The reasons the MSPCA no longer houses cats in groups and why you shouldn't either.
The MSPCA is one of very few charities in Malta that looks after both cats and dogs. We repeatedly hear that single accommodation for dogs is not the ideal because dogs, being a social animal, can benefit from having a kennel mate, but what applies to dogs cannot be automatically transferred to cats without some considerations.
I won't cover cat ethology in much detail here because I have already done so in this blog. So we know for a fact that the domestication of cats did not turn them into an overly social species but that some, arguably the minority, have a more social disposition. While those easily identifiable social ones may tolerate group housing better than others, there are still a number of issues worthy of discussion.
First, let me give a few examples of where cats may be found in group housing so you can frame the following points into real life contexts. You will often find cats kept in group housing in cat cafes, rescue shelters, catteries, colonies and even residences. In most of these, the population is dynamic because individuals are removed and others introduced from time to time. For most of these, there is no local legislation that regulates how many cats may be kept together, while S.L.439.14 allows animal sanctuaries to keep up to 12 cats together [8(3)] given there is a minimum of 3.05sqm sleeping area and 7.2sqm exercise area [7(2) and 8(1)] which, as a cat ethology professional, I find to be preposterous and disconcerting. Why? Well that's exactly why I am writing here; to explain why.
Consider the welfare management issues of group housing of cats:
a) A quarantine facility and protocol would be needed to to ensure all cats admitted into the main accommodation are free of communicable disease (you know, since "do no harm first" is actually a thing). How long would you think is appropriate to keep new cats in quarantine? A week? two? That depends on which diseases you are trying to keep out. You can test for FeLV and FIV, you may reasonably expect to rule out the different types of cat flu if symptoms don't show up within the typical incubation period (4-10 days) for the different types that exist (herpes , calicivirus, chlamydia and bordatella). Coronavirus, which is widespread and very easily spread, lays dormant in most cats until their immunity is compromised (more on that later) leading to Feline Infectious Peritonitis and it can only be tested for effectively once the late stage of the disease has developed. There is no known vaccine effective against Coronavirus so the only effective prevention is to keep cats away from cats they never met before, and hope they don't have it already. If you've decided that the best compromise is to isolate new intakes for 10 days, you still need to prevent the spread through molecules in the air, hands, clothes and other phomites. So how far will your quarantine be from the main accommodation? Are the staff and volunteers properly trained to decontaminate before handling vulnerable cats such as kittens? Should it even be on the same location and staffed by the same people? There are so many variables to consider and failing means you will be introducing disease to your healthy but often naive animals. While as an organisation we worry about this because it would eat away at the limited funds available, we are religious about this because we want to avoid unnecessarily compromising the health of the animals in our care. So we quarantine for at least two weeks, vaccinate immediately and do not group house cats unless they came from the same place, because we cannot guarantee that quarantine is enough to prevent new infections. If you missed it earlier, "do no harm first" is actually a thing and instead of focusing on individual animals, shelter medicine (a veterinary specialization in its own right) takes a herd health approach to veterinary care in shelters such as the MSPCA.
b) The more cats you are keeping together, especially if they come from different places, the more diseases you are probably introducing to that population. So now your cats' immune systems have to fight not one disease but several. It is a recipe for disaster as there is only so much one cat's immune system can handle at once. What gives? Something has to give. If the cat is carrying coronavirus it has already spread to your other cats and will likely develop into FIP which is often fatal. Ringworm that is normally not an issue for healthy cats, is more likely to opportunistically colonize the skin when the immune system is busy fighting something else. Cats have adapted to be solitary animals not only because of the size of their natural prey but also because the diseases they are most susceptible to are most easily avoided by keeping away from other cats.
c) Additionally, since ethologically cats prefer the solitary lifestyle, the acute stress of group housing turns into chronic stress over time which is well known to weaken the cat's immune response even further. Essentially you are placing a high risk individual in a high risk situation. Do you need to ask why they got sick? They might not get sick when they are still in shelter because their immune system just about managed to stay on top of it, but then the cat finds an adopter, and since changing environment for the cat is an immensely stressful experience, your adopter will be the first to see it. While the stress of rehoming is an unavoidable part of improving the animal's life, we can do a lot while they are in our care to avoid making matters worse. We can avoid stressing them out unnecessarily by forcing them to live a lifestyle they are not adapted to.
