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
Whew, sorry for the delay in posts, I’m still working on that personal project that shall be revealed soon. In lieu of a research post this week, I thought I’d share a resource I’m using.
This Guide to Cat Colors created by deviant artist majnouna is an extremely detailed and easy to read chart describing the coloration terms and standards of the Cat Fancier’s Association. I’m using it to create standards for color that I’m using as one of the variables for my proposed research I’m hoping to get going by the end of this month. You can even buy it as a poster!
Regular posting to resume next week, thank you for your patience!
I’m apparently still on this immunology kick, because I seem to be finding it everywhere. Heck, I recently learned that we’ve cured the allergic response to peanuts and eggs in lab mice. Check out the link, the author is hilarious and the material is interesting.
These twoarticles offer a great look at the overall prevalence and risk factors associated with vaccine-associated adverse events. The components within the vaccine that cause these events are the antigen itself, adjuvants, preservatives, stabilizers, and residues from the tissue culture used to grow the vaccine (Moore, 2005). Vaccine reactions are similar to any acute allergic reaction, and can present with a variety of mild to severe symptoms. The mild being lethargy, anorexia, fever, edema (generalized or local to the injection site), pruitis, uticaria (hives or wheals), and pain at the injection site; the severe being vomiting, dyspnea (labored or shortness of breath), and anaphylaxis. There’s a lot of information about when certain symptoms tended to occur at intervals after the vaccines were given, but any reaction that isn’t within the first 3 days is pretty much never going to be life threatening. If anaphylaxis is going to occur, it’s going to be immediately following vaccination.
The really useful information was the breakdown of risk factors that can be used for client communication. I’ve decided to discuss them here, broken down into cat and dog categories.
First, let’s start with cats. I almost like these numbers more because you don’t have to take into account bias based on animal or breed size, as most cats fall into the <20 lbs category. Nonetheless you still have to remember that a 4 pound kitten does way only a fraction of that 5 year old chubby (BCS >5 on a 9 point scale) longhair it will grow to be.
So the first two risk factors require a little bit of thinking in context to explain the numbers. It seems that cats weighing 2-4 Kg (4.4-8.8 lbs) and approximately one year of age are most at risk compared to other weights and ages. The high numbers for these groups can be explained by the number of first encounter events that occur. If you’re recording vaccine reactions, you will record less in older age groups and higher weights (low weight under 10 lbs is going to be suggestive of a young age rather than a smaller cat), because if an adverse event occurred at a young age, either the animal is no longer vaccinated or steps are taken to reduce its risk (medication, strict scheduling, vaccine selection). That being said, just because the numbers are higher by circumstance, this information is very relevant in a clinical setting. Knowing the epidemiology of these events can help technicians at clinics determine when the discussion of vaccine reactions is “routine” or “protocol”, or when it really needs to be a time to educate the client. Vaccine reactions may need to be just a bullet point when Schrodinger is there for his 4th rabies booster and a discussion when he’s receiving his kitten series.
Sex and neuter status have a large impact on reaction risk as well. Intact males actually have a lower risk of adverse events than neutered males and spayed and intact females. Apparently, estrogen has an immune boosting effect, while testosterone has an immune suppressing effect. This benefits intact males when it comes to all allergic reactions (and possibly auto-immune disorders).
Here’s the big one, and the one clinics have the most control over. With each additional vaccine given in a single visit, the risk of an adverse event increases by 28% in cats. That’s huge. Any cases of severe anaphylaxis or death recorded in the study were preceded by the animals receiving 3 or more vaccines in one visit. So clearly the biggest thing any clinic can do to prevent adverse events (or at least severe ones) is to adopt a vaccination schedule that prevents multiple vaccinations from occurring within the same visit. This can be difficult as clients will not want to end up paying for multiple exams throughout the year, but with boosters outside of rabies, exams shouldn’t be necessary unless an annual or other scheduled exam is due. As far as specific vaccines being more prone to adverse events, the only suggestive evidence was when both FVRCP and FeLV were given within the same visit. This is explained by both having two concurrent vaccinations given, and also the theory that vaccines containing multiple antigens or covering multiple serovars (multivalent) are more likely to illicit reactions. Interestingly, while clients are often scared by the potential for vaccine caused neoplasia from the rabies vaccine, it was among the lowest reaction rates observed with the administration of a single vaccine.
Dogs had much more biased data within the age and breed groups because there is an obvious relationship between body mass and the potential for reaction. When looking at the dog population, a chihuahua can be as little as 6% of the weight of a bullmastiff, yet they receive the same 1ml dose of vaccine. This means that an 8 lb Chihuahua is going to receive proportionally 15 times more vaccine than a 120 lb bullmastiff. Not surprisingly, this causes a bit of inflation in the number of reactions in groups that are smaller in size, such as toy breeds and puppies. The highest risk group in size was 0-10Kg (0-22lbs) and the highest risk age was approximately 2 years of age (with higher rates for <2 than the rates of >2).
Just like I mentioned before when talking about cats, the greatest risk factor for reactions in dogs was the amount of vaccines given in one visit. The difference though, is how the large weight distribution in dogs makes this even more important. Small dogs (<10Kg) are similar to cats in that their risk increases by 24% with every additional vaccine administered that visit, while large dogs (10-45Kg) increase their risk by 12 percent. All 3 dogs in the study that suffered fatal reactions received 4 or more vaccines at once.
Breed dispositions were difficult to pinpoint, as the suspected breeds are all small breeds which suffer a higher rate of reaction already due to their size. There is suspicion that dachshunds may be predisposed to allergic reactions in general, but so far the evidence is inconclusive concerning vaccines. Only the Lyme vaccine appeared to carry a higher risk than any other, showing again that, with the exception of neoplasia concerns, rabies does not carry with it any additional risk. Spayed and neutered animals, as in cats, are more susceptible to reactions; however the difference between intact and spayed females is much larger in dogs than in cats (where they are nearly identical). Dogs do seem to display an interesting trend where vaccine reactions are more likely to occur on the 3rd booster in a series, likely catching clinicians and clients off guard as they have received the first two without incident. This just states again that the puppy and kitten periods (and new patients) are of much more relevance when discussing vaccine reactions with clients.
The articles are both great, and contain an excellent statistical analysis of millions of animals. They provide a great overall picture of the epidemiology of vaccine-associated adverse events, and are definitely worth a read for both veterinary doctors and staff. Knowing a couple of the more important statistics can reassure the client and lend credibility to technicians that are responsible for discussing these issues.
Moore, G., DeSantis-Kerr, A., Guptill, L., Glickman, N., Lewis, H., & Glickman, L. (2007). Adverse events after vaccine administration in cats: 2,560 cases (2002–2005) Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 231 (1), 94-100 DOI: 10.2460/javma.231.1.94
Moore GE, Guptill LF, Ward MP, Glickman NW, Faunt KK, Lewis HB, & Glickman LT (2005). Adverse events diagnosed within three days of vaccine administration in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 227 (7), 1102-8 PMID: 16220670