I practice the concept of fear-free every single time I perform any procedure with the cats in my care or make any modification to the way I do things at the rescue. Extensive research is conducted, polls are launched, veterinarians are asked a litany of questions that are likely to bore them to death. I want to make sure that every protocol I approve of and every approach I am involved in is deliberate, thoughtful, and considerate.
The purpose of fear-free enrichment is to reduce stress and boredom while at the same time improving the mental, physical, and emotional health of the cats that are admitted to our rescue. Fear-free will always result in a less stressed-out cat and a better outcome. I advocate for the development and integration of a cat community room or free-roaming, enrichment strategies, and individually tailored behavior plans that take into account age, personality, and backstories.
Enrichment is one pillar of fear-free methodology that I strongly apply at the cat rescue, where I am the director. Our rescue is no-kill and free-roaming because we did not particularly care for caging our cats or enclosing them in small areas since stress often manifests into illness. We went from caging our cats to a cage-free operation in the middle of 2019, once we realized that many of our cats were displaying signs of stress.
Cage-free cats are generally happier and are in the right circumstance to be provided plenty of enrichment opportunities and activities. I found through extensive experience and research that our visitors love free-roaming over any other form of containment because the cats can act more naturally, rather than being caged. A caged cat often is all excited and not interested in people when he is released. What you see is often what you get, which is not usually the case with caged cats.
I have a problem with caging cats because I feel that it hinders their personality and breaks their individuality, which only escalates over time. The worst case scenario is having to move a revved-up, caged cat that is so energetic it is likely to scratch someone, trying to get to the floor to play. I feel that some people may believe that a cat does not require the same amount of attention, enrichment, or socialization opportunities that are often provided dogs. Cats, in my experience, need just as much enrichment.
The first part of providing fear-free enrichment and care for a cat is to understand the way that the cats perceive the world around them. We might as well be 20-foot aliens to them. We need to get on their level to realize how scary it can be for common procedures. Shelter cats often have to cope with new stimuli, like cage doors closing, dogs barking, inconsistent routine, new people, boredom, and strangers approaching them from every side. Every loud noise or unique situation to which a cat is exposed can compound stress. I recorded the sound of a cage door closing, for instance, and I was literally shocked at how loud it was when played back.
Ensuring that each cat is appropriately handled is just one piece of the puzzle. First, know that most cats entering the shelter have never been handled by a stranger. I handle a cat in a way that allows him to see where he has been before he visualizes where is going. Unless otherwise advised, cats are handled hindquarters first. I do not scruff a cat, and I use a towel to wrap him like a burrito if he is terrified or is likely to fight during movement from one location to another. You can use a pet carrier if you need to use one.
Fear-free handling dictates that we use minimally invasive techniques when interacting with the cats in our care to facilitate a better outcome for all parties involved. Being patient and going at their pace, rather than our desired speed, is going to be essential with any cat that you care for. You need to do this every single time, and not just with the cats who seem spooked at first glance. You will find that the less you crank down on a cat, the more they will allow you to do.
Fear-free handling methodology must be applied even to a feral cat. I feel like some shelter staff try to crank down on them harder to protect themselves or because they are not going to be housepets, but that is not a fair way to look at things. I place an open pet carrier inside a feral cat’s cage (with a cover on top of the cage) so that I can transport her once she walks into it, which can take about twenty minutes. As an alternative, you can use a Feral Cat Den, a small cage the cat can walk into. It should have a door that can be opened and closed. I feed scared cats canned food on a spoon and use interactive toys to entice them to move towards me and allow me to interact with them, rather than forcing them to interact.
Cage Versus Cage-Free Philosophy
Caging your cats can send a negative first-impression message to your potential adopters and donor base. Not caging your cats, allowing them to run freely, sends a much different message. Thirty-five percent of adopters who come through our building openly tell us that they choose to adopt from us for the reason we provide our cats freedom. Many shelters do not come close to my minimum 12- to 15-square-feet requirement per cat or kitten.
Deciding whether to cage your cats or go cage-free depends entirely on your mission and type of operation, along with the message you want to send to your community about the work you do. Some facilities are not able to make the switch due to financial or building limitations, which is more forgivable than just being lazy about it. Our rescue utilized 30-square-feet enclosures and 20-square-feet cages for the longest time because we were new and were not able to afford rent at that time. We then transitioned into a cage-free operation once we obtained a building.
