More Space for Shelter Cats Reduces Respiratory Disease

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

upper respiratory infection in shelter cats

Story at-a-glance -

  • Upper respiratory infections (URIs) in cats is a major problem for cats in animal shelters, affecting up to 30% of the population
  • The disease is a leading cause of illness and death among shelter cats
  • Rates of URIs were significantly reduced among cats given double-sized, two-compartment cages, as opposed to the smaller, single cages often used
  • Providing more space — more than 8 square feet — was highly protective against URIs, as was having two or fewer housing moves during the first week of stay
  • Larger cages allow for fewer housing changes during cleaning and may reduce cats’ stress levels by providing a separate area for the litterbox, food, water and bed

Upper respiratory infections (URIs) in cats is a major problem for cats in animal shelters, affecting up to 30% of the population.1 The disease is a leading cause of illness and death among shelter cats, in worst case scenarios leading to euthanasia, and in best case scenarios eating up precious resources that could be used elsewhere.

Part of what makes managing URIs in shelter cats so difficult is that cats can be carriers for the viruses that cause them, without showing symptoms. So cats may appear healthy, but come into the shelter with a subclinical infection that ends up infecting other cats. Stress is also linked to URIs in cats, an emotional state common in animal shelters.

While isolating cats with URIs can help prevent transmission to other shelter animals, this reduces the infected cat’s likelihood of being adopted, necessitating a better option. In a study funded by Morris Animal Foundation, researchers at the University of California, Davis may have found a solution, and relatively simple one at that.2

Doubling Cage Sizes Reduces Respiratory Disease in Shelter Cats

The study involved nine shelters and data from the intake of 18,373 adult cats. Several variables stood out when it came to risk factors for URIs. The use of intranasal vaccine as well as the availability of hiding spaces were associated with significantly increased URI rates, while providing more space — more than 8 square feet — was highly protective, as was having two or fewer housing moves during the first week of stay.3

Rates of URIs were significantly reduced among cats given double-sized, two-compartment cages, as opposed to the smaller, single cages often used, especially in the first week. According to the researchers:4

“There have been very limited studies on optimal single cat housing size for cats in confinement, so it is helpful to clarify the minimum size required to see a beneficial effect.

Many “new and improved” kitty condos now on the market are in the 6–8 ft2 (.56-.74m2) range for floor space (~30–36” {76-91cm} long and 24–28” {61-71cm} deep) and may provide less benefit in terms of disease and stress reduction than larger models.”

Part of the problem is that single-compartment cages often require cats to be moved out daily for cleaning, but housing changes increase stress and may activate feline herpesvirus that causes URIs.5 Unfortunately, many shelters use single-compartment cages for cats in their first week at the shelter, reserving larger cages for cats in the public adoption spaces.

“Replacing housing throughout the shelter with double-compartment cages or with larger walk-in units that facilitate cleaning with a minimum of disruption and handling for the cat may help reduce URI,” the researchers noted.6 This is not only due to the larger cage allowing for fewer housing changes during cleaning, but also because, by providing more space and a separate area for the litterbox, food, water and bed, the cats’ stress levels may have been reduced.7

Dr. Kelly Diehl, Senior Scientific Programs and Communications Adviser at Morris Animal Foundation, said in a news release, “Shelters can take immediate practical action based on the results of this study. These changes can improve cats’ well-being and ultimately save lives, important goals for both shelters and Morris Animal Foundation.”8

What Is Feline Upper Respiratory Disease?

Feline calicivirus (FCV) and feline herpes virus cause the vast majority of upper respiratory infections in cats. The viruses can be spread in the air when a cat sneezes.

As the droplets, which contain infective virus particles, fall to the ground, they contaminate the surfaces they land on. Food and water bowls, litter boxes and bedding can all transfer the virus, as can direct contact between cats, such as grooming or contact with saliva, eye discharge or poop.

Symptoms are similar to the common cold in humans and may include sneezing, runny nose and pinkeye (conjunctivitis). A cat that has been infected can continue to harbor the virus in her body and intermittently shed it through nasal, oral or eye secretions during periods of stress.

Other symptoms can include corneal ulcers, keratitis (inflammation of the cornea) and decreased or excessive tear production. While most cats will recover on their own, it’s possible for pneumonia, bleeding problems and other severe problems to develop.

Would Doubling Cage Sizes Mean Fewer Cats Could Be Saved?

The researchers recommended shelters implement larger cage sizes to drastically reduce URIs among their kitty residents, which raises concerns that it could cut down on the number of cats that could be housed. However, the study suggests this won’t be an issue, as the now healthier cats should have faster adoption rates and lower stress levels.

“If improved housing also reduces illness, and therefore decreases length of stay, the same number of cats could potentially be served over time with fewer, larger housing units,” they explained.9 It’s a simple change that could end up matching even more cats in need with their forever homes. Study author Dr. Kate Hurley, director of the University of California, Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program, added:10

“Our study demonstrated that a disease we thought was almost inevitable in shelters is absolutely preventable, and prevention could be as simple as just giving the cat enough space. The benefits go far beyond just preventing URI. By making these changes, shelters can make cats happier, lower staff stress by making their jobs easier, and increase adoptions and shelter success in saving lives.”

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