Out-of-cage time for cats and dogs at animal shelters

Out-of-cage time in shelters are clearly an important part of maintaining mental health
Out-of-cage time in shelters are clearly an important part of maintaining mental health. Image: MikeB
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Nathan Winograd was the director of an open-admission animal control shelter. He is America’s best-known and best-informed shelter animal advocate. When he was a director of a shelter, he ensured that the animals in his care, both dogs and cats, were released from their cages during the day as follows:

  • Dogs: a minimum four times per day
  • Cats: at least two times per day

At least one of those sessions was extended to 30 minutes. He combined these out-of-cage sessions with “rigorous medical, cleaning, and disinfection protocols”.

This reduced illness by 90% and killing of shelter animals by 75%. The shelter placed over 95% of the animals in new homes.

Out-of-cage protocols

It is the out-of-cage protocol which interest me in this article. It is an important part of maintaining and enhancing mental health in shelter animals. That’s important, indeed it can be critical, because in some shelters the staff are charged with deciding if an animal in their care is suffering mentally. If they decide that they are they might have the right to kill that animal despite being otherwise healthy and adoptable.

And when a person has to make that kind of assessment it is highly problematic. Nathan Winograd expands on this in reference to one state, New York, where staff can assess an animal as suffering mentally and allowing them to kill that animal. That change to the legislation was promoted by ASPCA.

Optimising cage space of shelter cats increases likelihood of adoption

Stress can be managed

Common sense dictates and Winograd states that “stress in shelter animals can be managed, but staff have to want to [do it]”. Logically, if the staff manage stress in animals by for example out-of-cage times there is going to be less killing. Conversely to not manage stress is going to result in more killings and this takes us back to the No-Kill policies.

Indicators of an unacceptable quality of life?

PACFA is a New York state agency that oversees shelters in the state. They are proposing new rules related to a bill going through the New York State legislature which requires animal shelters and rescue groups to provide for the behavioural needs of dogs and cats.

One of these regulations describes indicators of an unacceptable quality-of-life. And one of these indicators is “defecation when engage socially” and another is “stereotypic behaviour”. As I understand it, the latter is pacing in a cage.

Winograd says that the “timing and frequency of defecation should not be a death sentence”. And when there is a routine release of the animals for out-of-cage sessions, it can remedy pacing.

I see that as a direct solution to the problem of pacing which can result in euthanasia in a New York state shelter.

Rules about assessing animal behavior and mentality

Rules about shelter staff assessing shelter animal behaviour are dangerous because there have been many studies which have found that the ability of shelter staff to “correctly identify canine behaviour is poor”. And apparently the judgements are poor even if the individual person involved has a very good understanding of dog behaviour.

And how good is the knowledge of shelter staff in general across the US concerning cat and dog behaviour? Winograd claims that, in general, shelter staff don’t understand dog behaviour. I guess the same issue concerns cats sometimes. How often?

Often shelter staff come to the wrong conclusion that a particular dog has a behavioural problem or is acting aggressively.


He claims that there is too much subjectivity in interpreting regulations and in assessing the mental health of an animal shelter. And the rules are too loosely formulated which allows too much discretion and accordingly misjudgments.

Winograd says that “there are simply no objective measures to determine the existence or degree of psychological suffering”. And he also says that shelter staff and the veterinary community aren’t qualified to assess psychological suffering in animals unless there is objective criteria.

Out-of-cage times are a useful tool to improve mental health

The overall conclusion, as I read it, is that allowing out-of-cage time helps with the mental health of shelter animals provided it is controlled. There is a very good article (and a very long one!) on the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program regarding “Considerations for out-of-cage time”.

This comprehensive article provides good advice such as:

  • The out-of-cage areas should be environmentally enriched easily disinfected.
  • Some parts of the out-of-cage areas should “offer protection from visual exposure”. I take this to mean that cats should be allowed to hide in these areas if they feel it necessary.

Health checks and screening

Animal should be screened before allowed to use these out-of-cage areas in order to minimise the risk of the spread of contagious diseases. That obviously means ensuring that the animals are checked to rule out potentially infectious conditions and to treat them for endoparasites and ectoparasites. And they need to be checked for ringworm on intake because it is a highly contagious disease.

There are many other considerations and I would like to hand you over to their webpage to study them if it interests you by clicking on this link.


Another point that they make is that the temperament of the animal is a factor when deciding whether they should be placed in these enrichment areas. That might be tricky because assessing the temperament of an animal in a cage is problematic as mentioned.

Comforting items

They suggest that for cats it may be useful to “move some comforting item with them into the enrichment area, especially for cats that are fearful or shy”.

An ideal solution is to use a carrier (if one is assigned to the cat) to transport the cat from the cage to the enrichment area. They can then decide whether to leave the cage or hiding it. If no carrier is available a hiding box or bedding can be used. These items will have a friendly smell and help to calm the cat.

Adoption area

The out-of-cage area can double up as an adoption area.

Below are some more articles on shelter animals.

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Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

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