Transitioning from cage to cage-free was the absolute best decision we ever made in terms of keeping cats healthy and happy in the long run. Having the choice to decide where they want to go and what they want to do from day to day is ten times more natural for them than being trapped. This goal was important to us because many of our cats are residents that tend to stay longer due to the fact we are focused on special needs. We are always having a new cat come in with some weird illness or injury our vet has never had experience with.
When we did use cages at the rescue (and we still do for very sick/injured cats or cats that are fixed), we make it an absolute priority to tailor the transformation of each cage to that individual cat to benefit her in the long term. We add scratch pads, hammocks, hanging toys from the top and sides, and so on. The task of making a cage a friendly and fun place can be easily and cheaply accomplished with some creative planning and experimentation.
Many of the enrichments that I discuss can apply to caged cats, too. Each cat can benefit from toy rotation, enrichment days, cat television, scratch pads, and much more. Being caged is more stressful, so it is even more critical to ensure that these cats get enrichment, socialization, and attention for the length of their stay. Caged cats are often starved for adventure and continuously need something to do if you want to avoid them becoming sick. It is no different than a person caged behind bars with nothing to do. My favorite self-play toy for caged cats is the Tower of Tracks, which is cheap.
I think that animal control facilities and shelters need to think about how they can increase the square footage for the cats in their care on a daily basis. Improving the quality of life via upgrading the square footage for each cat can include modifying previous cages, setting up large dog kennels, modifying a cage or cages to suit your needs, or purchasing new ones that you can raise money for. I have even designed my own cages for litters of kittens or pregnant mother cats from plastic panels bought on Amazon.
Puzzle Feeders and Toys
I incorporate puzzle feeding toys to keep the cats in our care active and involved to bring out their innate need to hunt. Puzzle feeders provide the cats with the opportunity to exercise their brain and muscles at the same time. A surprising number of cats at our rescue prefer to forage for food rather than receive a free ride. I have witnessed our free-roaming cats attempting to pull out food from the cages we had set up, rather than eating from the food bowls that were left out.
I often use a variety of food puzzles to provide options to appeal to the preferences of each individual cat. I bought about six different types of food puzzles in different colors, size, and difficulty level. You may find that one cat will become an overnight expert at food puzzles while another cat will need to start with the easiest food puzzle first and work her way up.
I keep some of the puzzle feeders out throughout the day while some come out only on specific days to prevent them from becoming too dull. Some of the food puzzles are hidden throughout the day with treats in them, so the cats have something to look forward to and hunt for in the midnight hours when we are gone. The best puzzle feeder for that situation is the Indoor Hunting Feeder.
Favorite Food Puzzles
- Indoor Hunting Feeder
- Trixie Turn Around
- Trixie Activity Board
- Catit Senses Food Tree
- Catit Senses Digger
The second type of puzzle we work with, introducing it about once a week at the rescue, is the Peek-A-Prize toy box. We take about 3 of those units and stock them full of balls, catnip mice, treats, and various goodies to keep the cats busy for about an hour or two. I call it the cat’s version of the claw machine because it reminds me of the claw machines at various retail stores, from which you have to see what you get with each attempt to reach a toy. I change the toys from week to week to keep the cats curious and excited about the enrichment.
Toy Rotation Strategies And Creativity
The reason behind toy rotation is to include unique opportunities for interaction, rather than reusing the same toy over and over, which defeats the entire reason for enrichment in the first place. Rotating the toy selection at the rescue is an effortless technique that can improve the life of every shelter cat. A toy that is left out for days can become nothing more than a brick that elicits no interaction or attention.
What I have found useful for our rescue is to swap out the toys that are left out on a day to day basis. I write on the whiteboard in our back office what toys should be rotated that week. Furthermore, I decide on a particular type of toy to be used as an enrichment for a specific day of the week to prevent boredom, using a tote system.
On Monday, I may choose two dozen catnip mice for all of the cats to play with, while on Tuesday, I may decide that four dozen springs can be fun to toss out to the cats. Merely filling up seven totes and labeling them for a specific day of the week, then following through with this alternating enrichment technique, can prove very beneficial. All you will need for your staff to do is pull out the toys and hand them out.
