Owner-surrendered cats find animal shelters harder to deal with than stray cats

This might be common knowledge among animal shelter workers but I think it's still worth repeating. A study published in 2007: Behavioral differences between owner surrender and stray domestic cats after entering an animal shelter, found that when a cat owner surrendered their domestic cat companion to a shelter the cat found the whole shelter experience more stressful than stray cats brought to the shelter.

Shelter tabby cat keen to be adopted
Shelter tabby cat keen to be adopted. Photo: Pixabay.

I can't read the detailed conclusion or the reasons behind this finding because I have to pay for access to the entire study but I think I can reasonably guess the reason why. 

Domestic cats are used to a friendly environment. Stray cats are used to a hostile environment. When a stray cat goes into a shelter there is perhaps not a lot of difference in the sense of hostility that the environment brings to them. But for a domestic cat it's a shock. They go from what should be a calm, pleasant environment to one which is noisy and where there are a lot of people coming and going and cats and dogs in cages making noises.

It is a foregone conclusion that an owner-surrendered cat is likely to feel stressed. The amount of stress they feel will depend upon their personality and their previous lifestyle.

In this study they examined 86 domestic cats (some of whom were stray cats). They measured their behaviour for the first three days after entering an animal shelter. They labelled the owner-surrendered cats as "OS" and the stray cats as "S".

The conclusion was:

"Results indicate that OS cats showed the greatest behavioral measures of stress and arousal compared to S cats."

They also found that the "mean behavioural stress rating" of cats that had been euthanised due to illness or disease was significantly higher in the OS group compared to the S group.

Further, when they examined archival data from 260 shelter cats that had developed an upper respiratory infection, the OS cats became ill much sooner than the S cats. They concluded that this was because they suffered from more stress than the S cats.

OS cats suffer from more stress than S cats when entering a shelter environment which impacts their behaviour, their health and general well-being. It can also lead to euthanasia as opposed to being adopted.

It's is a known fact that shelters can be very stressful places for cats. It makes them prone to behavioural problems and health issues. These include weight loss, self-trauma, over-grooming, aggression, withdrawal, bladder problems and upper respiratory infections.

A strong suggestion is that the best way to reduce stress in residents who are at a shelter in the long term is to remove them to a foster home which gets them out of the shelter environment. They should stay there until they are adopted. This should not just be a de-stressing tool. And foster carers should be trained and allowed to adopt out cats in their care.

The shelter can make arrangements to advertise the cats online and at their facility in the usual way and then refer potential adopters to the foster carer's home to meet the cat and discuss adoption.

An alternative is to divide shelter cats into two groups: one group is better able to deal with the shelter environment and are fast tracked for adoption while the second group may become more stressed and are therefore subject to more attention to alleviate stress and make their stay more acceptable to them. This should happen as soon as they enter the shelter.

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