Will a hiding box provide stress reduction for shelter cats?
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It is well described in the literature that cats can experience stress in captivity, especially in case of entering-and stay in animal shelters. The knowledge that the experience of stress can have major impact on the welfare of animals has ensured that researchers tried to find a solution for this potential welfare problem. Promising results were found in the experiments of Kry and Casey (2007) executed in a British animal shelter. These researchers were the first who studied the primary effect of the application of a specific environmental enrichment structure; namely a hiding box. As the Dutch situation differs in housing conditions of the shelter cats, the present research had been a derivative of the study of Kry and Casey (2007). The purpose of present study has been to determine the potential effect of a hiding box on the stress levels of newly arrived cats in a Dutch animal shelter. Our hypothesis was that cats that had the ability to hide in a hiding box would show significantly lower stress levels in comparison to cats that did not had this ability. Therefore, 19 newly arrived shelter cats had been divided into two research groups; namely an experimental group whereby the animals were provided with a hiding box (N=10) and a control group (N=9) whereby the animals had no hiding box in their cage. To determine the stress levels of the research animals, behavioral observations had been done during a 14 day period with the help of the Cat-Stress-Score ethogram, developed by Kessler and Turner (1997). The outcome of this study was that the two research groups differed significant in the mean Stress Score on observation day 3 and 4, whereby the experimental group showed an overall lower mean Stress Score in time, compared to the control group. Additionally, the mean Stress Score of the experimental group showed minimal variance and decreased much faster over the 14 day observation period, compared to the control group. These findings suggest that cats provided with a hiding box may be more able to cope effectively with a stressful new environment, than the cats without a hiding box. Another important finding was that the control group showed a kind of “replacement hiding activity”, which was positioned at the only possibility in the cage, in this case behind the litter box. This alternative behavior was also seen in previous research (Carlstead et al., 1993; Gourkow & Fraser, 2006; Kry & Casey, 2007) and might show that the shelter cats were highly motivated to execute hiding behavior; however, this alternative behavior appeared to be inadequate and less effective compared to hiding in a hiding box in all four studies. Conclusively, the findings of the present study showed that the hiding box is an important enrichment type for the cat (Felis silvestris catus) to cope effectively with stressors in a shelter environment and that hiding behavior may even be classified as a behavioral need for this species. Further research is needed to study the effect of a hiding box within group housing systems since group housing appears to become a standard in many Dutch animal shelters.