Wand toys can be alternated, too, and can be bought cheaply online through Chewy or Amazon. I am working on coming up with a shelf to store all of our different interactive toys. Many shelters forget to alternate their wand toys and wonder why their cats get bored. I will have 2 to 3 different toys for our visitors to use so that the cat does not get stuck with the same toy every single time a visitor comes by.
Battery-operated toys and self-play toys can be a blessing for the animal rescue that is poorly staffed and has very little time to spend on enrichment. The idea is to have multiple battery-operated cats toys that are different, even if the toys are only a different color or shape. The picture below shows four toys that work in the exact same way but are different colors and shapes, which provides some variety for the cats. Battery-operated toys are taken up at the end of playtime, whereas self-play toys can be left out, if desired.
I encourage creativity when you design your enrichment plan for the cats in your care because you can make anything into a cat toy. Get your creative juices flowing and infuse them into your work with the cats. Some of the more unique enrichment ideas I have put into place for our rescue have been some of the most successful. I will discuss some of them below.
I have used the One Fast Cat wheel at our rescue for a couple of years. I started using it when we got a cat that was about 5 pounds overweight. I find that many of our cats end up training themselves to the wheel if they are high energy and need that additional outlet to expend it.
Each pair of $20 pads last about six months to one year before needing replacement. The wheel is about $200, which is well worth the one-time investment. I had one cat at our rescue who needed to run on the wheel every single day, or he would literally go stir crazy halfway through the day.
There are always two or three cats at or rescue who reliably run on the cat wheel every single day–at the same time. Those cats have so much energy that I do not know what they would do without that wheel. Cats that are not allowed to expend their excess energy often get into trouble and mischief.
Water Fountain And Swimming Fish
A water fountain with eight spouts of water is my favorite enrichment to add to most community cat rooms. The water fountain provides enrichment, adequate hydration of the cats, and visual fun for people and cats alike.
Most of the cats will bat at the water, nip at the water, and even jump into the fountain once they are enamored with it. The second enrichment I implement using water is Interactive Swimming Robot Fish.
The robotic fish swim around for about twenty to thirty minutes while actively creating ripples in the water, which encourages your cat to play and drink water at the same time. The auto swimming feature with the built-in LED light system is the most appealing aspect of this toy.
Shooting out some bubbles for your cats to play with can be fun for everyone involved. Make sure not to choose a machine that spits out the bubbles so fast the cats cannot keep up. At first, I accidentally chose an extremely fast machine, which made a mess.
I often find that manually blowing out the bubbles rather than operating a toy is much more efficient. The mess created by a toy can be insane because toys can shoot around 200 bubbles per minute.
Pipe cleaners are on the list of top enrichments at our rescue because of their versatility. I will insert pipe cleaners in multiple spots on every single cage. I will create links out of them so I can hang them from the top of the cage.
Pipe cleaners can be used with ball toys and hung from the top of a cage. One time I incorporated the use of a pipe cleaner to hang a yogurt cup with catnip and a few treats, securing it from the top of a cage with duct tape.
You can create foraging activities and unique playtime opportunities with pipe cleaners. A package of about 500 pipe cleaners will only cost around $15 and will last a long time. I even use pipe cleaners for free-roaming cats by wrapping them around cat towers.
I find that the ball pit is usually another enrichment idea that is loved by a select few cats. Some cats will prefer to bat the toys around while other cats may sleep in the ball pit.
You can create a ball pit with ping pong balls or plastic balls. I have used a child’s pool, a popup cat playpen, and even Rubbermaid containers to throw the balls into.
Hexbug Cat Toy Collection
The Hexbug cat toy collection is one of my favorite lines of toys for new enrichment. Toys in this collection include the Nanorobotic cat toy, the Robotic Mouse, and more. The best use of this toy collection is to release multiple toys in this group as an enrichment on a specific day.
The toys are motion activated and move when touched by a cat. The toy will then travel a random movement, stop, and pause–just like a real prey would. The toys can navigate around objects and flip themselves back up when they tip over. The batteries are incredibly affordable for most shelters.
There is an online donation request button for animal shelters and rescues that cannot afford Ripple Rugs. You put your name on the registry, and you will receive an email when there are some available for donation. The Ripple Rug is amusing and offers a unique enrichment for the cats in your care.
