Gentle petting and speaking to shelter cats reduces stress, improves their health and adoptability

It’s been found that when shelter cats are gently petted and talked to their chances of developing an upper respiratory infection are reduced. They are healthier because their immune system picks up. And if shelter cats are not stroked and talk to gently, they are 2.5 times more likely to become sick due to stress compared to cats who are treated this way. These are the findings of the study: Effect of gentle stroking and vocalisations on behaviour, mucosal immunity and upper respiratory disease in anxious shelter cats“. Shelter cats are sometimes not given a chance to show their friendly character. And the hiring of shelter staff is a major factor.

Shelter cats are sometimes not given a chance to show their friendly character
Shelter cats are sometimes not given a chance to show their friendly character. Image: MikeB
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Shelter environment inherently generates stress in animals

The study points to another major problem with cats at shelters. Because cats are strongly attached to their surroundings, when they are placed in a shelter, whether they are true domestic cats or not, they become stressed and when stressed they may become defensively aggressive and unfairly deemed to be feral.

Just because of natural behavioural instincts, a perfectly reasonable and affable domestic cat might be labelled feral, unsocial or fractious and even aggressive because they are in a place which generates that kind of behaviour.

And because shelters presumably have funding issues and because sometimes the staff at shelters don’t have the right attitude, adoptable cats can be euthanised when they shouldn’t be. They should be rehomed and would be rehomed if they were given time to demonstrate their true character. And that character can be demonstrated and teased out of them with a little bit of patience with gentle petting and talking.

Cats preferences?

I would say too, and this is a personal thought, that you have to have the right person interacting with the right cat. Cats have preferences about people and other cats. They may form a connection with a shelter staff member, or they may dislike a shelter staff member for whatever reason. But the point is this: if the right person talks to and gently pets a fearful shelter cat who is behaving aggressively the cat will likely calm down and become more friendly.

Health and behaviour are linked

In parallel with that behavioural change their health will also change for the better because stress affects health negatively. We all know that. And if a cat is healthier, they are more likely to be adopted as well. And of course, if a cat is feeling unwell, they are more likely to behave less affably. Health and behaviour are linked.

Veterinarians can test for stress by the amount of IgA in saliva. IgA is an antibody which is part of the immune system and stress reduces the effectiveness of the immune system and reduces, as I understand it, the level of IgA in saliva which can be measured.

Assessing whether cats are true feral or behaving like feral

You may have seen cat rescuers stroking feral cats with a hand on a stick. This allows the cat to get used to being handled but also protects the rescuer from being scratched. It’s a kind of intermediate stage to break down defensive aggression.

Mini hand, a puppet, used to pet a shy cat
Mini hand, a puppet, used to pet a shy cat. Photo: Screenshot.

In this study they found that 18% of the cats behaved in a way which would label them as being feral due to their aggression. This would have led to them being killed but none of these cats responded aggressively and in a feral cat-like way after being at the shelter for six days when they had been petted and talked to nicely. This applied to cats that could not even be touched at the beginning. They used mechanical hands as mentioned in the paragraph above to break down that defensiveness.

Need 6 days to assess cats

And because it took six days of this gentle human-cat approach, the study concluded that a 3-4 day holding period is not “sufficient to differentiate between non-feral from feral cats”.

Employ TNR if cat is feral not kill them

And there’s another point of this. If a cat brought to a shelter is deemed as being genuinely feral even after the kind of treatment mentioned above, they can then be returned to the place they came from rather than euthanised i.e., killed. The point is that there is no need to kill a cat for aggression because they’ve been labelled as “feral”. To stress the point, they either are not actually feral cats but behave like feral cats because of the stress of the situation and therefore they can be adopted ultimately or if they are genuine feral cats TNR can take place and they can be returned to their home outside.

But this thinking seems to go against some shelters who feel that after a fairly quick, cursory test about the aggression of a cat they either kill them or adopt them out.

Foster care – a good backup solution

Perhaps this is a simplified assessment but another aspect of this is that some cats greatly benefit from being removed from the shelter and placed in foster care. That is another aspect of shelter management which can improve adoption rates and lower kill rates.

For cats in a grey zone of behavioural problems fostering out the cats can give them time to come around to behave better because of human interactions in the foster care environment.


My feeling is that this is ultimately about human attitude. Do shelter workers want to do all they can to save the lives of cat and find them good homes by tackling the inherent difficulties of shelters for the animals in their care or do they want to take expedient actions and make quick decisions which results in cats being killed when they shouldn’t be?

Nathan Winograd provides us with a disturbing story regarding shelter dogs. In one shelter the staff seemed to give the impression that they could make quick money by taking a shelter fee of say $50-$100 and then kill the animal because they were deemed unadoptable. And they were killed by sticking a needle into the heart and injecting the dog that way with barbiturates. Very cruel, extremely painful and very callous behaviour. I hope and expect this to be very rare. The dogs were adoptable: a mother and her four puppies and another shelter wanted to take them.

Success story from England which hints at the issues mentioned above

Note: This is an embedded tweet. Sometimes they are deleted at source which stops them working on this site. If that has happened, I apologise but I have no control over it.

Below are some articles on shelters.

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