Swedish Cat Shelters: A National Review
While cat shelters exist to keep homeless animals safe, the shelter environment can induce stress, which may result in an increased risk of disease in resident cats. Many studies have examined ways to reduce stress levels in shelter cats, including providing appropriate housing and a calm environment, adequate space, and opportunities for enrichment and hiding. This paper, published in Science of Animal Welfare (the journal of Universities Federation for Animal Welfare), adds to this research by investigating policy, husbandry practices, and occurrence and prevention of disease in Swedish cat shelters, as reported by shelter staff. It is only the second comprehensive study of cat shelters in Sweden and builds on results of the first-ever study, A survey of cat shelters in Sweden, by Eriksson, Loberg, and Andersson (2009).
The authors sent a survey containing questions about housing, enrichment opportunities, management protocols, vaccination and quarantine procedures, and occurrences of infectious diseases to 64 cat shelters in Sweden, all of which are run by small organizations or individuals. Of the shelters contacted, 39 responded. Results provided comprehensive information on shelter practices. For example, 82% of shelters house cats in groups, with the most common group size between three and five cats. All shelters provide some form of enrichment such as toys and climbing structures, and 58% of shelters offer cats outdoor access. Shelters differ on whether new cats are vaccinated before or after being quarantined, and the most commonly occurring diseases are cat cold/flu and eye infections.
In addition, the authors found a significant positive correlation between number of reported diseases and the number of cats at a shelter. However, they found no significant correlation between number of reported diseases and size of the groups in which cats are housed. They also note disease occurrence in the surveyed shelters was unusually low, as 12 shelters reported no cases of disease in the last three years and 17 reported no cases in the month preceding the survey. The authors speculate that the low incidence of disease may be the result of shelters providing a more enriched home-like environment to reduce stress and, as a result, the incidence of disease.
Shelter workers and advocates are likely already aware of the positive impact that various forms of enrichment can have on shelter cats’ mental and physical health. They may be less aware of the potential benefits of group housing, particularly for shelter cats in the U.S. As the authors of this paper describe, shelters in the U.S. commonly use “duplex housing systems, which consist of rows of cases stacked on top of each other” that can lead to elevated stress levels. Therefore, these shelters should consider adopting the model followed by Swedish shelters that provides a home-like environment with multiple kinds of enrichment, including indoor and outdoor communal areas.