Bennett, A., Newell, M. 2019. The cat conundrum: Improving welfare and reducing stress for cats and their handlers through primary enclosure refinement. Laboratory Animal Science Professional 7(1) (March), 49-51.

In the lab, social housing of cats is a challenge due to the proximity of conspecifics made necessary by the relatively small size of typical standard caging. Handling is a challenge, as human injury due to bites and scratches often result when the cat feels cornered, another unavoidable situation with standard tiered caging. Cats are particularly sensitive to their macroenvironment. In the laboratory, it’s often cooler, brighter, and louder than cats prefer, which may result in chronic stress. Chronic stress is not only a welfare issue by itself, but it can also decrease acclimation success making handling even more stressful. The more stressed the cats become during handling, the more stressed the technicians are when handling cats. This can result in a cycle of anxiety that only increases the potential for aggression and injury, adding up to an increased probability of poor cat and human welfare in the laboratory. In exploring what we could do to reverse this cycle in our facility, we decided to focus on what we perceived as the primary source of chronic stress in our cats: their environment. One option stood out as an ideal way to incorporate the idea of an open room structure into a primary enclosure: European style nonhuman primate pens (EU pens). While there are no permanent, internal structures in these cages, the grated sides and ceiling allow for the attachment of almost any device. For our trial, plastic milk crates with artificial turf on the resting surface were attached to the walls of the pen at varying heights, allowing for multiple vertical jumping and perching opportunities. Rubber mats were cut to size and attached to the slatted floor with large zip ties. The open litter pans were replaced with covered litter boxes to ensure that more litter remained in the pans, thereby keeping the floors cleaner. Water bottles and food hoppers were attached inside the pen in a minimum of two locations each to prevent resource guarding. Other resources, such as lattice balls were provided, as were scratching materials and hanging enrichment items. Since transitioning the majority of our cat population into EU pens, human injuries during feline handling activities have declined. Indirectly, the willingness of the technicians to participate in socialization and acclimation of cats, and the enjoyment they experience while doing so, has resulted in more effective positive personal interactions and lower stress for the cats. The cats themselves appear more comfortable in their environment. They fully use the pen for a variety of species-typical behaviors including jumping, climbing, perching, playing, positive social interactions, and scent marking. Due to increased animal welfare, reduction in human injuries, increased technician job satisfaction, and lack of impact on study design and business needs, this pen-style caging will be recommended as standard housing for cats at our facility in the future.

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