Effects of a hiding opportunity on fURI, bodyweight and adoption rates in different housing conditions in Dutch shelter cats
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The total cat population in the Netherlands consists of circa 2,6 million individuals and annually, approximately 52.000 cats end up at facilities for shelter and reassignments. Failure to cope with these environmental changes can indicate a decline in welfare, leading to immunodeficiency making the cat more vulnerable for upper respiratory infections, reducing body weights and lower adoption chances. Hiding enrichment can play an important role in preventing an impairment in welfare since cats will have an opportunity to remove themselves from stressors. In the current study we aimed to determine an easy measurable and practicable parameter for monitoring stress in shelter cats which can be used by shelter workers and volunteers with the purpose to recognize, reduce and even prevent stress, thereby optimizing health and welfare in shelter cats. 15 newly arrived European short hair cats between 1 and 11 years of age were randomly assigned to two treatment groups: the experimental group (N = 9) which had access to a hiding box, and the control group (N = 7) which did not have access to a hiding box. Place preference locations were determined for either the first 14 days in individual housing in quarantine area, as for the first 7 days in consecutively social housing units on day 1,2,3,5,7,9,12,14,15,17,19 and 21. Social Adaptation Score (SAS) was introduced in order to relate stress levels to spending time in close proximity to unfamiliar conspecifics in social housing on day 15,17,19 and 21. fURI scoring took place on day 1,2,3,5,7,9,12 and 14 in single housing conditions. Body weights were determined for week 1, 2 and 3 and food- and water intake were registered for days 1 through 14. Number of days between leaving the quarantine area and being adopted by a new owner were registered in order to determine adoption rates. Most important findings include: 1. Cats without access to a hiding box spent significant more time elsewhere than cats who did have access to a hiding box. More than half of the total observed time was spent in the box. In social housing units, cats spent most of their time outdoors on ground level in peripheral areas followed by a preference for being in an enrichment item with hiding purpose. Central areas were least favorite. 2. Significant differences in bodyweight were observed between day 1 and day 7, and between day 1 and day 21. 13 out of 16 cats lost weight during the first 14 days in shelter and 5 out of 8 cats continued losing weight after leaving the quarantine area. Although, there were no indications for a significant difference between the treatment groups regarding to bodyweight losses, mean overall bodyweight loss in the control group (-4,7%) was clearly more pronounced as in the experimental group (-2,9%). 3. 100% of included cats had or developed signs of fURI during the first 14 days in the shelter. And higher fURI scores were significantly and positively correlated with older cats. 4. A SAS of 1 was noted for 2 out of 5 cats. 5. No significant differences were detected between the experimental group and the control group regarding to bodyweight loss, food intake, water intake, fURI score and adoption rates. Results suggest offering hiding enrichment could help coping with the new environment by reducing physiological stress. Although, inter-animal variability is high and hiding boxes may not reduce stress in all cats, at least the option of hiding and perching should be offered. No significant differences were registered between the experimental group and the control group regarding to bodyweight loss, food intake, water intake, fURI score and adoption rates but descriptive statistics suggests the importance of a hiding box on improving adaptation, reflected by less mean decreases in bodyweights for cats in the experimental group. Determining body weights could therefore act as a relatively easy and practical way for recognizing impaired welfare. This study highlights the importance of hiding enrichment and applying this in practice will be an important step in increasing welfare in shelter cats.