Single or Group Housing at Cat Shelters?

This is How to Lower Cat Stress at Shelters
This is How to Lower Cat Stress at Shelters. Large cage.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Please read a page about reducing cat stress at 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. 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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15 thoughts on “Single or Group Housing at Cat Shelters?”

  1. The problem with “adoption” as a solution is the same one which renders TNR completely ineffective. There are ~ 128 million households in the US. Only one-third of them own even one cat. The remaining 85.3 million US households aren’t “catless” because there’s a “shortage”.

    What’s your solution–a law that requires everyone to keep at least one cat whether they want to or not. Ah stupid question–of COURSE that’s your solution. TNR cat-hoarders already are trying to bury their neighbors in feral cats and their diseases, and prevent them from doing anything about it.

    • I have no idea what point you wish to make and why you are introducing TNR. The article is about how best to house cats at shelters. I suppose you want to find any excuse to raise your hatred of TNR. There is no shortage of cats as you are aware. There are some irresponsible cat owners who create unwanted cats some of whom are in shelters.

      A good way of rehoming cats is to transport them from places where they are unwanted to other locations where there is a demand.

      • As long as that theoretical “demand” is in a confined place, I have no problem with that. But what these “rescue” charlatans do is release them outdoor. It’s just a shell-game where you remove cats to be problems at a new location. But the point of mentioning TNR….(I am afraid you couldn’t resist insulting someone so you’re in breach of comment policy. Your comment is deleted and you are banned – Admin)

  2. Michael said, “What is sadder, almost, is that we do almost nothing to rectify the problem, either short or long term.”

    Would you please explain again to everyone why you insist on having only one stressed and isolated rescue-cat in your whole house, but you also insist that everyone else should take in more than one cat to alleviate these problems? I seemed to have missed something. So have all your other visitors here. You may not have noticed this but everyone else noticed this about you.

    Please list all your excuses for your 1-stressed-cat household again which explains why you yourself refuse to be part of your proposed solution to healthier and happier cats.

    If you want to be believed, lead by example. Actions speak far louder than any of your words.

    • Firstly I am referring in the article to making cats less stressed. It’s about shelter accommodation. I can’t change that directly but the article does help educate I hope. Secondly, I have fostered cats so I have done work for cat rescue. Thirdly, my cat is not stressed and isolated. He is relaxed and content in a great space and I am with him a lot. Fourthly my cat is a rescue cat. Now tell me what you have done other than being a stupid, sad troll 😉

    • I forgot a fifth point; I have donated thousands of dollars to cat rescue charities. Again, what have you done? You’re just useless cr*p.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.


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