I find that bringing out multiple Ripple Rugs at the same time is delightful to watch. Most cats love the unique needle-punch, carpet-like design for scratching. You have a play-space with numerous holes, bed, scratching post, and a safe place for your cat to hang out–all in one.
I love to hide some of my favorite toys inside the Ripple Rug, then watch the cat hunt for them. The Ripple Rug is made with fully-coated, non-slip rubber and is non-toxic. Infinite configurations will keep your cats free of boredom. The best part of this rug is that you can wash it and sanitize it between cats.
Making The Most Out Of Volunteers
I use volunteers from various organizations to come into our facility and provide the one-on-one care that cats crave. This one-on-one attention is one of the most fun times of the day for them, and you can just see the power that it has on their morale. The volunteers love to read to the cats and some people even sing to the cats. I often attribute individualized attention as the number one thing you can do to decrease stress.
I give each volunteer cat treats to hand out and a wand toy to use. I have taught several volunteers how to use the clicker to train cats to jump through hoops and high five their hands. Clicker training is well known for building rapport and exercising a cat’s mind at the same time, which is very beneficial.
I have volunteers groom the cat, so they look and feel their best after play and treat time. For a cat to feel her best, she must look her best. I like to invite volunteer groups from nursing homes, organizations that help people with disabilities, and schools that can come into the rescue to provide unique enrichment to the cats. I have some of our volunteers help us make cat toys like the ones below. You can obtain instructions on how to make your own cat toys including catnip ice cubes at Thinking Outside The Cage.
Making Them Comfortable
Helping the cats in your rescue feel comfortable can be considered part of fear-free because it involves evaluating the emotional and physical well-being of the cats in your care and acting on it. Have the heat turned on in the cold, provide comfortable spots for sleeping, and offer the option of air conditioning when it is hot.
Ensuring adequate comfort for your cats can be as simple as providing a heated cat bed for more cold-blooded cats or cats that are recovering from an illness or injury. Heated beds work well for arthritic cats, too. You may have a more complex situation, such as using Gabapentin when you do not want a cat to move as much or using an orthopedic bed for those cats.
I provide stuffed animals for the ferals, plus a stuffed cat that has a realistic heartbeat and purring mechanism for orphan kittens or sick cats. A stuffed animal often replaces the warmth and lack of companionship the feral kitten might have been used to.
Enrichment When You Are Gone
Enrichment while you are gone is invaluable since you will likely be away from the cats for about 8-12 hours per day. The enrichment you utilize while you are gone from the facility must be of high value to capture the cats’ attention and retain their interest.
The first thing I do is change the television channel to something they have not watched all day long. In the morning, I may play birds and turn on some fish going around a fish tank when I leave that day. A music player, such as the Icalm Cat, can be incorporated into your rescue as an enrichment in the absence of a television set. I have a Roku television that has Netflix on it, so we can play several Disney movies for them.
A second example for enrichment while you are gone is the Petcube collection, which includes Petcube Bites and Petcube Play. The Bites version can be used to deliver cat treats while you are gone, while the Play version has a built-in laser light that can be activated remotely. You can make the cameras public, which will allow your supporter base to throw the cats treats or operate the laser function in your absence.
Both units come with a built-in camera that can be viewed from your mobile device. I use the integrated two-way audio to talk to the cats throughout the night if I feel like they need that amount of interaction. These two functions can be used remotely, along with the laser light or treats. You can disable any feature you want or make the cameras public only during certain hours for privacy reasons.
I like to use the sound, camera, and laser light feature in our sick cat room to keep an eye on sick cats or play with the recovery cats in a fashion that does not require them to move much or exert much effort. We recently fixed a feral cat we could not touch, but I still made sure I used the laser light with her when we were gone to provide much-needed enrichment.
You may do something just as simple as throwing a few different toys on the floor toward the cats before you leave. Silvervine sticks, catnip toys, ice cubes, and springs are just a few of the many options you have. Since the first 5 minutes after you leave is the most significant, you want to focus on keeping the cats busy for at least that long.
Multiple Areas To Spend Time
Provide a variety of hiding areas for the cats in your care, even if you do not think they need them. Having the option to hide when they are under stress, timid, or feeling sick can help them build confidence and feel better at an accelerated rate.
