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From Super Aggressive to "Highly Adoptable" in Only 10 Days

Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers in Australia recently studied the effects of “gentling” on shelter cats
  • Gentling involves a way of interacting with sheltered cats to reduce their stress level, maintain their health, and improve their level of contentment
  • Even aggressive, hostile cats destined for euthanasia respond well to gentling, making them much more likely to be adopted

By Dr. Becker

Well here’s some purr-fectly cheery news!

Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia have scientifically proven that petting, brushing, and playing with shelter cats – a practice known as “gentling” – helps keep them healthy.

And healthy, content cats are much more likely to find new forever homes.

Health, Well-Being of Shelter Cats Improves with Gentling

The University of Queensland study, published in the journal Preventive Veterinary Medicine,1 looked at 96 shelter cats judged to be healthy and content.

The cats were divided into two groups. Group 1 cats were given positive attention from the same person for 10-minute sessions, four times a day, for 10 days. During the gentling sessions, the kitties received petting, brushing, and playtime with their designated person.

Group 2 cats (the control group), got nothing more than a person standing in front of their cage, eyes averted, on the same schedule (10 minutes at a time, four times a day, for 10 days).

At the end of the 10 days, the kitties in group 1 remained content, and fewer had upper respiratory infections. (Respiratory disorders are a response to stress commonly seen in shelter cats.)

Sadly, the group 2 cats were less content at the end of the study, and more were sick. Of the 49 cats in the control group, 17 developed respiratory disorders, compared with only 9 of the 47 cats in the gentling group.

Study co-author Nadine Gourkow, an animal welfare consultant, told The Huffington Post she found a “strong association between positive emotions induced by gentling and good health” in the cats.2 This is probably due to the fact that happy cats produce more antibodies, and more antibodies mean a greater ability to fight off illness.

“We have learned that the domestic cat is very responsive to good treatment by humans,”  says Gourkow’s colleague and co-author Clive J.C. Phillips of the University of Queensland.3

Content Cats Have Higher Levels of Infection-Fighting Antibodies

The gentling study was funded by the Morris Animal Foundation with the goal of helping shelter cats stay healthy, and therefore, more adoptable.

Emotional stress in cats results in compromised immune function, which commonly leads to upper respiratory infections (URIs). URIs are the second leading cause of euthanasia in shelter cats because the infections are expensive to treat and highly contagious.

According to study co-author Phillips, the researchers, “Examined the relationships among behavior, the stress hormone cortisol, and levels of secretory immunoglobulin A (S-IgA) in shelter cats.

S-IgA is a substance that helps the immune system launch a response against URIs and it is highly responsive to emotional states. In other species, emotional stress was shown to inhibit S-IgA, and increasing emotional well-being stimulates S-IgA.”4

The researchers looked at three different emotional states in the cats – anxiety, frustration, and contentment, and observed that content kitties had higher blood levels of S-IgA.

The group 1 cats were given gentling to reduce anxiety, training to decrease frustration, and positive interactions with humans to help maintain contentment. The researchers discovered that all 3 types of interventions increased and helped maintain the cats’ contentment, and stimulated S-IgA.

And in fact, several kitties who had displayed high levels of aggression and hostility when they entered the shelter responded to the interventions within just six days, and quickly found new homes.

Aggressive Jack the Shelter Cat Gets Gentled … and Adopted

Jack the cat, a stray, was picked up by a humane officer, and brought to a shelter. The shelter staff suspected the cat had serious dental problems, but he wouldn’t allow handling. In fact, poor Jack was very frightened and aggressive towards anyone who came near his cage.

The protocol in many shelters is to euthanize stray cats after a legal holding period of 72 hours if they are deemed unadoptable due to a medical condition or behavioral issues such as severe aggression.

Jack was enrolled in the University of Queensland study. However, his behavior was such that he couldn’t be provided with gentling interventions by hand. Instead, his handler attempted interaction using a stick and rubber ball.

During the first attempt, Jack was very aggressive with the handler, hissing and attacking the stick with the ball attached. However, after a few sessions, the cat started to relax, and allowed himself to be handled. Jack’s stress level remained high, but he was no longer hissing or growling, and by day 4, he was purring and rubbing up against his person’s hand.

By day 10, Jack was deemed “highly adoptable.” He was neutered, received much-needed dental care, and was adopted soon after.

The researchers believe gentling improved Jack’s welfare at the shelter and saved his life. According to Morris Animal Foundation, “He and thousands like him are usually considered non-adoptable and euthanized within a few days of entering the shelter.”5

Gentling Could Help Other Shelter Animals As Well

The researchers will use their study results to create educational materials for use by shelter personnel and veterinary staffs to improve the emotional well-being and health of cats.

Gourkow and Phillips plan to continue their research into gentling by looking next at which methods are most effective. Also on Gourkow’s to-do list is a website to teach shelters how to apply gentling techniques, along with other methods for keeping kitty residents healthy, happy, and optimally adoptable.

The researchers believe gentling might provide similar benefits to other shelter animals as well, for example, dogs with kennel cough.

For a good gentling primer, read Handling & Gentling by the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA.