see the Labs’ and Retrievers’ high numbers understandable, as you can in some ways consider them “white-collar” or suburban dogs. This would be associated with a higher income and thus one less roadblock to castration. Pit Bulls can maybe be considered a “blue-collar” dog, but that can’t be the only reason their numbers are so low. I’m actually at a loss as to why the castration rate of Pit Bulls is so much drastically lower than all the others. It’s an obvious outlier. I myself love Pits and believe that in the right hands they make great dogs. But considering their stigma, low rate of adoption (and consequently high euthanasia rate), insurance liability, and higher risk, I do believe we should make castrating Pits a priority. I’ll definitely be looking for more literature that attempts to explain the demographics and other factors that create this problem. The second lowest group, Chihuahuas, is also interesting. Again, I’m not sure why the numbers for this breed are so low, but one factor may be that many Chihuahua’s are kept as indoor-only dogs, and that may reduce the motivation to perform the procedure, as the largest benefit is wasted on them (as seen by those owners).
I’m not surprised to see that mixed animals were more likely to be castrated, and I really have no problem with that. There aren’t too many unwanted animals that come from intentional breeding, and purebred animals generally don’t have trouble finding homes (pending behavioral issues). Responsible breeding doesn’t contribute to the pet overpopulation problem significantly, and leaving that option open to purebred owners is acceptable. With cats on the other hand, I’m happy to see the extremely high rate of castration. Cats are allowed to roam unsupervised much more than dogs, and we have enough trouble controlling the feral population without accidental pregnancies also occurring in animals that could have been easily castrated.
One rather frightening statistic was the percentage of dogs and cats from shelters that do not return for castration. This concerns me as in many cases the cost is free or subsidized to less than $50. In a private clinic you can pay upwards of $200, but this seems to be little incentive as 40-60% of animals are returned for the procedure when it is already paid for. To me, this is indicative that some of those owners will provide a low level of veterinary care for the lifetime of that animal, when they already haven’t taken advantage of a free procedure. This is pure conjecture however, and there could be a host of reasons that owners do not return. However, because the rate is so low, I would bet that there is some significant factor that is relatively consistent among owners who adopt from shelters, whether that be income (shelter’s are a very inexpensive option to get a purebred-looking dog) or attitude.
All in all, a good look at where castration is common, and where education and improvement needs to be made. I do think that many PSA’s, advertizements, and advocacy campaigns are too often directed at groups that are already in agreement. Even looking the statistics from a PSA I made back in high school show that the primary people concerned with animal welfare are women over 35, and it’s clear that similar announcements are marketed at that group. New campaigns should focus on a new approach to educate people why castration is important, and maybe spend less time showing us pictures of sad puppies. Tell me why I personally should do it, because until it’s too late to change anything, there’s no reason I should think I’m part of the problem.
Trevejo R, Yang M, & Lund EM (2011). Epidemiology of surgical castration of dogs and cats in the United States. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 238 (7), 898-904 PMID: 21453178