Which cats are more sociable in animal shelters?

BUFFALO, NY – Cats who are surrendered by their owners to animal shelters tend to spend more time near other cats than cats who were previously strays. Researchers from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, examined cats living in group housing in shelters. Although traditionally placed in single cages for adopters to view, many shelters are creating larger rooms that can house multiple cats in a large open space. This has been the topic of considerable debate since cats are not known for being the most social of creatures.

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Malini Suchak, along with Michael Piombino and Kalina Bracco, examined how often the cats were nearby other cats in the room, and if they were in proximity, what the relationship was between the two cats. They collected data on 87 groups of cats, ranging from two to eight cats in each group, and report their findings in the latest issue of Pet Behaviour Science.

They found that there was a lot of variation in how sociable cats were, with more than half never spending time around the other cats in the room. When they looked at where the cats came from, strays were more likely to be “introverts” than cats who were surrendered by their owners. The researchers suggest that this may have to do with the fact that stray cats are outside prior to arriving at the shelter, where they have a lot of space and might like to keep more space between themselves and others.

Most surprisingly, the researchers found that cats who came in together and therefore knew each other were not more likely to spend time together than cats who were strangers and introduced at the shelter. “This was a really surprising finding because previous studies have found that familiarity often predicts how much time cats spend together in the home and one would just generally expect cats who know each other to spend more time together,” says Suchak, the lead author of the study. “However, we also know that in the home cats have multiple large rooms and also often choose to spread themselves out throughout the house. In fact, an early study found that cats will ‘timeshare’ favored spots, with different cats using the spot at different times of day.” The research team also noted that there was no aggression; less sociable cats were not fighting, instead they were simply avoiding each other.

As to why the cats were not spending time with cats they know, the researchers speculate that stress may be playing a role. “Most cat owners can attest to the fact that cats really don’t like change,” says Suchak. “So when we’re looking at shelter cats we really have to remember that what we’re seeing here might not actually reflect how they were in the home setting. That might mean that cats that were often seen together at home might not spend as much time together here or cats that were never seen together at home might suddenly start hanging out together.”

Given the limited information shelters have about the cats coming in, it is difficult to determine which cats might be best suited for group housing. However, Suchak stresses that none of their data point to systematic problems with group housing in shelters, even for the “introverts.” “We often forget that these larger rooms provide the cats with a lot of opportunities that small cages do not. They have room to climb, places to hide, and room to play. Even a cat who spends most of their time alone may benefit from these other features of the larger room.” Ultimately, having a mix of small, single cages and larger group rooms would allow shelters to find which housing would be most comfortable for each individual cat.

By Malini Suchak, Michael Piombino and Kalina Bracco

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