d) Every time a new cat is added or an adopted cat is removed, you are changing the social dynamic that was established before the change. Research shows that in free roaming cat colonies or households with several cats, cats adopt a time-sharing schedule to share the space available safely. This enables them to share the beds, litter trays, food and water, while giving each other a wide berth thus avoiding conflict. This schedule takes time for the cats to establish and they will have to figure it out again when the members of that group change. While this is happening you can expect fights, bullying, inappropriate toileting, and a plethora of behaviors that indicate acute stress. For the cats stuck in this cycle, chronic stress is an all too common outcome. Of course they are also the most likely to hide when adopters come to choose a cat so they are likely to remain stuck in this downward spiraling cycle. Still think group housing is a good thing? Or is it starting to sound a bit like hoarding?
e) On a more practical note, when you are housing cats in groups (something we used to do too by the way, until we became open to better ways) and you find that puddle of urine with blood, or that pile of diarrhea, or vomit how can you tell which cat it belonged to? Which one are you going to isolate? Which one are you going to schedule for veterinary examination? All of them? The one that seems under the weather? Will you then separate all of them and wait to see if any of them vomits or produces loose stools or pees blood? Won't this delay treatment? Won't the other cats have also caught it by this time undermining their welfare and raising your costs? Is this really doing right by your animals? Are you going to sit there all day to watch which one does it? Wouldn't that time be better spent finding homes for your animals or helping other animals in need or educating people?
f) More often than not, cats relocated to cat cafes or outside colonies came from somewhere else where they were considered a nuisance or are in danger due to human activity, such as construction work. Sadly this creates additional welfare problems. The territory previously occupied by these cats is now free for other cats to move into, so the cycle starts again putting other animals in harms way. Cats bond very strongly with their environments so will definitely try anything they can to escape and go back to where they came from, unless restrained for at least 3 weeks. Travelling back to their original environment puts them at higher risk of injury by traffic, falls and attacks by other animals, while it also places them in difficult position trying to find food and water until they get to where they want to be.
So why are cats still often kept in group housing?
For a sanctuary this may be to maximize the use of space available thus housing more animals at any given time. While group housing could be considered suitable as a short term option, for the reasons stated above we should all aim to move away from this practice and establish smaller enclosures to house cats in singles or bonded pairs.
For cat cafes I would say the cats are kept together to attract people who like spending time with cats, to put cats in a place where they are accepted rather than leave them where they are unwanted or unsafe due to human activity, and because there is public perception that cat cafes offer a positive service to cats (after reading the above I hope you will not be of this opinion). I take it this means there is a lack of education or resistance to education in general.
So in essence group housing of cats only offers benefits to humans and is mostly a shitty ordeal for the cats.
You might be reading this in despair because you've been housing cats in groups. We don't want you to despair. We want you to use the above to start implementing change now, like we did when we learnt. We want to guide your actions so you can improve cat welfare.
1) If possible reduce the number of cats housed together. You can do this by dividing the place up creating smaller groups. In a house you could use doors to divide cat territories. In a shelter you can divide the space you have using smaller enclosures where cats can be housed in smaller groups aiming to one day house them in singles or bonded pairs. Bonded pairs are cats that go beyond tolerating each other but actively seek each other, most easily observed when cats choose to sleep together and groom each other.
2) If dividing the place up is not possible, can you expand the area available or increase enrichment? some issues can be reduced by reducing the concentration of cats thus helping them share the territory more peacefully and reduce the burden of stress on their health. However studies show that there is a limit to what increasing space can do for cats if there is no enrichment. Enrichment can improve welfare even if the space remains small.
3) Stop adding more cats to your group even when cats get adopted. More cats will only continue deteriorating the welfare of the cats in your care.
4) If you must house cats in groups do not continue routinely changing the individuals in the group and select which cats live together based on how well they seek each other's company. This measure maintains the established social dynamic and avoids introducing disease to naive individuals while also preventing new conflict within the group.
5) Design your facilities and procedures around your most vulnerable animals. While the healthiest and most adapted animals you house are more tolerant of the stress and issues mentioned above, the most vulnerable are the most at risk of long term effects. These are the young ones, the naive ones, the sick ones and the old. Ask yourself am i protecting those effectively? If not, how can I do better?
6) Improve your rehoming/adoption strategies. Studies have shown people find it harder to choose the more options they are offered. It means that the more cats they see the less likely they are to choose just one. So, irrespective of how many cats you house, only offer the ones that are compatible with your adopters. We have managed to more than double our conversion rate this way (greater percentage of people who contact us to adopt actually end up adopting).
7) Train your staff and volunteers. Educate the public. Let us all join forces to improve the welfare of cats kept in groups.