Rehrig, A., DeMagistris, M., Callan, C. 2013. Refinements in laboratory cat management: While the humans are away, the cats will play! Laboratory Animal Science Professional 1(4) (December), 32-35.
Cats can be successfully housed in groups when given enough space in addition to sufficient feeding, elimination, and resting areas. Cats at the University of Rochester are utilized in vision research, and have titanium cranium implants to stabilize their heads during experimental trials. Though such implants are often a reason stated to preclude animals from social housing, this was not the case at our facility. Early in the development of our management program, the cats were confined to individual cages overnight and on the weekends, but allowed to play in small groups of compatible individuals on a daily basis. To this date we have not observed any damage to the head posts due to interaction with conspecifics. Though daily play sessions satisfied their social needs to some degree, continuous social housing was deemed the optimal strategy as long as we retained the ability to separate individuals for feeding and other research purposes. The procedure to accomplish this goal is described. Cats that were once considered incompatible are observed in close, affectionate contact. Furthermore, anxiety behaviors, such as hiding, slinking around, and being easily startled have been visibly reduced. The staff also noted that certain male cats that were once aggressive and reactive when let out in a large group have become relaxed, content, and more accepting of other colony members. In addition to the behavioral changes, the new housing arrangement produced other positive outcomes we did not anticipate. Once the cats were socially housed the research staff noted that the implants appeared cleaner and the margins had reduced purulent discharge. Formerly, after spending an entire weekend individually housed, certain cats would often refuse to work on Mondays. Once they were socially housed over the week-ends, these same individuals actively participated in the experimental tasks with little to no reluctance. Cranial implants and food scheduling made the implementation of continuous social housing more difficult, but our successful management program illustrates that it can certainly be accomplished to the benefit of all involved parties, cats and research alike.