A hiding area does not have to be secluded, dark, or in low traffic areas. I like to provide cardboard boxes, Kitty Kasa bedroom sets, cat tunnels, and cat towers that have built-in hidey holes. This array of available options allows us to offer hiding spots at different heights and throughout the building to allow the cats to decide where they feel comfortable.
Next, you want to provide vertical space in the form of cat towers and shelving units for them to get off the ground. A cat will often feel much more comfortable off the ground, where she can view her entire surroundings. Cat grass is another fantastic addition for the cat who is more acclimated to the outside and has never been inside.
We have a massive counter in our rescue that we use for the purpose of placing beds for the cats to sleep on. We make sure to use wicker baskets and cabinet drawers to place the beds in and even attempt to use differently textured beds to give the cats a choice.
I provide one food and water bowl per 3 cats and one litter box for every four cats in our rescue. Available in the lobby is one water fountain with 8 spouts for their pleasure. The number of different stations to access prevents fighting over territory and weight loss as a result of being too scared to approach a station occupied by another cat.
Easier Medical Procedures
Fear-free dictates that we balance the benefit of procedures versus the anticipated pain or stress they might cause. We want to minimize pain, stress, and anxiety during medical examinations at the rescue while providing the care the cats deserve.
There are a plethora of ways to reduce stress at the veterinary visit, so I have listed some examples of what I have done in the past so you can draw motivation from real-world applications.
One good tip for stress reduction in clinical situations is to always keep the area neutral-smelling, without having too many other scents. Feliway and the Rescue line of disinfectants can do a fantastic job of ensuring that you make this a reality for every patient.
My second tip for stress reduction is to utilize medications like Gabapentin and Zylkene to reduce fear before highly fear-provoking activities, like a blood draw or catheter placement. I pour the capsule contents into baby food on a spoon for easy administration.
Many fear-free certified clinics now place Feliway towels on cat carriers as they come into their clinic to reduce fear before and during the vet visit. The cat is often brought out of the carrier on top of the towel, which is then placed on the exam table.
Tip 1: Use top-loading carriers. You can lift the cat out of the carrier or take the top off the carrier for easy access to the cat without dragging him out. This is useful so the cat does not feel cornered.
Tip 2: Using a butterfly catheter to draw blood from a cat can often be much less traumatic and more effective in cats that are wiggly or hard to restrain.
Tip 3: Every cat in the rescue has a microchip that has temperature-reading technology. When I am a little uneasy, all I need to take a temperature is to scan the cat. I have compared five scan temperatures with rectal temperatures and have found they are about 99% accurate.
Neurochemistry and the use of prescription-strength medications can be beneficial to patients who would otherwise be very aggressive or incredibly fearful. I use buspirone and Prozac in behavior cases all of the time, as well as in cats displaying extreme behavior. Calming collars, calming treats, thunder shirts, and calming food have worked wonders for me.
I am a big fan of providing proper pain control for every cat that is in pain because pain can be damaging to their physical and emotional health. Early recognition and response to cats in pain is the gold standard for making them feel comfortable and cared for. I make sure every cat that is spayed or neutered gets pain medications. Signs of pain are similar to cats that are stressed.
For a cat in joint pain, I may look at a more potent analgesic, joint supplement, laser therapy, and a weight management diet. A cut-out litter box and stairs may also be considered. For a cat who has just had a fractured pelvis, I would be looking at a fentanyl patch and morphine rather than something like onsior, which you would use for a routine spay or neuter surgery.
Stress and Preventing Disease
There is no one way that an individual cat displays stress since you need to look at the whole picture and the context for the symptoms of stress that the individual might be displaying.
Signs of stress in the shelter or rescue can be evidence that stress reduction, fear-free strategies, and enrichment methods are not up to par. Some cats may experience stress, even with a solid plan for stress reduction, if they are older, sick, or not used to being in a group environment.
Some Signs Of Stress:
- Lack of appetite
- Clingy or vocal
- Increased sleep
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Faking sleep
- Decreased grooming
- Cage darting
- Cage bouncing
Stress can manifest into illness such as feline herpes virus and idiopathic cystitis. Diarrhea from stress can become life-threatening due to dehydration. Preventing stress in the first place can prevent issues that can be costly and damaging to the cat’s health in the shelter or rescue environment.
