Assessing The Welfare Of Shelter Cats
Austria has a de facto no-kill policy for companion animals. Since Austrian law “forbids the euthanasia of animals merely because they are ownerless,” shelters are required to provide space and a certain level of quality of life for the cats in their care. A 2011 survey revealed that the mean length of stay for shelter cats is about 12 months, which is a considerable portion of a cat’s life. While research has been done to develop “valid and reliable” ways of assessing the welfare of animals on farms, the same can’t be said for animals in shelters. Some types of welfare measurements exist for cats and dogs in laboratories, but these do not translate to shelters, which provide a different type of environment with different potential outcomes.
This article looks at developing a welfare assessment protocol for shelter cats that measures both chronic stress and health problems, as well as “positive emotional states.” The study authors note that stress can be challenging to measure in cats because they show stress by both inhibiting certain behaviors and exaggerating others (e.g., hypervigilance, or extreme alertness). Observing inhibited behavior presents an obvious challenge: How do we accurately observe a lack of behavior? And making note of hypervigilant behavior can also be challenging. The authors of this paper wanted to determine animal-based parameters for assessing welfare that can be readily measured in a shelter setting, are stable over time, and yield good inter-rater reliability, which means that different observers can get consistent results under similar conditions. The authors visited and re-visited 30 shelters across Austria to obtain data.
The study results showed that poor coat condition and thinness are reliable parameters that indicate poor welfare in shelter cats. Both coat condition and thinness are related to housing environment, length of stay, and the presence of enrichment. They also speak to potentially broader behavioral issues. Importantly, however, the authors note that a high level or long duration of stress is probably required to cause a change in both parameters, and so welfare is likely being compromised before these effects appear. Since poor coat condition and thinness are both physiological conditions, the authors encourage more research on behavioral measures that might be able to “detect subtler changes in the welfare state of cats housed in groups.”
This study is significant mainly because it identifies a way to measure welfare that is repeatable. The authors note that, to their knowledge, “No other studies about repeatability of animal-based welfare measures in cats have been published to date.” While thinness and poor coat condition could be seen as rather subjective measures of welfare, the authors point out that creating standardized guides to help shelter staff make these assessments is key. For advocates, the study provides hopeful evidence that the welfare of shelter cats can be assessed quickly and accurately, thereby helping shelter staff to readily identify cats in need of extra care.