Reducing the upper respiratory infection rate in shelters is vital to successfully maintaining a healthy population. To do that we need to develop a cat like perspective in order to locate potential problems that may pop up in animal shelters. We need to adjust our eye level to that of a cat and look around inside the cage. And the outside. Ideally the bowls and litter boxes are clean, no sneeze marks are present and the cat is happy and alert. Other things to look for include a soft place to sleep, shelves or hammocks, and toys to provide exercise for the cat. Keep an open ear for loud noises and try to keep dog barking out of the cat area or minimize it as much as possible. One thing you can do is record sound with a camera and replay the video. The actual noise level of a small task such as cage opening might surprise you which is why I capitalize on never slamming cage doors too hard or fast.
One of the most important factors that determine how healthy a cat will be in the future is stress reduction. A huge part of cat upper respiratory is associated with herpes recrudesce, which is due to stress. Small encounters like cage moves and stressful veterinary visits can cause upper respiratory to come out of hiding. A compassionate and logical focus on socialization, environmental enrichment and proper sanitation is key to keeping cats happy and healthy and going forward.
At the very least, unnecessary stress leads to disease and strains the budget for each cat that requires treatment with antibiotics. Some cats will require force feeding and fluids which can further increase the stress level of all of the staff. Cage space is also allotted for the treatment period. Treatment can take up to two or three months for the final sneeze to clear. Protocols have to be in place to decrease spread and increase the success of the treatment plan.
While stress cannot be completely eliminated, there are a lot of things we can do as volunteers and as shelter workers to lower stress. A big part of stress relates to cage cleaning and the way that the cats are taken care of while housed at the shelter. The plan should be to prevent disease in the first place. Once a cat has upper respiratory, many more cases could follow. The battle is already partly lost at that point. It has been said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Decreasing Stress by Cage Enrichment
Environmental enrichment is necessary to provide a cat with the daily exercise and interaction that they need. Environmental enrichment can be achieved by including toys, cage scratchers, hammocks or other related items in with the caged cat. The idea to to increase physical activity and decrease stress.
- Appropriate cage space per cat. Four square feet to six square feet is common. Around eight or ten is optimal to keep areas of resting and eating separated. Shelves are also a great addition to the average box type animal shelter cage and can be added to make up the lack of floor space.
- Hammocks increase elevation level. Cats like to feel secure and sitting at a higher level can play a big difference in their stress levels. Hammocks can be made into any shape or design which makes fitting them into a cage easy and convenient. They can be fastened to the inside of the cage with key chains, zip ties or with metal leaflet rings that are used for scrap booking.
- Cage scratchers for exercise. Cats need exercise daily to stay healthy. One manufacturer that goes by the name "stretch n scratch" designs scratchers that are made to attach to box like cages.
- Toys such as ping pong balls. One toy can be placed in each cat cage to give them some physical exercise each day. This gives them something to do all day long and provides a lot of amusement of potential adopters as well. Interactive toys can also be implemented in cageless shelters or community cat’s rooms. An example of a interactive cat toy is "Da Bird" and the "Cat Dancer."
- Bowls and litter boxes that won't tip. Plentiful food and water throughout the day complies with the department of agriculture rules and helps keep them healthy. Food should be age appropriate and species appropriate and be changed out every few days. Water is dumped every day and refilled with fresh.
Decreasing Stress during Cleaning
Cleaning is the most extensive and busiest part of the day for shelter workers and volunteers. A few responsibilities of the cat cleaner is detailed below.
- Providing fresh food and water for each cat
- Changing litter boxes, covers, beds, as needed
- Washing hands between each new cat interaction
- Medicating sick cats as needed
- Examining cats and writing down notes
- Keeping flies, fleas and parasites under control
- Vaccinating new intakes as needed
It is very easy to see how all of this work could lead to stress during the mornings. Especially if sick cats are near the healthy cats or if hand washing procedures are not strict enough. Another thing I often see as the culprit is the cage cleaning method itself.
The old age tactic of cleaning each cage with bleach after removing the cat in the morning is long gone. This is because it isn't necessary to do that every day if the same cat is staying in the same cage. A few of the most important topics of cage cleaning are below:
- Reducing offense odors. The smell from bleach and other disinfectant products can be irritating to the nose and eyes. To prevent causing cats to sneeze and cough, ventilation and good air quality can be implemented. Better yet, a disinfectant that is non-irritating and provides an accurate disinfection method can be used. Trifectant and Accel both make excellent disinfectants that can be used in place of bleach. Also it is important to consider using a rag and bucket technique versus a spray the cage technique in areas of poor air control.
- Cutting down contaminants. Removing unneeded items that are no longer feasible to sanitize or takes too long to disinfect is a part of keeping cats healthy. Litter boxes that are too scratched or bowls that are cracked cannot be properly disinfected between cats and are a hazard to the overall population.
- Decrease danger and risks. Remove edible parts of cat toys and keep covers in good condition and free from tearing. Cat toys such as toy mice and birds usually have eyes that can be bit off and ingested or tails that are disconnected and chewed part easily.
- Parasites such as fleas, ticks, and ear mites. Parasites can cause upper respiratory due to the associated stress of the cat having to live with them. Skin conditions can also result from increased scratching in the case of ear mites or fleas. During the morning routine, inspect every cat for parasites and treat accordingly.
- Spot cleaning rather than deep cleaning cat cages. Using a mild detergent to clean cat cages in the morning is more than enough when the same cat is kept in the same cage for an extended period of time. This makes it so you don't have to remove the cat for cleaning and in the end, decreases the stress level for everyone.
- Reducing contact. One part of decreasing disease spread is to limit exposure to sick cats or cats suspected of incubating a disease. By handling cats away from the clothing and sanitizing between cats, this can be limited. It is best to save the biggest part of playing and handling after a full clothing change has been completed. Sometimes this is not feasible with a short staff team. That being the case, the risk of upper respiratory arising from lack of proper socialization can outweigh the risk of transmittance via clothing.
- A litter scoop for each cat. Using one litter scoop for each cat is essential to not spread parasites between an entire population of cats. One cat infected with roundworm can easily become ten or twenty if one scoop is used for the entire population.
- An age and species appropriate diet. A kitten could struggle with adult food and eat not very much or fail to thrive. Kitten food provides important nutrients for developmental growth. Cats that have allergies should have cage cards specifying the amount and type of food to be fed so that no problems occur.
- Provide a hiding place. A hiding place can be as simple as a cardboard box, and extra cover in the cage or a professional hiding box that has a lock that can be adjusted while cleaning.
- Improve the handling skills of all staff. Cats like to be carried out of a cage hindquarters first. This allows for the cat to see where he has been, not where he is going. This is because cats are not accustomed to fast changes.
It is clear that shelter medicine and behavioral enrichment is important to keeping cats healthy in the shelter. A lot of behavioral tools are available to decrease stress and increase live release rates now and are recommended to be utilized in each shelter or as needed.