Continually evaluate the cats to make sure they are not deteriorating and design a custom enrichment plan for each cat if you need to. An undiagnosed health condition can be to blame for stress in the shelter or rescue environment. You might need to rule out skin conditions, neuro conditions, dental health, and joint health in seniors.
Keeping life natural for the cats in your care is another colossal principle of maintaining happy cats. Allowing each cat to perform species- and age-typical behavior is infinitely valuable in every aspect of his health.
Look at the individual cat for ideas on how to bring out the best in her. A former feral, for instance, may enjoy an environment that closely replicates an outdoor feeling with bark scratching posts, natural light, cat grass and so on. I have our rescue on a day and night cycle for all of the cats, which means that the lights go on when we come in and go off when we leave for the night.
Providing scratching posts so they can wear down their old claw sheaths, providing play time, and finding a way to utilize natural light and windows are beneficial. Vertical space and hiding spots are other areas we need to look at, which is covered a bit later in this article.
Keeping Shelter Cats Happy
- Fresh food and water
- Quick intake procedure
- Minimal cage cleaning
- Stress-free handling
- Clean litter boxes
- Comfortable covers
- Parasite control
- Full Vaccination
- Physical exams
- Natural sunlight
- Large roaming areas
- Regular grooming
- Unique toys & toy rotation
- Scratching areas
- Elevated sleeping areas
- Multiple hiding areas
- Avoid noxious smells
- Avoid loud sounds
Designing and maintaining a consistent care schedule that is both tailored to the individual cat and of high quality can be done with proper planning. Achieving this goal is all about having a specific time frame for when certain tasks are carried out and having a system of checks and balances. We may clean at 9:00, serve food at 10:00, and fill water bowls at 11:00. Following that, we may have our daily enrichment at 12:00. Cats thrive on knowing what is to come.
Working With Timid Cats and Ferals
Working with feral kittens or with timid cats requires an excellent understanding of the philosophy of fear-free and the application of fear-free techniques. Gentle control is preferred over restraint or forceful handling every single time. It is a top priority for me to make the cats comfortable while they are here, minimizing their stress and anxiety.
There are several ways that an employee can reduce the stress level for any timid cat or feral in their care. The first thing I do is place a visual barrier on the cage (if they are caged), such as a cover or towel. Reducing fear or anxiety is especially crucial for pregnant feral cats who could potentially abort if they get worked up. I have seen some feral cats even pant out of fear and abort in shelters.
The second thing I do for every timid cat or feral is to provide a feral den, pet taxi, or a Kitty Kasas for them to hide in or perch on top of if they choose to. Giving them options and the ability to hide or get off the ground can significantly improve their confidence level. If the cat has no safe spot to flee, then he will never relax enough to build up the trust or confidence necessary to approach if you are working on taming them down or gaining trust. Allowing them to feel safe and secure at all times will also allow for easy transportation in the long run.
I only use the ArmOR Hand gloves when I am dealing with feral or potentially dangerous cats. These gloves allow excellent dexterity without minimizing the safety features you would see in kevlar gloves.
The problem with most gloves is that they are too thick and limit your range of motion too much. The feel of the ArmOR glove is not too overwhelming to a cat, and the size is just right without sparking a fearful reaction in most cats.
Never chase or run after a feral cat or timid cat, as this will only escalate fear and result in a ton of work going out the window. Luring a cat into an enclosure with a toy or food is better for the safety of the staff and the emotional health of the cat. Skip the catchpole and net if you can.
Do Not Forget Sick Or Injured Cats
I strongly feel that every single cat in the rescue or shelter environment deserves to have some form of enrichment, even if she is healing from an injury or illness. I tone down the enrichment for the individual to make it fun and accessible for her.
I may use a laser light or a small wand toy to play with a cat who has a broken pelvis. I typically do this in a way that does not require him to move very much, so he does not overextend himself. Cat television, music, and catnip are often perfect enrichments for immobile or sick cats.
Fear-free enrichment is all about opportunity, entertainment and keeping your cats from becoming bored. Providing adequate enrichment should be something that is embraced in every single shelter and rescue across the world, not just as you feel like it. I would want something to do if I was in a cage all day long. I have learned most of what I know from training to be a cat behavior consultant and from the shelter course offered by Fear Free.