Single or Group Housing at Cat Shelters

Cat shelters interest me because cat rescue interests me and lots of cats end up at cat shelters. The question that arises for shelter owners, employees and animal control people is how best to house a lot of cats in a limited amount of space. I have seen pictures of cat rescue facilities where the cats live as an interacting community, inside and out. There is lots of space and it looks good for the cats. Caboodle Ranch (now closed due to bad management) and Cat House on the Kings come to mind. There is a beautiful no kill cat rescue in Brazil who operate this way too. The picture below is from this cat sanctuary:

Cat Sanctuary Cat Brazil

Cat Sanctuary Cat Brazil – Photo copyright fofurasfelinas (Giane Portal)

This special place is at Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil.

Research has been carried out on the best way to house a lot of cats at shelters. In one study1 it was concluded that cats living freely together resulted in slightly higher stress amongst the cats than if separated due to the fact that cats are forced together who would not otherwise necessarily associate with each other. Scientifically put it is called: ‘inappropriate social grouping of unrelated adult cats’. Cats like to choose their friends. The same applies to us so it is about common sense. It should be said that in this study the comparison was between:

  • cats housed communally and
  • cats housed singly or in small groups of two or three, each cat being familiar with the other – ‘cospecifics’.

The comparison was therefore a little weighted in favour of being separated (cats placed in ‘discrete units’). I does though highlight the potential problems of putting cats together. The same problems can exist in multi-cat households.

An obvious problem with housing cats in a shelter as a freely mixing community is that the community is constantly in flux. New rescue cats are constantly being introduced. Cats don’t do well under these circumstances. They prefer routine and familiarity. They form associates. It was found that it was very stressful for some cats when introduced to a small group of cats (4-7 cats). The long term cats were more relaxed and had formed friendships2. Where the cat community was stable research indicated that the cats’ behavior patterns did not indicate high levels of stress3.

Where cats were housed singly in a cage that was totally without any enriching aspects and these cats were handled by a number of employees the cats were more stressed and consequently less adoptable than cats in groups of 8 in a large cage that was environmentally enriched and where only one or two employees handled the cats4. Stable groups living in a cat friendly environment interacting with familiar humans is preferable – common sense it seems but nice to have that confirmed.

Back from the Cat Sanctuary...

The conclusion is that it is probably better to place newcomers to a shelter in discrete units (separated). When a group of cats that are familiar with each other enter the shelter the group should be kept together. If the cat is at the shelter for some time he or she can be moved to communal housing but consideration should be given to the cat’s personality. Some cats won’t like communal living no matter how well managed and set up it is. The communal housing should preferably be:

  • relatively stable as a group
  • the environment should be enriched to allow natural behavior
  • the group should not be too large (but compare with Cat House on the Kings)


1. Ottway and Hawkins 2003
2. Durman 1991
3. Smith and others (1994)
4. Gourkow 2001

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Single or Group Housing at Cat Shelters — 4 Comments

  1. I agree that it’s far from ideal to force cats who are strangers to each other to share, and that if a group of cats go to a shelter together that they should stay together. In an ideal world cats unfortunate enough to be taken into care would be in and out, i.e adopted quickly leaving a space for the next cat but it doesn’t work like that sadly and so some shelters kill the cats that don’t get rehomed and some double/triple the number of cats in each enclosure as more and more just keep on coming. In all cases the cats must feel a lot of stress but I think they’d probably opt for being overcrowded and having the chance of a new home rather than a spell of solitary and then death. It’s a sad, sad world and we could go mad sitting brooding on things like this that have no correct answer.

  2. Our local shelter is run by a great group of volunteers. They have a cage system due to lack of space, however, they go out of their way to make sure cats that come in together are caged together and go to their new home together. They even offer a discount for multi-cat adoption, which helps with getting those homes. Let’s face it, cats are social creatures. I wouldn’t dream of having just one in my home. I think two-three is best, so why lock them away by themselves? Great blog!

    • I agree, domestic cats have become social animals over the thousands of years of domestication and to isolate them in a sparse cage is stressful. Especially for long periods. Looks like your shelter is a nice one.

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